While 26 million TV viewers were preparing to watch the Grammy awards this year, five young violinists waited nervously in the social hall of a local church for their opportunity to perform before one of the world's leading virtuosi.
Ranging in age from 10 to 17, they paced back and forth among equally nervous friends and family; glanced into the main sanctuary, at the clock, at their music; retuned to their violins; then paced some more. All were members of an honors class at the local music school and all gifted musicians thrice blessed: with innate talent, supportive parents, and a community-based music program capable of transforming them into disciplined, knowledgeable, and accomplished artists.
A latecomer to the violin, I sat in the audience among parents, teachers, and aspiring young performers hoping to come away with instrumental insights gleaned from a consummate teacher and performer, and to witness the miracle of serious students in the process of acquiring and demonstrating formidable skills.
That children raised in an electronic culture of rap rantings and digital sampling would opt to devote themselves to so antique and unfashionable a pursuit - choosing patient, demanding, and often frustrating study over the more instant gratifications of preprogrammed electronic keyboards and the improvised bangings of garage bands - amazed me.
A parent's fond wish might account for the initial impetus, the lessons begun in near infancy, but to achieve any level of mastery, an inner drive and sympathy were required that neither parents nor teachers could provide. These five performers, I quickly discovered, had made the pursuit of excellence their own.
As the youngest stepped forward and began to play, it was immediately apparent that this was no mere children's recital, no rote repetition of a juvenile show piece diligently memorized for the sake of entertaining and impressing parents and friends. This was a nascent prodigy's first declaration of musical identity, exhibiting a precocious sense of self and a delight in the freedom of expression that proficiency and artistry allow.
She did not merely demonstrate accomplished technique, but the first glimmers of its uses, the assertion of emotion and thought, and the articulation of a soul. Although her arms were still too short for a full-size violin, she converted her diminutive instrument into a conduit of powerful feeling.
If she had been nervous coming into the room, it was not apparent in her playing. She projected an air of confidence and an awareness of the power she possessed to tease genuine music from the ether and charge the spirit of every listener. How often does a child of 10 command such rapt attention? Through the screen of her outward composure emerged the drama of a mature encounter with melody. It was exhilarating to witness.
During my first year of violin study, I foolishly sought to gauge my progress by comparing my efforts to those of the 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds whose parents brought them for lessons in the hope of discovering or nurturing talent.
Week after week, awaiting my session, I listened to the muted music being produced behind the closed door, comparing that child's development to my own, hoping I was keeping pace. But soon I suspected that my progress would be quickly outstripped by even the youngest students.
Mine was a lunatic endeavor from the start. Musicianship is first and foremost a physical fact, the product of highly trained, extremely precise muscular movement of the kind that seems most effectively and efficiently learned in early childhood. Ten years of age, even 8 for some, is considered "late." How much more so four decades later. But I set out on this journey with few illusions and no grand expectations of performing in public. I simply wished to one day play long-cherished chamber music with a certain ease and fluency.
Encouraged in this endeavor by a patient and insightful teacher, I listened to the first of the master-class performances that afternoon and felt that with redoubled dedication I, too, might one day play with such expressiveness - I should only live so long.
But when the next student, an 11-year-old, stepped forward and began to perform a demanding concerto from the late Romantic era, I realized that no amount of practice would ever elevate my playing to her level. It was not simply her sensitivity, the way in which, with closed eyes, she glided across the fingerboard, cheek laid caressingly upon the chin rest, the violin not so much an instrument as an extension of her heart. It was also her obvious comfort with the act of performance, of conveying her thought and feeling through music.
Here was someone whose physical and emotional growth were so entwined with the instrument that it seemed a natural part of her, her chosen means of communication. She had learned the language almost from infancy and had only to take up the violin to express it.
To think that children could be brought to this level of proficiency, and so quickly. In the four years I had spent learning the rudiments, these two girls had leapt into an altogether different realm. And the next performer, a 13-year-old, opened an unbridgeable chasm between us. I doubted I would ever be able to play with her virtuosic speed, dexterity, and power.
The two 17-year-old students who concluded the program played pieces requiring a stamina that only the most gifted possess. So accomplished were they all that I had to remind myself that these five young violinists were not the hothouse product of a conservatory education. They had not been force-fed a high-octane diet of pure musicianship all their lives, but were merely local elementary, middle, and high school students for whom the violin was but one in a long list of daily activities and responsibilities.
Did they all rush home that night to watch the Grammys like so many of their peers, or was their taste in music more elevated than the usual fare singled out for recognition at such ceremonies? Music seemed to mean so much more to them than simply an occasion for celebrity, cant, and commercialism, but perhaps they enjoyed the music of the moment as well as that of the past.
However eclectic their musical tastes, they had chosen to carry the torch of a tradition that demands such dedication and sacrifice from those called to it. It's a tradition that provides the incomparable riches of emotional growth produced by daily encounters with genius. I rejoiced in their choice.
Whatever the original source of the impulse that brought them to that place, all five had long since made it their own. They were well on their way to enlarging and extending the tradition, helping to make it accessible to a whole new generation of listeners.