God did not use Garrison Keillor to speak through the radio, but sent instead Rich Dworsky’s elderly uncle, whose name I’ve entirely forgotten and whose voice I never heard. It was years ago, during a show performed in New York, perhaps even the one that came shortly after September 11, 2001. The uncle, in his 80s and Brooklyn-bred, was asked to perform. Who knows what happened, how it was decided to bring him onstage, who decided it was a good idea to have him play the piano, this doddering elderly relation, not a professional at all, but simply Rich Dworsky’s uncle, who happened to play the piano and live in New York. However it happened, he was brought out –it’s easy to imagine him being shuffled out, carefully, by his nephew or, more likely, an intern – and what we heard was his rendition of a well-known piece of music from Schumann’s Kinderscenen, called Traumerei.
It’s a simple piece. Children play it. And when the old man came out, there was a sweet moment of recognition as the first notes sounded, a peacefulness that swept through the auditorium out into the radio waves, into the small dark living room where my partner and I were lazily finishing up the day.
Then, the old man stumbled. His fingers missed a note, then two, then another. Collectively, all across the room, the audience shuddered. Every one of us listening held our breath, for we knew the notes; we knew how the music should go. It was impossible that it wasn’t going to go that way. After all, this was radio; this was stage. The idea that it wouldn’t be perfect was impossible.
Recorded music has made us accustomed to “perfect”. The best of any number of brilliantly executed performances, that have then been deftly polished in the studio by recording engineers, ceaselessly stream through radios, mp3s, cd’s and (even) records. Most of the time we barely register that it’s on; it’s background music, easily ignored. I’m writing about Schumann, but it could be anything: we’re used to music being performed by professionals, by sounding right. We sing along with the radio, emboldened by the way our voices blend with theirs, too shy to try it alone. Every mistake, every note we play that wasn’t on the recording or the score, seems shameful. It’s not good enough.
But here for all the world to hear was this old man, playing a mess of notes within which, somewhere, was Traumerei. One note fell short, then another. Fistfuls of wrong notes like a cloud around the composer’s simple tune. And something happened: we were hooked. The audience held their breaths, willing him to continue. Radio listeners were riveted. Thousands, maybe millions, of people gathered, together, as one collective witness. It was electric. As he gingerly stumbled to the close, the audience erupted in ecstatic applause.
I’m writing about music, but it could be anything. As the Persian poet Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” There’s an idea engrained into us that there’s right, and there’s wrong, and that we should, if we just try hard enough, know the difference between the two. But I’m not as sure about that as I used to be. I used to think there were right notes and wrong notes, but Rich Dworsky’s uncle proved me wrong. There are boring performances without a note out of place, and, occasionally, there are careless performances that make the listener cringe, although usually in the latter case the notes tend to be more or less correct. That Saturday night, as our little world was still reeling in grief and fear, I learned, for the first time, that music isn’t about the notes. I learned that there’s a power found in music that is greater than the person performing it. But mostly, what I learned was that what’s important about the experience is whatever passes between the performer and me. It’s about communication; it’s about relationship. It’s about willingness to participate, and it’s about honesty, about coming forward to meet another person in that magical place where newness can happen, that place that’s inaccessible alone.