We are in the last part of this challenging year. A year where we all had to cope with uncertainty, feelings of helplessness and needing to adapt to rapid change, as well as chaos. I have felt the value of practicing all the deep breathing techniques I teach in order to regulate myself. The practice of mindfulness is also valuable in allowing me to see and appreciate the beauty of nature, as well as the deep care and connection I feel with my partner in life. Being in the present moment enables me to realize that there are more important things to worry about than that the groceries I ordered were delivered with a missing item, or a bunch of basil instead of basil-tofu. Or even once 500g of pecans instead of almonds. I wonder what gives meaning to my life, what do I value, and what am I willing to do to preserve it?
Not surprisingly, I am not the only one asking these questions. A New York Times article caught my interest with the title “Yo-Yo Ma and the meaning of life.”
For him, it is all the connections we make in our life. He describes how his perspective changed when he had children. The feeling of being responsible. “Once you’re connected you feel responsibility. And connected means it’s a circular loop. I know you but you have to know me too. There’s an energy circle that goes back and forth.” For him the meaning comes from being present. Caring. Working with living material which is memorable. So, engaging with people and playing music, passing it on. “You are acknowledging someone’s existence by being present.” Creating lasting memories in people about the music, about him playing it, about expending the energy to make it happen. “It is rewarding, it makes me happy, it makes people happy. It’s wonderful.”
Reading the article brought back fond memories of a young cellist I happened upon in Toronto when he played his first concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1979. I happened to be in Toronto for the day, and managed to get a “standing” ticket for the concert. It was Yo-Yo Ma’s debut concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in a way I never heard before. The audience stood and applauded until he played an encore, the first Bach Cello Suite, which was actually the first piece he played when he was 4 years old. Since then, he became my favourite, in spite of the fact that I was fortunate enough to hear other great cellists like Rostropovich, Maisky, and others.
My love of the cello inspired me to start my own daughter playing cello in the Suzuki method when she was 6. I agree with Yo-Yo Ma that “Children, in a way, are constant learners. Certainly sponge-like. Absorbing everything without careful analysis, even though, at the same time, they are certainly capable of incredible insights.” But not every child is a protégé. Even though she did enjoy the game, and delighted in the ability of creating sounds and recognizing tunes she was creating, she gave up the cello in favour of the French horn in her second year of high school, and then gave up instrumental music altogether in favor of the oldest instrument – voice. For a while we sang together in the University choir, which was a delight. So, music is one of the essential things in my life, and I think also in the life of the rest of my family. I remind myself that in different stages of development in our life, we experience the world differently. We are different people at different ages, and therefore the things we value may stay the same but the way we experience them can be different. I again find the need to participate with others to make music. To sing in a choir, to connect. Connection is one of the essential human needs without which we feel alone in the world. So, when the pandemic hit, and we could no longer sing together, I was fortunate to retain the ability to have voice lessons. The one song I love singing, that I connect to and gives me a feeling of achieving transcendence, is Franz Schubert’s An Die Musik:
Thou holy art, how oft in hours of sadness,
When life’s encircling storms about me whirled
Hast thou renewed warm love in me and gladness,
Hast thou conveyed me to a better world,
Unto a happier better world.
Oft hath a sigh that from thy harp strings sounded,
About me breathing sacred harmony,
Revealed a joy, a heav’nly bliss unbounded
Thou holy art for this my thanks to thee,
Thou holy art, my thanks to thee.
It is somewhat like the inner feeling of a deep belief system in a universal goodness. Yo-Yo ma puts it in beautiful way: “You have to feel completely connected to the world and yourself, but at the same time be willing to be liberated from the world and from yourself.”
I know this is not the only meaning I have in my life. There is art, connecting to family and friends, sharing my compassion and care for collective trauma healing, my constant thirst for knowledge and learning, and hope.
Perhaps the music helps me find the good rhythm I need in order to address traumatic stress, as Cathy Malchiodi, a well-known and loved art therapist states: “Depending on the beat, rhythmic experiences can energize, bring about sensations of enlivenment, or engage us through entrainment and synchrony. When trauma has dulled the ability to experience joy, playfulness, and pleasure, rhythm can be a way to reintroduce a sense of well-being and aliveness to body and mind.”