Becoming More Human

With special thanks to Jen at Conversion Diary for recalling this old post from 2009, I’m giving it another run.




Celebrity cellist, Yo-Yo Ma performed with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra this week. Tickets sold out many months in advance, so sitting at home rather than in concert finery, I’ve been inclined to read the reviews. Raving positive, they can only be, or Indianapolis may never see such a headliner again, but our local classical music reviewer (I’ll call him J.) went above and beyond his superlative duty and labeled the event “special.”

He went on to describe, with intricate detail, Ma’s interpretation of The Dvorak Cello Concerto in B Minor; how he blended with woodwinds in a second movement cadenza, echoed a horn theme in the first, and accompanied the flute with his beyond-other-worldly bow control.

For a minute, just one little minute, I thought to myself:

Who in Indianapolis, Indiana, besides J. himself, and one or two nerds (myself included—but just barely) could possibly care about what Yo-Yo Ma did with a second movement cadenza? And what did J. do? Sit there with his own copy of the sheet music in his lap to see, “Oh, here, Ma needs to play ‘ma non troppo.’ Will he do it? Yes!” Nobody here cares about classical music anymore. And if Yo-Yo Ma is on their radar, it’s probably just to make a “yo-mama” joke.

But maybe I had that thought because I have gradually lost interest in classical music. Why? Because it’s difficult. I have never been able to understand or appreciate a piece of classical music until I have played it. I do have to hold the sheet music in my lap while I listen, and read or play along. Interpreting classical music is a bit like reading a big fat classic novel, like War and Peace. You have to get over the desire to reach the end of it, and learn to appreciate each word, each sentence, each theme for what it is. You have to have patience and concentration, which is something I have gradually lost.

I admit, I know this J. I played in a youth symphony with his son, also a cellist, when I was in high school. His son (I’ll call him T.), sat first stand with a lanky Polish boy on whom I had my first major unrequited crush. But T himself was a classic, textbook nerd. He wore coke-bottle glasses, had a shaggy head of greasy hair, and bountiful zits which he used to rub with the tip of his bow. He was home-schooled and didn’t watch TV, though sometimes he said, they borrowed films from the library. He could recite in chronological order, with incredible speed, every ascendant to the Czarist Russian throne, and he did so at least once a rehearsal.

I sat behind him, fourth chair, sharing a stand with a pudgy, dark-skinned boy named Darius. Darius and I were like a couple of puppies poking and prodding the two serious musicians at the stand in front of us. When T eventually grew irritated, he would turn his entire body around without moving his neck to glare out of his coke-bottle glasses like a pre-pubescent Dracula. In short, he was the model of patience and concentration, and the living artifact of an eccentric, intellectual education. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in his home! To be the son of local classical music reviewer, J., who believes that certain cadenzas are beyond special!

I say all of this a little tongue in cheek, because I was, am, and ever shall be envious of what I do not have, and what I did not have in high school was a life built on aural appreciation. Music was always my hobby, something I did that was different from everyone else at school. I had enough aptitude to get by, make the cut, but never enough patience and concentration to make music my life.

As a member of the cello section in this particular state-wide youth orchestra, we received complimentary tickets to hear the last celebrity cellist who came through Indianapolis over fifteen years ago, Mstislav Rostropovich. If my memory serves me correctly, he played the same piece that Ma did this weekend. During the intermission of that concert, I made my move on the lanky Polish boy who occupied the first stand of the cello section, and he brushed me off, quickly, because the lights were beginning to dim, and he didn’t want to “miss a note.”

His father was a first generation Polish immigrant, founder of a local violin competition, and yet another classical music aesthete, who would sit on his couch in the middle of the day listening to obscure recordings. When we walked through his living room, he would say, “Young people, sit down and listen to this recording! It’s sublime!” and throw back his head on the couch, smiling at the ceiling and swinging his leg, crossed over his knee. That love is what I never had—the desire to sit and do nothing else but listen to complicated music, to read it like a novel, to enjoy every note.

Now I go for walks and listen to the ipod which is filled with a lot of classical music, a lot of folk, a lot of rock, and a bit of country. I set it on “shuffle” and skip song after song that appears on the screen. “No. Not that. Can’t tolerate this one right now. Does not match my mood.” Music must serve me by sustaining desired feelings or changing undesirable ones. And it had better not challenge me, because my life is challenging enough.

It’s sad.

It’s sad because it is yet another sign of my insistence on making everything I touch, see, hear, taste, or smell reflect my emotions and my experience. And it is another sign of how almost all technological gadgetry has the ability to foster narcissism.

I’ve been trying something this week—something I should have done long ago—which is severely limiting my time on the computer. Write with a pen and paper. Listen to music that requires patience and concentration. Read a book, even if it is one I’ve already read, and value every word. Share other people’s experiences, even those that make me uncomfortable or exhausted. This because I want to be more human, less technologically enthralled, and less dependent on the highs that technology somehow mysteriously provides for me. I wonder, if becoming less the master of my sensory environment would provide me with more dependence on God, and if my failures in patience and concentration are at the root of my current difficulties with prayer. I want to care about how Yo-Yo Ma blends with the woodwinds in the second-movement cadenza, because that is such a definitively human concern.

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About Elizabeth Duffy