Stern collaborates with China’s National Symphony Orchestra (the first American musician to do so), and the film documents Mr. Stern’s rehearsals and performances of Mozart and Brahms violin concertos with the famous Chinese conductor Li Delun (who also acted as his guide and translator on his trip).
Yes, the movie touches on the influence of the western world, and the lingering effects of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which opposed any western influences and oppressed those who introduced western approaches. Isaac Stern comes face to face with the clash between technical skill and artistic interpretation.
The soul of the documentary is the time Stern spends with young Chinese students, coaching, coaxing, teaching and encouraging. The level of their skill is exceptional, and… well, astonishing. A consummate teacher, Stern’s task seems to be to inspire them to stop being merely technical masters, and to put their heart and emotion into their playing.
With a disarming smile, Stern connects with every student he encounters. He knows that inside each student is not just talent or technique, but a song. In one tender and inspirational scene, a 12-year-old girl plays her violin with concentrated and technical perfection (not only to Stern, but to an auditorium packed to overflowing).
Stern stops her and says, “Okay. Now. Sing the beginning to me.”
You can hear the translator (trying to find the explanation), and see the look of complete bafflement on the face of the young musician.
“Don’t be afraid,” Stern says gently. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.”
So she sings, haltingly, the first few bars of the piece.
And she gets it.
And we get it.
It is no longer about precision
…or technical brilliance
…or making an impression.
This is now about what’s in the heart.
Stern affirms her after she sings. And says gently, “Listen to the beauty when you sing, naturally flowing from the heart. Now (as an invitation), why don’t you play it this way?” She puts the violin to her shoulder and plays lilting and evocative music… no longer just notes.
I have never possessed that kind of technical–musical or otherwise–brilliance. But I do know what it is like to grow up in a world where one lived in fear of letting someone down. I was raised in a church environment where being wrong had eternal consequences. “Be ye perfect,” the Bible told us. Which we interpreted as “without any blemish.” Of course, I was not, am not, nor will ever be, perfect. But then, that’s the conundrum. And the implication: Somehow, an imperfect Terry is not enough. (I too, have spent my life trying for concentrated and technical perfection…)
Regardless of our background, we’re all familiar with the messages which bombard us daily. And they are not subtle. They tell us who we “should” be. They tell us who we are “supposed” to be. (The irony is that “they” are in our head.) And they tell us that whoever we are, it is not enough. But then… that’s the downfall of perfection: Even perfect is never enough.
So here’s the deal: We need to give ourselves the permission to go through a process of unlearning. Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to do your best. There is a difference between perfectionism and living wholehearted. What would it mean to say, “I am enough.”
I recognize that there are times I do not honor that Terry. That I do not honor the music that is within. Times when I disavow it, or times when I makes choices that wound (because of fear and vulnerability). Lord knows why, other than some internal need to rain on the parade of our own messy wholeness.
The most visible creators I know of are those artists
whose medium is life itself,
the ones who express the inexpressible
–without brush, hammer, clay, or guitar.
They neither paint nor sculpt–
their medium is being.
Whatever their presence touches, has increased life.
They see and don’t have to draw.
They are the artists of being alive.
I do know this. . .
If I am to focused on evaluating, I cannot embrace the moment–any of it… the joy, the discomfort, the uncertainty, the generosity, the pain, the pleasure.
If I am measuring and weighing, I cannot marvel at little miracles.
If I am anticipating a payoff, I cannot give thanks for simple pleasures.
If I am feeling guilty about not hearing or living the music, I cannot luxuriate in the beauty of the heart. The beauty of my heart.
Have you seen Mr. Holland’s Opus? About Glenn Holland’s lifetime of teaching music to a high school band. In one scene he is giving a private lesson to Gertrude. She is playing clarinet, making noises that can only be described as other-worldly. He is clearly frustrated. As is she. Finally Mr. Holland says, “Let me ask you a question. When you look in the mirror what do you like best about yourself?”
“My hair,” says Gertrude.
“Well, my father always says that it reminds him of the sunset.”
After a pause, Mr. Holland says, “Okay. Close your eyes this time. And play the sunset.”
And from her clarinet? Music. Sweet music.
I returned home to the island early this morning from So. Cal, where I spent a day with a group gathered at St. Paul’s in Pomona. Our topic: How to be me when the world wants someone else. In other words… do we have the permission, the freedom, to sing the music of our heart? The sun is shining and it a perfect Autumn day, and I smile at how easy it is to play the script; fall is here too soon, or summer went by too fast. And I tell myself that next year, I won’t talk that way. Next year, I will savor days like today.
Or I can make the choice not to wait. I walk the garden and spend time on the patio. The flowerbeds–still undone from last week’s storm–are a muddle. I smile at the great clumps of Japanese Anemone, prostrate into the lawn. It’s not easy to give up the need for perfection. Perhaps I needed to hear Stern’s gentle urging, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Just sing the beginning to me.”