It’s April 2013 and I’m sitting at a desk, my body sagging under a mountain of fatigue. My voice is tired, by body aches, and my head feels like seventy earthworms are fighting each other to nest inside my cerebellum.
The past few weeks were filled with preparation, which included learning music, memorizing words, working on spoken voice inflection, making programs, rehearsing with accompanists, keeping my girlfriend happy, and, on top of all of that, keep up with my coursework. And people wonder why I’m going gray at 24.
In the next four weeks, I have four recitals that are totally different in scope: a full vocal recital with a soprano friend of mine, performing an hour-long piece for narrator and piano by Richard Strauss entitled Enoch Arden, and two mass student recitals where I will be turning pages and performing as a soloist. The preparation, though daunting, is what I am training to do. Being a classical musician is like being an athlete: you need to keep healthy, you need to stay alert, you need to prepare religiously, and multitask what seems to be a thousand different tasks at once. For the purpose of this treatise, I shall focus on the first two.
Another thing weighing on my mind is that fact that, after four years, I will now be leaving this place. Part of me is most certainly happy to leave, as I know that the baby sparrow has to leave the nest eventually. But the sorrow of leaving the nest is one of particular sadness. My emotions are a melange of hope and fear, death and life, success and failure. I’m reminded of a song I heard Bea Arthur sang when I saw her one-woman show in 2005, “Where do you start?”:
Where do you start?
How do you separate the present from the past?
How do you deal with all the things you thought would last,
But didn’t last?
With bits of memories scattered here and there,
I look around and don’t know where to start.
The beauty of life is that it is constantly rotating and evolving. Though transitions are difficult, you push your way through it and hope for the best.
My first recital of the quartet requires me to prepare and memorize nine different songs in English, Italian, French, and German. Mozart, Bach, Handel, and Hahn are among the illustrious composers that I will be paying homage to. The bouncy Handel pieces are perfectly contrasted with the solemnity and grandeur of Bach.
There are two pieces, in particular, that touch me deeply in this program. I will be performing the opening movement from Bach’s famous Cantata 82,”Ich habe genug.”The piece, in German, is a reflection on death:
I have enough,
I have taken the Savior, the hope of the righteous,
into my eager arms;
I have enough!
I have beheld Him,
my faith has pressed Jesus to my heart;
now I wish, even today with joy
to depart from here.
The sweeping lines and incredibly raw, sustained breaths needed for this piece leave me winded and torn. To focus on death in such an exquisite way is like drowning in chocolate; you love the process, but you start to feel ill. As I perform it on the day of the recital, my soul is transfixed and my body screams for relief.
The other piece from that recital that will stay with me is a piece from contemporary composer Stephen Paulus, who died of a stroke in 2014. It’s a folk song entitled “The Road Home” that Paulus wrote and the words are some of the most shattering and breathtaking:
Tell me, where is the road
I can call my own,
That I left, that I lost
So long ago?
All these years I have wandered,
Oh when will I know
There’s a way, there’s a road
That will lead me home?
As I sing these words in the recital, I start to cry gently, my professionalism fighting nostalgia and losing, yet I am able to keep my composure and finished the song, red-eyed, work out, and content. This recital is over, but I have barely a week for the next one. I better get cracking.
The next recital is still a musical one, but for once I’m not singing a line! This piece is a Melodrama by Richard Strauss entitled Enoch Arden. It’s an hour-long piece for narrator and piano using a text by the famous poet Alfred Lord Tennyson which is a story about a sailor and his many trials, including shipwreck and death. You can read the full text here.
The piece is a bear to master, if not for the stamina and vocal strain alone. Speaking eloquently is a different skill than singing in many ways. You have no musical notes to fall back on, it is simply words, words, and more words. The actor in me is up for the challenge and I’ve been tested and taxed greatly why this magnificent, yet neglected, work of art.
I step out on the stage for the performance, just me, a piano, a pianist, and the audience. I throw myself headlong into the piece, careening, laughing, sermonizing, and, in the end, dying a merciful death to several crying faces in the audience. I feel my soul has stepped out of my body and is alight in a blaze of fireworks. My body aches incredibly, my voice is a croak, my head is swimming with ecstasy, and the applause is lifting into my veins and becoming my sustaining lifeblood.
This is life at its best, I think to myself. To be so utterly prepared and passionate is the apex of my success in life. I’ve bested the beast and have proved to everyone surrounding me that I have scaled the mountain and am at my absolute best.
As the applause dies on the performance, and on my college career, the final stanza of “The Road Home” leads me into the future, which I will face bravely and tackle with the same zeal that I imbue my incredibly fortunate life with:
Rise up, follow me,
Come away, is the call,
With the love in your heart
As the only song;
There is no such beauty
As where you belong;
Rise up, follow me,
I will lead you home.