My latest article at Patheos:
I was sitting in St. Ephrem, a small Orthodox stone church near the Sorbonne in Paris, listening to the sublime solo suites for cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. The young man playing did not have sheet music, he knew this entire piece by heart. His eyes were closed as he stretched the bow back and forth in a kind of dance, his whole body was alert and engaged in this act of offering to the gathered crowd.
I was struck there in the middle of the piece by the awareness that he had spent likely thousands of hours practicing so that this moment he could offer his gift so freely to us. At one time, there was not such ease, and he was not able to yet play by heart. Hours upon hours were spent with attentive practice, showing up to the instrument and to his own longing to let music emerge from it. His holding of the bow and drawing it across the strings, the careful placement of his fingers which had now become a kinesthetic memory, developing the proper rhythm and tempo, even his punctuated breaths at the moments of pause were in some measure learned over time, practiced.
I imagine the many events of his life that could have called his attention away from his practice. Perhaps the death of a parent, the shattering of a love relationship, his own struggle with illness, or just the daily ache of living. And somehow he kept showing up to the practice.
And then there was the moment he sat down to play and the sheet music remained closed, as did his eyes, and his entire body remembered what he had practiced again and again. He suddenly found ease and flow and no longer had to labor to get things just right, he no longer had to engage in such a painstaking and attentive way. He could lose himself in the music. He became the instrument through which the cello could sing.