“What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” asked Rachel. Instead of warming up on her violin and getting ready for chamber music rehearsal, Rachel was reading a card that she had pulled from a box she’d found in the special education classroom we were in. The question surprised me and distracted me. It was my first teaching day with the Boston Public Quartet at the Chittick School, and I was trying hard to stay on top of things, such as figuring out what we were supposed to be doing, learning students’ names, communicating with my colleague, and keeping track of equipment, photocopied music, and students, and time. Was Rachel was going to be difficult to work with? Was she taking advantage of my soft-spoken nature? I am not a disciplinarian; she could probably tell.
But I really liked the question she posed. I have seen a lot of beautiful things in my life. A flurry of images flashed in my mind: my twenty-one-month-old nephew’s smiling face; the blue of the Mediterranean Sea against white cliffs at Agios Georgios Alemanos beach in Cyprus; a New Hampshire pond with a full moon reflecting in its water; the enormous murals at the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston. These and other images were competing for first place, tying, and demanding rematches in my mind as I set up three music stands. I deferred to Rachel. “I have to think about it. What about you? What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”
“Arizona,” Rachel said with confidence. “The desert is not dry and brown like you might think. It’s really colorful and there are all kinds of plants.” Even though we were running late for rehearsal I could tell we were having a special moment that shouldn’t be disrupted—she was smiling, relishing a happy memory of a special trip. I asked her to describe it more—I’d never been to the desert.
Violist Jahvarey and cellist Kevin wandered into the room, and after a couple more questions from the box we got started on our rehearsal. We practiced reading and following each other’s body language so we could stay rhythmically and expressively unified. We played in unison, in counterpoint, and finally in four-part harmony. We helped each other concentrate and succeed; we also lost focus, teased each other, and argued a little bit. It was exhilarating! There we were, having a fully authentic chamber music rehearsal, no different from my experiences with college and professional music groups, except that we were at a public elementary school in Mattapan, three of us were beginners, and we weren’t playing Mozart or Beethoven—we were playing “Jingle Bells” and “Inch Worm” on borrowed instruments.
When I was Rachel’s age I took private lessons and played violin alone, with piano accompaniment, and in a large orchestra. But I didn’t have the opportunity to sit down with my friends and teachers to engage in the awesomely democratic, challenging, fun activity of chamber music until I was in high school. I fell in love with chamber music immediately. I loved having an individual voice that I didn’t have to share with eight other violinists. I loved having a say in the interpretation of a piece of music, and loved the intimate, social quality of chamber music rehearsals, and the kind of friendships that resulted from those experiences. I didn’t get nervous or bored when I played chamber music—it was like a dinner party in which my fellow musicians and I were the chefs, hosts, and guests all at once. What could be better than that?
That first day at the Chittick School, our little dinner party didn’t go totally smoothly; we had some major spills and sometimes our arguments and distractions became so out-of-control that our feast came dangerously close to being spoiled. But there were moments when Rachel, Kevin, and Jahvarey and I truly unified, and it was clear that we were all aware of and excited by those moments. After playing through “Jingle Bells” in four parts, it seemed appropriate to celebrate. Rachel found the box of questions and pulled out a card.
“What is the definition of ‘lucky’?” she asked. The three children toyed with ideas. “Getting something you want.” “Winning.” “Having good luck.” After this first day at Chittick I had a very clear answer to that question, at least for myself. This is a very good program, organized with great love and care by Betsy and the others in the quartet, and supported by people who understand the unique power and beauty of music, in particular chamber music, and the relevance of it in this particular community. Without any hesitation on the part of the other members of the quartet or the students, I was welcomed immediately into this community and included in all kinds of fascinating and challenging musical and non-musical conversations. I felt lucky to be part of all of this. When it was my turn to answer the question, I said, “Lucky is when you are able to appreciate something special that is happening to you.”
After three amazing weeks at the Chittick School with the BPQ, Rachel, Jahvarey, Kevin, and the other children, it is clear to me that I am not the only one who feels very lucky.