Never take your instrument with you on a family vacation unless you have no problems playing for all of them every time they catch you with your instrument. This warning should be obvious to every musician past the age of nine, but sadly, if I don’t type it here, there may be no saving me next time. After this trip, though, I think I can finally claim to have reached a point where I may not need to be saved.
I usually leave my instrument in my hotel room when I’m not going to be using it during whatever excursion is planned for the day, but, thanks to a hideously timed story of hotel theft from my mom, I had decided I couldn’t bear to leave it behind on Sunday morning, and off it went with me and mom to Halmonee (my grandmother) and Sam Chun (my uncle)’s church.
Which, of course, meant that I’d have to play for their church.
For most musicians, this is a minor deal. I used to know endless show pieces that I could whip out and play at any time, just in case. I had no idea how fabulous I had it. Over the years, I’d focused on orchestra excerpts and technique drills, with the occasional concerto and cadenza smushed in there. None of these things lend themselves easily to a contemplative church solo. I managed to dig deep and whip out a vaguely passable Meditation for them, but only after repeatedly promising myself to work up four movements of unaccompanied Bach and two show pieces to have for future predicaments. (In related news, I’m going for the Adagio, Fugue, and Siciliana in g minor, and the Preludio in E Major, with the two show pieces TBD – but probably one of them will be Rondo Capriccioso, and the other will be something slow.)
ANYWAY. I stood there, in wacky, ultra-modern, clothes that were way too bright and possibly too revealing for church. I don’t speak Korean, and introduced myself and my piece in English to an entirely Korean speaking congregation. I played without accompaniment, without warm up, and without any warning to the audience.
The instant I hit that first note, everyone in the room cleared their minds. You could hear the mental shuffling drain away. The typical ‘amen’ murmurings of assent were gone, breathing blended into the walls, and the entire room listened. They listened, and I felt free. I was freezing to the point where my shoulders and fingers were shaking from the cold, but, wrapped in the unwavering attention of that congregation, I felt the space and calm needed to steady myself and take my time. I was able to re-focus and problem solve while I was playing; had the clarity to manage my tension, trusted them to listen to me while I adjusted my sound to the room, my muscles to the type of vibrato I wanted, and my heart rate to match my breathing. It was one of the most peaceful wins I’ve ever experienced.
(I missed a note. I promised myself I wouldn’t write that here, but I missed a fucking note. How does one miss a note in the damn Meditation???? Here’s the thing: I should know. BECAUSE I DID IT. It was a tiny one, but still. splat.)
By the time I finished, many in the audience were crying, and they all applauded. Which, in my experience, seldom happens in church services.
After the service, we gathered in another room for lunch. I was approached by nearly half the congregation, each of them thanking me and remarking;
‘I just thought you were some girl from another church. But…you’re a professional. You do this. This is what you do.’
The choir director asked me if I would allow her to help me with accompaniment next time. When I replied with enthusiastic relief, she seemed to question whether or not I was being sarcastic and/or disdainful. As in, she actually believed that it was beneath me to accept her help.
I am trying desperately to write what it means to have, not just someone, but an entire culture, recognize my work. Recognize my sacrifices, my passion, my honesty, and my faith in humanity and what it needs. I left that church speechless. I spent all week thinking about it, trying to find a place in my soul to keep it. It won’t stay, and so now I’m trying the writing thing.
I’ve never felt truly respected by my country. I have so many wonderful, brilliant, people in my life who support what I do. But in America, supporting the arts is something someone does to feel good about him/herself, to stand up for something that needs defending. It isn’t the same as receiving free medical treatment, or free plumbing, or a free meal. In America, supporting the arts is an act of giving, not an act of accepting.
These people, in that church, that morning, valued me. I didn’t have to convince them. No one told me ‘how talented’ I was. No one said I played pretty. And no one even imagined that I might have ‘a real job.’ I was honored. I felt respected. And, I’m still processing it. Which says more about my experiences as a musician here than it does about their culture and how they see things. Either way, I am grateful.