A spiritual journey that began with Bach led to the belief that music has the power to change the world
By Rachel Barton Pine
I’m in Washington, D.C. It’s a concert day. As I have done so many times in cities around the world, I put on my makeup, do my hair, and carefully warm up my repertoire. As I pull up to the venue, an administrator meets me at the car. We walk past audience members waiting outside who tell me that they heard about my last appearance from friends, and are looking forward to the concert. We enter the historic building, and the administrator points out posters announcing my performance. I’m led on a winding path through the bowels of the building to the elevators. The elevator doors open and, exiting, I hear a man call “Lady on the floor!”
This is not a typical concert venue.
I’ve flown into town a couple days before my scheduled appearance at the National Gallery of Art to play a special concert for the residents of a homeless shelter, the Center for Creative Non Violence. The path to the large meeting room where I will be performing takes me through one of the areas where the residents sleep. The area is partitioned and there are multiple beds within each section. A few men are still asleep in the middle of the day. Most have ventured out to pursue their daily activities, leaving their worldly possessions adorning the small spaces around their beds. It is impossible not to be touched by this brief window into their existence.
I find the meeting room filled with several dozen people, clad in old clothes—sweats and T-shirts—waiting patiently to hear the hour-long program that I have prepared. There are a few familiar faces from my last performance here, and many new ones. An open space has been created for me next to a ping-pong table and, taking the “stage,” I begin with Henri Vieuxtemps’ “Souvenir d’Amerique,” a virtuosic theme and variations on the popular tune “Yankee Doodle.” Vieuxtemps, the teacher of the teacher of the teacher of my teacher, composed this work in 1843, during his first tour of America. He wrote it to introduce the violin to audiences unfamiliar with classical music.
The goal of a musician is to be a conduit for something greater than oneself and to join together with those listening, uplifting their spirits.
It proves just as successful with this audience as it was for the composer more than 150 years ago. I hear laughter as the tune reveals itself. Heads are bobbing to the rhythm and I see smiles throughout the audience. The left-hand pizzicato, harmonics, and bow-flying conclusion produce murmurs of amazement. I can feel the energy in the room shift. The listeners are less reserved, guarded, and uncertain. The mood is lighter and there is curiosity about the music to come.
I have never believed in “dumbing down” repertoire for audiences less familiar with classical music, and have found that anyone can appreciate the most sophisticated classical repertoire if it is framed and presented in the right way. More than 100 years ago, people flocked to hear violinist John Philip Sousa’s band play its famous marches. Sousa integrated into his concerts the great Classical and Romantic symphonies and concertos of his day. The crowds came away with an exposure to and appreciation of serious classical music, making Sousa a major contributor to the growth of classical-music audiences in the United States. As he demonstrated, great music is powerful and connects to our souls if the performers can offer an accessible point of entry.
Having earned the trust of my audience, I share some movements from the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. I describe the dances and rhythms that serve as the foundation for the partitas, and explain how to listen to the different voices that Bach weaves together in his music for unaccompanied violin. I also share with them that the music of Bach is why I am here with them today—not only because I am in D.C. for a performance celebrating the release of my new album of solo Bach, but because Bach has been my inspiration from my earliest days as a musician.
I grew up in a church whose slogan is “Making a Joyful Sound in the City.” Bach toccatas and fugues, as well as cantatas and oratorios, are regularly heard as part of the worship services, and a stained-glass window of Bach can be found amid those of important biblical figures. The church’s influence on my musical development and values was profound and, in many ways, deeply rooted in Bach.
I was first introduced to the violin at the age of three in church when I heard some middle-school girls playing one Sunday. After I begged my parents for lessons, they acquiesced and arranged for me to study with a teacher in the neighborhood. I fell in love with the instrument and, a year later, played for the first time in a worship service; I performed music by Bach. Over the subsequent years, I shared works by Bach and other composers many times. I will never forget the old German ladies who would always approach me after those services and say in their thick accents, “You must practice. It is a gift from Gott!”
Bach inscribed many of his manuscripts with the initials “S.D.G.”—Soli Deo Gloria. He honored the source of his inspiration, taking none of the credit for himself, and once said “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” To this end, the elders at my church counselled me that my ability on the violin was a gift and that it was my joyful responsibility and duty to develop this gift and share it with others—that the goal of a musician is to be a conduit for something greater than oneself and to join together with those listening, uplifting their spirits. I was always reminded that music is a calling and is vital to our souls.
I first truly understood this concept when I was five and my Sunday school class went Christmas caroling at the nursing home founded by our congregation. I brought my violin and went from room to room, serenading each resident. As I was about to enter one room, the nurse who was accompanying me stopped and explained that the resident of the room was very unhappy and had not spoken since he had moved in. She reassured me that he would enjoy my playing even if he did not say anything. I launched into a carol, playing as expressively as I could.
As I finished, the old man lying on the bed started crying—and speaking. Suddenly, everyone was crying. For the first time, I experienced the transformative power of music, and was determined to bring music to as many people in as many places as possible for the rest of my life.
At that moment, I knew that I was meant to be a violinist.
The journey has not been smooth or easy. My mother home-schooled me on the advice of my school principal, who felt that my intense practicing and rehearsal schedule were incompatible with normal school hours. I thrived under this arrangement, but it also meant that my mother could not return to work. Meanwhile, my father was frequently unemployed, and the lack of a steady income often resulted in our phone and electricity being turned off. Finding money for gas and groceries was frequently a struggle. On many occasions, we were one missed payment away from losing the roof over our heads. It often seemed unrealistic for me to pursue my studies on the violin. Barely able to cover the basic necessities, we hardly ever had money for lessons, sheet music, concert clothes, or instruments. I was always at the mercy of the generosity of others—relatives, our church, music schools, or strangers—for all the things necessary to pursue a career in music. None of it was guaranteed.
Without the support of the community, I would never have achieved my goal of spending my life in music, and my voice would not have been heard. I owe them a debt that I can never directly repay.
In the face of this constant uncertainty, it might have been easier to abandon my dream and take another path. Instead, inspired by experiences like the one at the nursing home when I was five, I worked harder. Bach said “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed . . . equally well.” I believe that people were always there to support me when I needed it because I worked as hard as I could.
Without the support of the community, I would never have achieved my goal of spending my life in music, and my voice would not have been heard. I owe them a debt that I can never directly repay. However, every time I put bow to string and share music with others, I honor and serve them. I repay their generosity each time I play in hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters, nursing homes, and schools for underprivileged children. In recognition of the generosity of all those who helped me, I started a foundation to provide resources for talented young musicians pursuing careers in music, and to support music education and music making in disadvantaged communities throughout the world.
I like to remind the next generation that talent is only the beginning. It takes hard work to realize your potential. The process takes time and is rarely easy. We all face obstacles, and none of us achieve our dreams without the generosity and support of others. As musicians, we are each blessed with a voice that can touch and transform. It is our responsibility to use it to make the world a better place for those around us.