Passing on the Flame

January 7, 2010

Last night I went to the memorial for a recently-deceased colleague. There were several fine musical performances and touching personal talks about what the much-missed friend meant to various people. But an eminent composer stood up and talked movingly about the man in terms that laid before us facts about our friend that were universally applicable in our own lives.

He spoke of how people in music need to stay in touch with that initial enthusiasm that got us into this stuff to begin with. Enthusiasm, of course, isn’t everything. That very morning I had begun listening to the 11-hour PBS documentary Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, in which the unique maestro emphasizes how much sweat and toil went into the making of the composer-conductor-pianist he was. However renowned he was for charisma and energy, he commendably wanted the world to know how much grueling effort goes into the making of a Bernstein.

The composer speaking last night told of an interesting technique he has when his energy is flagging as he sits alone in a room with his pencil and music-manuscript paper: he says that, from time to time, he thinks of our departed friend and of how fresh his relationship with the art remained. And it brings him back to the place where he belongs.

In some sense, for those of us who are deeply committed to music as a way of life, this kind of rebooting is the same as returning to our true selves. It is melancholy that the loss of a fellow-traveler on the road was the occasion for this reminder, but if the crowd made up largely of musicians there took the point to heart, then — if for no other reason — our lamented colleague left us a valuable legacy.

Most, if not all, of us would do well to have such a signal to self that reminds us of why we do what we do and live the life we live.

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