Thinking beyond borders
Every family has its lore- the stories that are told and retold at family gatherings. One of my parents’ favorites is how, when asked what I wanted for my 5th birthday, I told my mother in total earnestness that I wanted a passport and an atlas. To her credit she got me exactly what I asked for, and though the passport lived in a drawer, the atlas was put to immediate use. I loved to open it at random and read the exotic names, imagining future journeys.
Upon reaching sixth grade we had the option to study either Spanish or French, and living in California Spanish seemed the logical choice. I took to the task happily, and discovered an affinity for it. By high school, I had added night classes at the local German cultural center, and attempted broken conversations with the old Italian ladies who were the most colorful residents of my San Francisco neighborhood.
Where this fascination with languages came from was a mystery to everyone. No one in my family had spoken anything but English for generations, but my relatives nonetheless gamely encouraged my obsession. When in 9th grade my school offered an opportunity for Spanish students to participate in a summer exchange program, they weighed the costs with the mounting grocery bills required to keep me fed, and realized that shipping me overseas could be good not only for my education but also for the family budget.
We were to have no control over the country- we were guaranteed only that it would be Spanish-speaking, There was something in the randomness that appealed to me. It reminded me of cracking open my atlas and dreaming, so I rolled the dice and off I went to Santiago, Chile in the summer of 1983.
I was placed with a local family living in a modest area of the city, and had three host brothers around my age for company. Chile was ruled at the time by Augusto Pinochet, who had seized power in a US-backed military coup in 1973. As the tenth anniversary of the coup approached, frustrated protestors took to the streets, erecting barricades of flaming tires and banging pots and pans until the army was sent in to quell the uprising. Classes at the schools were cancelled and a curfew went into effect, enforced by machine gun-wielding teenagers scarcely older than me.
For a kid from California this was all quite new, but my host family took all of it in stride. It was clear that this was part of daily life there, and they courageously managed their jobs and the ordinary tasks of living in an environment that seemed to me to be anything but ordinary. Experiences like this in our tender teenage years can be intense, and in a very short time I felt a part of their lives, and they a part of mine.
A brief month later I was back home, but the experience had broken my world open. So much that had previously been taken for granted in my 14 years was now in question. Where and how I lived, what I could expect from the world- these were no longer a given. There were people, not imagined or studied about but real live people that I knew and loved, living in entirely different circumstances from my own. I had been intellectually aware of this basic truth, but living it, however briefly, was something else altogether.
Though I could not have expressed it then, with the benefit of hindsight it seems that the lesson I was learning was empathy- a sense of solidarity not with my cohorts, but with people whose circumstances differed significantly from my own. By the end of my stay the connection we felt was real, and I cried tears of sorrow to leave them.
With the enthusiasm of youth I embraced the study of international relations, and especially languages. In the following summers I participated in exchanges in Spain, and Sweden, and then I cracked the atlas again and spent my freshman year of college in Switzerland before landing at Georgetown University. I entered GU with the expectation that I’d end up like so many graduates in interpreting or the foreign service. As fate would have it this was not to be.
I had always loved music and singing, and participated enthusiastically until my voice changed and I went from being a soprano to an awkward baritone who had only three notes, but never the same ones from day to day. With my growing interest in languages and the change of schools, I drifted away from music until as a junior in high school my best friend suggested that I join the choir.
By this time I had developed a taste for singer-songwriters, and I was listening to Billy Joel and Simon and Garfunkel on a new technology called compact discs. But also the Beethoven symphonies, which I would play at a volume sufficient to announce my musical tastes to the neighborhood. So when my friend suggested that I try the choir it didn’t seem like such a stretch- after all I loved music and I loved words, and choir had both.
Regular trips to Tower Records led to a broadening music collection, most often whatever was in the bargain cassette bin, but sometimes a splurge like the Strauss Four Last Songs on CD. By college I had listened to that recording a hundred times, and loved the poetry, especially Hermann Hesse’s lines, which helped revive my rusty German skills.
One wintry day during my senior year of college I raced my bicycle to class in half the time it normally took as I pedaled furiously to keep from freezing. All the while I had the Strauss songs playing on my Walkman cassette player, and arriving early for class I settled outside the classroom with an unexpected moment to warm up and wait for class to begin. As I looked out over the landscape and listened something miraculous happened. The music that I knew so well was somehow suddenly entirely new, and the beauty of music grabbed me at a visceral level, announcing itself in feelings too big to be ignored. Something new was afoot, and a seed was planted that would eventually grow into a career in music.
Of course one’s path is much easier to see in hindsight, and though I can track the decision to pursue music to that winter day, things moved in a less than linear way. There was another trip abroad, this time to teach English in Thailand, and one year teaching high school Spanish back in California. All the while, though, I was quietly preparing for a return to school to pursue music. This meant getting into the best choir I could, and upon returning home I auditioned for the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.
As one of the nation’s most active symphony choruses, we used to say that the SFSC sings enough masses and requiems to marry and bury the entire state of California. For me it was the perfect opportunity to learn a craft, and also to make up for lost time as I expected to compete for admittance to grad school programs with students with proper music degrees, which I did not have. From my very first season I was as happy as a pig in a sty, devouring music just as fast as I could with each rehearsal.
In December of my first season, despite my height I was placed, whether by accident or fate, in the front row of the choir. We were singing the Christmas Cantata of Honegger. At a certain moment there is a great gathering of energy, and then the full forces- adult choir, children’s choir, orchestra and organ- all let go in a joyous pealing of carols, and from my position in the front I could hear it all. The sound was enormous, and I remember with absolute clarity an oceanic feeling sweeping through me as the boundaries that seemed to separate us fell away, banished by euphoria. Here again was empathy, in new clothing, but working its magic just as it had some ten years before. I was hooked.
Now, all these years later I am still all in. As with any relationship, over time the giddiness of the new has been replaced with a deep-seated and enduring appreciation. The daily work of coming together to make music with others can be ennobling or frustrating, but on any given day, whether in rehearsal or performance, I know that experience that first hooked me is just around the corner, waiting for the right moment to reveal itself. We cannot control it, only invite that it come, and when it does we find ourselves, in C.S. Lewis’ words, surprised by joy.
A wonderful teacher and friend said once that the most basic choice in life is between love and fear. As I’ve reflected on that over the years I’ve come to the idea that it’s true, and that the choice isn’t always obvious. Choosing love might not be easy. It can involve speaking a difficult truth, or having the courage to be who you are without apology. It can involve public and private failure, imperfection, and vulnerability that is not always comfortable. This is no Hallmark card sentiment, but a courageous embracing of life’s challenges and a fierce rejection of all that would shrink and limit us.
For those people who want to be liked (I am one) this can be hard. Playing it safe on the other hand can be very attractive, and is often well-compensated both socially and professionally. Fear, clothing itself in reasonableness, offers an enticing siren song, and we drape it around ourselves more often than we realize. But here’s the problem: fear is incompatible with great music.
It is a basic human need to belong to something bigger than ourselves. That need can be filled in a variety of ways: family, friends, or membership in spiritual communities or civic organizations. Even allegiance to a sports team can open a door to an experience of purpose and meaning. For me and many like me it is music’s power that offers the most direct route.
I am reminded of this fact every Monday night as 200 singers from all over North Texas come together for Dallas Symphony Chorus rehearsals. These are people of differing backgrounds, faiths, ages, and life experiences, yet when we sing together we are one body, united in a common purpose. Every choral musician can describe those moments of grace when everything is open and flowing, paraphrasing Beethoven’s words, from one heart to another. Here again is empathy- the breaking of boundaries and the experience of “we.”
That these ecstatic moments are rare and fleeting does nothing to diminish their power. When we look into another’s eyes and find not “the other,” but ourselves reflected back, the curtain of separateness is drawn back and we catch a glimpse of our true nature, of the joy that is our rightful inheritance. The Persian mystic Hafiz captures this well:
Where does real poetry come from?
From the amorous sighs in this moist dark
When making love with form or spirit.
Where does poetry live?
In the eye that says “Wow wee”
In the overpowering felt splendor
Every sane mind knows
When it realizes – our life dance
Is only for a few magic seconds,
From the heart saying, shouting
“I am so damn alive.”
It is our human nature to live this love and fear battle anew every day. Both will enter our lives whether we invite them or not, and external and societal forces will play out this same drama. We should expect not a linear progression, but a cycle of steps forward and reversals that will frustrate even the most steadfast among us.
In these moments we have a choice to make. Fear will beckon seductively, inviting us to wall ourselves in communities of the like-minded, demonizing “the other.” Clothed in righteousness we can rain down intolerance on the intolerant, and the cycle of fear will continue. Or we can walk the narrow path of love, and do the hard work of finding common cause, even with those in the thrall of fear.
If choral music has taught me anything, it is that empathy beyond all borders is the only way forward. Let’s get to work.
Conductor, Dallas Symphony Chorus
Music Director, Santa Fe Desert Chorale