The Truth of a Phrase
One of the great joys of my life is being the accompanist for the multiple Grammy Award-winning KC Chorale. When I first started playing for the Chorale a few years ago, I had an experience that I have come to call the “truth of a phrase.”
We were working on the Brahms Requiem. There was a phrase that was a path I had walked a hundred times before. Suddenly, in a gesture from Charles Bruffy, there was a push and a pull, a microscopic dissection of the moments in time that laid bare a thousand gradations of waxing and waning, a multi-foliate rose pregnant with pain and sorrow and joy and laughter…and yet, somehow, miraculously, the variegated minutia never became so bogged down that it detached itself from the larger phrase. Everything worked together, and the path I had walked a hundred times before was suddenly illuminated with so much detail that I was having trouble processing it. It was like looking at a mosaic and simultaneously being able to see the whole picture and each individual tile at the same time.
In what I am told is my characteristic candor, I blurted out, “We can’t get so caught up in details that we lose the long line.” Charles turned and said, “Let me worry about the line.” Then, we set down the path together. Each time he paused to say, “Now, look at this flower you’ve never noticed before,” I got nervous that we would lose track of the path, but we never did. The details helped light the path, and the path helped put the details in context. Everything danced together into an inextricable whole.
The most shocking thing, however, was the incredible sense of freedom I found. By following the gesture, I didn’t find myself under the weight of a coercive and foreign interpretation. Rather, I found myself free to participate with my own gifts. It wasn’t an autocratic, “this is the way it goes,” kind of thing — though to be fair, that is the way it’s articulated sometimes. It was more like I was being told, “Play this music in freedom in the way that you’ve always known how to play it. Play it how you’ve always wanted to play it, but you were too scared to try.”
I came away from that first rehearsal not so much with the sense that I had been taught something new. It was more the sense that Charles had dusted off something that had been on my shelf the whole time. I had just forgotten about it. I though of that passage in Phaedo where Socrates argues that all learning is really just a process of remembering what we have forgotten.
For me, that’s what playing for Charles and the KC Chorale is like. It’s like discovering something that you always knew was true, and having the freedom to express it with people that you love. It’s what music making should always be.