This weekend, I played for a wedding. While I normally don’t deal with a lot of pre-performance anxiety (most of the time, I can usually talk or gentle breathe myself into knowing I’ll do ok and then feel fine), I did wake up with just a small amount of fear, mostly because I knew it was a day that some people in the room would remember for the rest of their lives.
To me, playing for a wedding, funeral, bar/bat mitzvah, or quinceañera feels very different from other types of “performing.” Music to accompany an important moment in someone else’s life may be one of my culture’s purest expressions of music that serves others. Kay Shelemay’s book Let Jasmine Rain Down, a study of music within a Jewish-Arab community in Syria, shows how people’s songs affirmed collective identity, it brought people together and affirmed the ways in which people belonged together. Consigning music to the role of “entertainment” is a very small understanding of how music should be a part of a community’s whole life together, a way of connecting with others. It’s a rare way of approaching music in the West, but the look of total happiness of a couple during their first dance provides a window into this approach to music from which we can learn so much
Anyway, so a human being who is both a kind friend and a very gifted singer said she wanted violin on a couple of songs she was singing as part of the ceremony. Of course I enthusiastically said yes, but she did inform me that this was going to be (dum-dum-dum) a Muslim wedding. Before this point, we had met and created music for a church service, and she wanted to make sure I would be comfortable in a different faith environment. My immediate response was that it didn’t matter to me because I needed the money, but it was only reflecting later that I realized what a significant and beautiful thing the opportunity was.
I write this blog post in the midst of a world that, it seems, is in the process of going mad. Islamist extremists in Iraq are targeting and murdering people of all faiths who they feel don’t agree with their agenda, Christians and Muslims attack each other in Nigeria, Israel and Gaza have (hopefully) found a way to stop a long and painful round of bombing each other, and a suburb of St. Louis is demanding to be heard after yet another unjustified murder of an African-American by a predominantly white police force proved to be one too many. In short, I live in a world torn apart by divisions, by racism, sexism, and any number of other ways one group has prejudice against another. And in the midst of all this, two Christians, a white male violinist and a black female singer were trying to brighten and enrich a very special day for an African-American Muslim couple. In a very small, insignificant way, by sharing our gift of music, we were showing the world another way.
Folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, a man I consider one of my patron saints, gave the world one of its most entertaining government documents on August 18, 1955, when he spoke before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, an attempt by some in the U.S. government to punish musicians, artists, and entertainers who had “wrong” political opinions. Seeger gave this trial the level of respect it deserved, refusing to be taken in by questions over whether or not he had performed for any left-wing groups, and simply said, over and over again, “I sing for everybody.” And that is one of the core truths of music making. It is a gift for everyone. The reason I play and teach music is to help more and more people realize that the gift can be for them.
Part 2 – how it actually went down (more technical violin-y stuff)
So, as I said, it was just me and a singer, which presents a few challenges for both of us. . When accompanying singers, the instrumentalist’s main goal is to support the voice, and that means following chord changes in such a way that the song has direction, that makes the vocal line make sense. This required both a lot of communication between the singer and myself, paying attention to each other’s breathing in such a way that we could follow each other’s rhythm. Since I was only playing one note at a time, I had to analyze the “internal melody” and make the chord changes clear and prominent (more on how to do this in an upcoming episode J ) My lines had to be pretty simple, often not straying too far from the melody, but could still be expressive and improvised enough that it felt interesting and “soulful” to me. So simplicity and communication are the name of the game, and again, you aren’t there to show off your technique, but to serve the people. Everything I attempt is responding to the look of joy on the face of a couple in love, and family and friends wanting to share in that happiness.
interested in music lessons (or violin for your wedding, funeral, bar/bat mitzvah, or quinceañera 😉 in the Los Angeles area? Visit foxieviolin.com, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.