There is a specific cacophony that accompanies a room of musicians, a discordant mix of scales and warm-ups, with boisterous showoffs playing dramatic solos from the margins. For most, an experience in the backstage holding pen is jarring, but for me, it represents my career as an orchestral musician. The bizarrely alienating combination of shrill winds, blaring strings, and thundering brass has forced me to survive as an individual while playing in an ensemble. I have learned to fulfill my role by simply contributing my well-rehearsed notes to the orchestral whole. And yet, after a chance encounter with evangelical prayer, I was forced to recognize the error of my ways.
I stood in a state of acute discomfort wedged between a cello case and a set of risers. I was backstage at a local church, waiting to churn out the simple melodies inextricable from the holiday season. The noise in the room had reached a fever pitch. A violinist’s Irish jig fought valiantly against the vocal warm-ups from the choir, but the do-re-me’s had power in numbers. The pastor climbed to the center of the commotion, easily silencing the room. He launched into religiously infused speech, discussing the wonders of holiday music (a wonder lost on me after the 15th rehearsal of “Sleigh Ride”) before the group bowed their heads in prayer.
I only followed suit out of respect, but the religious flavor of the room was devout. It was just a gig for me, but almost all of the other musicians were part of the congregation. A voice suddenly rang out. “God,” it began. I frowned in confusion. The owner of the voice was elderly, so it was possible that he didn’t realize that he was speaking out loud. How embarrassing. “Thank you for this beautiful music. Amen.” I glanced around the room. Surprisingly, no one else seemed startled by his announcement. Before I could contemplate this development, another spoke up, voicing her private desires in a public place! More joined in, and the intensity and emotion swelled. I stood agape as they sounded off in a blur. Some were joyous, others mournful, all incredibly open and personal. They spoke in harmony, voices reflecting and complementing one another. The image of a giant brain, individual neurons firing for a single consciousness came to mind. I suddenly realized the parallels between the event unfolding and the impending concert. The prayer itself was almost like a performance, 40 or so people collaborating to create a mesmerizing spectacle. It was their connectivity, their unabashed openness that produced a scene as breathtaking and lyrical as a Tchaikovsky string quartet. They were plural, yet the effect was singular.
Half an hour later, I listened intently to the orchestra. Beneath the catchy invitation for a sleigh ride together, I found the familiar quality I searched for. My peers did not simply play their notes; they felt and listened to each other, responding melodically across the stage, growing and pulsing together in time with the conductor’s baton. Recollecting the startling and foreign prayer, I understood what it meant to be a true musician. The music flowed from their awareness of each other, not black ink on a page. Through their instruments, they once again prayed.