The Violinist, the Conductor, and My Question

I was not going to miss my chance this time at the pre-concert discussion, especially since I could think of an enlightening question and not ask any old thing such as “How many hours a day do you practice?” just to be a show-off. This was a New Jersey Symphony Orchestra discussion between the audience and the soloist Simone Porter and conductor Christoph König who would be presenting Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64. I asked, “When you perform, do you strive to keep the piece the same or do you play or conduct it differently each time?” (Notice how I got to have both personages respond.)

Maestro König answered, “When I go back to the same piece, I get more to its essence each time. I acquire deeper levels of understanding and so it stops being the same thing.”

Ms. Porter replied, “No, I do not play it the same at all, and I would not aim for that anyway because that would make me nervous. I change it to keep a piece fresh. And there are many factors that influence how I play it, like the venue, who else is playing it, how the audience is responding, and so on. I make so many decisions about what area to emphasize and what not to, and this can change even in the 24 hours between concerts.”

With those answers, I can boast that I asked a worthwhile question, right? The conductor’s answer is the antidote to boredom and taking things for granted. We could apply this wisdom to anything we repeat, such as rereading a novel, giving the same lecture to students at the beginning of every semester, observing a religious holiday, listening to an elderly person relating the same story for the umpteenth time, going to the same museum with the kids or a friend, and listening yet again to that Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto you know all so well.

Porter is telling us that she wants the freedom to grow with the piece, and not have the artificial restraint of making it the same. By changing it some, she is repeating it yet keeping it fresh. I did not make a connection between the views of the conductor and the violinist until writing about them this moment. I just realized that their answers represent two approaches to performing music, and maybe to engaging in other repetitious acts in our lives. The conductor is talking about a change within himself that makes the piece different for him, while the violinist is changing the piece itself by emphasizing certain aspects of it and de-emphasizing others.

The next time I go to a concert and hear the “same” piece, I look forward to applying both approaches to it, and growing in enjoyment and perhaps wisdom thereby.


Special note to my followers and “repeat” readers: I often write stories and essays about loss, but I feel after all these years I would rather, like Porter, emphasize other matters and de-emphasize those associated with death and grieving. You will also see a change in the subtitle of this blog, just look up at the top. Thus I aim to retain the offbeat compassion element but give myself more freedom as to where it may show up. Let me know what you think.


An Outdoor Sage

My guest post author this time is my very own husband, Steven Jon Kaplan, a pianist and fan of nostalgic melodies. While reminiscing about a mysterious guitarist in New Orleans, Steve shows us how music can be a salve in times of loss:


During an evening stroll by the northern end of Jackson Square in New Orleans, I was enchanted by an old man with a long scraggly blond beard playing the guitar. His appearance belied his ability, and on second thought enhanced it, as it created the sensation of a timeless miracle. The tunes were selected to create a mood of melancholy reflection that captured each one of the thirty or forty listeners so completely that each believed only oneself and the old man existed. Proceeding from a bittersweet ballad to a lament of love lost, many in the audience threw dollar bills and sat on the nearby benches to enjoy the concert. As the Mississippi River swallowed up the last rays of sun, the remaining seating spaces became filled, with the admirers forming ever-widening rings of devotion.

Finally, when the crowd had reached an astounding size, the venerable guitarist, who I later discovered was “Grandpa Elliott” (Elliott Small), played “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor. He paused just long enough to acknowledge the mounting bills and coins in his guitar case before continuing on with the next sad reminiscence. If you spent a long enough time with Grandpa, you would hear all of the songs about the endearing folly of the human condition written from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies including: “Yesterday”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, “Cat in the Cradle”, “The Long and Winding Road”, ”So Far Away”, “When I Die”, and “American Pie.”

If you should ever pass by Grandpa Elliott on Jackson Square, be transported into a world of sweet harmonies, where things don’t turn out as you planned but at least the rhymes are working and each sorrow ends with a clear ringing chord.

Raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Steven Jon Kaplan is a financial advisor with a site of his own, In the personal part of the site given in the link here, he regularly shares reminiscences like the one above.

Magical, Oh So Clinical

On the job, I feel like the person described in Supertramp’s 1979 hit called “Logical Song.”  The song describes a happy existence that is later in life replaced with an impersonal emotionless one. The difference on my job is that both halves of the excerpt quoted below are true simultaneously, every day. Part of me is the chaplain who with no agenda engages in dialogue with patients, reacting on the fly to whatever they wish to share. I am there sometimes facing the most intense emotions and sometimes I am there to savor life with them or just sit with whatever mundane moment is in progress. But then a separate part of me goes to my office to document the visits. Documenting involves a very strict set of rules and I have to write out a description of the visit in a detached tone. There are countless lists of things to put check marks by, and there are some words I must use no matter what the visit was like, for example, “A trusting relationship is being established.”

The first lines of the “Logical Song” symbolically correspond to the actual visits:

“When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.”

Even in hospice, sometimes patients look back to “wonderful” and “beautiful” memories, and ponder the miracle of existence. They communicate this to me and I feel the poignancy of it and am in awe that they are letting me in on this ultra-personal dimension of their being.

The next lines correspond to the completely structured paperwork I must do:

“But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.”

The song actually says “clinical!”  Yep, that is a part of who I am. When I forget to put in a certain detail or do not do it on time, my supervisor may say, “You are out of compliance.” Ouch! (She does like and appreciate me, though, it’s not that she doesn’t.)

On one level, this may seem to be too painful a conflict. I have seen budding chaplains who found they could not reconcile these disparate identities, and ended up leaving their jobs, or doing one part well and the other not well at all. On another level, I try to see the paperwork as two things: superficially, it can be a nice neutral break from the intense emotions and deep thoughts I must respond to: Good! I can do something mindless for a little while. Beyond that, I think of it as the tax I must pay for the privilege of being present with people who are giving of their most intimate selves, who are revealing to me their innermost beliefs as they risk getting nothing back in return.

Quiet Drama in a Garden

Evening is closing in on a

Bush bearing roses of Sharon.

Darkness disables their blossoms

Except for one holdout:

One lone flower tucks itself in

According to its own readiness to surrender,

As a robin chants

The closing hymn.                       -by Karen B. Kaplan

An Offbeat Collection

“Normal” people collect stamps or coins or certain kinds of art. Not an “offbeat” person like me. When I was a child, instead of letting candy wrappers flutter into the trash and disappear like their contents, I gave them a new lease on life via a scrapbook. The idea was to collect such wrappers from as many locations as possible, preferably ones from other lands. As an adult I’ve made a collection of another unexpected sort: eulogies. The first one I gave dates from 1990, and I still keep every eulogy I have written. A eulogy is a genre of literature in its own right, and certainly has historical interest. Eulogies strive to portray the essence of a person, and may contain advice on how to grieve, as well as comforting allusions from a family’s faith tradition.

For those reasons I occasionally include a eulogy in my posts. (As well as the fact that new visitors to my blog regularly stop in to read the eulogies, itself a curious matter. I would love for them to tell me why.) Excerpts from the one I am including this week is also of general interest because of a reference to a famous person as well as a humorous incident. (Only the famous person’s name, not the deceased and her family, is  real.)

I gave this eulogy in October 2008:

“Like Marcy herself, this is a family who knows how to speak up, and as Donald so delicately put it to me in private, they speak up with ‘no bull.’…The family then delightedly told me the story of when she wanted to visit her friend Placido Domingo—and I am not kidding; they were dear friends—to visit him at the Metropolitan Opera House armed with her signature blintzes to fortify him before the performance. Security guards scoffed at her as a nut who had to assume her proper place in line. She made it clear that she belonged at the head of the line and would most certainly not be deterred from seeing her friend. Upshot of story: the blintzes were dutifully delivered, and I suspect promptly consumed post performance….”

“As for modern things, she was at the head of the line for being among the first to own a personal computer and read emails in 1983. ‘You can’t imagine,’ as Marcy would have put it…”

“She was so well-versed in fashion; she knew what fabrics and styles were in or out in a given decade. Before her imminent death she said, ‘Too bad I’m dying soon; I’ll miss all the new fall fashions.’….

“There is so much to celebrate about Marcy, so much to mourn, so much to admire, so much to emulate and wonder about and marvel over… you will never, ever, completely imagine.”

The Eulogy: Biography and Spiritual Legacy

The challenge of writing a eulogy, especially for someone who I have never met, is to capture the essence of a person’s entire life within the confines of two or three pages. I happen to fancy compact formats as I like to get straight to the heart of a matter. (Thus I am quite comfortable with Twitter.) The beauty of a eulogy as a genre is that I can start with an image of the deceased and then go on to make some comment that I hope will assist the mourners in their grieving, or give all present an increased understanding of what the deceased has taught us about our own lives.

As with much of my hospice work, my eulogies do not dwell on the person’s closing days, but on their life story. I quote a eulogy I wrote last year concerning a piano player:

“The classical composer Franz Schubert declared, ‘I am in the world only for the purpose of composing.’ To paraphrase this for Professor Lekowski [not his real name], he might have thought, ‘I am in the world only for the purpose of sharing music.’ From start to finish, bringing light classical music alive to his listeners was what he did. Growing up in a shtetl in the Ukraine, I can imagine him catching scraps of folk tunes here and there, just enough to cause him to yearn for more…..As an adult, he gave audiences pure pleasure as he played medleys of Jewish tunes, musical themes from movies, Italian songs and many other kinds of light classical pieces. He played in venues as local as a day care center with seniors singing along, and as imposing and formal as a concert hall, the chords lifting everyone up no matter where he went. Music meant so much to him that he said, ‘the moment I stop playing, I will die…’”

“Music is a form of communication. When used for good, it is a way of connecting with others, and that is what lends it its beauty and power and meaning. Perhaps the professor’s legacy for us is to find and develop our own ways of sublime communication, be it making it possible for persons to grow emotionally; be it the intellectual stimulation of talking on a topic one knows thoroughly; be it empowering others by showing them how to fix something; be it bringing serenity to a loved one by taking him to a natural scene filled with the quiet of subdued colors and the rustling of little animals and the fresh smell of the wind. Let us pay tribute to Leo Lekowski’s memory by taking what we are passionate about and allowing others to share in its pleasures as well. May his memory be for a blessing.”

A Choir Rehearsal That Grew Into Two

Songs like ‘I will Not Leave You Comfortless” by Everett Titcomb and  “Bamboo” by Peter, Paul and Mary definitely left me comforted. I was a guest at a rehearsal like no other. The Threshold Choir, a national group with various local chapters of volunteers, sings to the sick and the dying. I often have sung to patients myself, and so I was eager to learn more about this choir with its exceptional name. (You can go to to hear soothing samples of the music and see their rehearsal locations.) “Threshold” to me implies a fuzzy boundary between life and death, between sickness and health, a boundary so uncertain and shifting that it creates a separate space. A middle ground. Music is one of the things that can dwell in this space, making the distinction between life and death less stark, less urgent even.

Little did I know that I would be experiencing not just one but two rehearsals that evening. After several songs, the leader placed a lightweight recliner in the middle of the circle we had formed to practice. It looked something like a hammock frozen at some moment in time, formed of a fine mesh of metal painted white. Anyone who wanted to volunteer to be sung to could lie down in it for a song or two, as long as they agreed to close their eyes. Since I traveled very far for this and figured I might not have another opportunity, a philosophy I have even when not traveling far, I volunteered. Besides, I was tired from the long hot trip and and rather keyed up from meeting a whole new group of people.

The recliner looked inviting. Fancy that, I was going to be sung to. Their music spread all over the inside of the circle and I felt it soak into me. But then I was startled as I realized this was a rehearsal for what I might experience if this choir were singing to me when I lay dying. After drinking in the mellow tones, I felt soothed yet afraid. I knew why they were there, and it was not just for aesthetic pleasure. I drifted in this fluid space as if the recliner had become more pliant, more giving. I was in the moment, and then a regret about my life surfaced: I had not lived in the moment often enough. I often had wounded the moment with distractions and anxieties. Those moments were half-lived at best. I then drifted to the mystery of what lay ahead and to the times when I dwelt alongside others in their in-between spaces. I filled those spaces with finely-tuned listening, with  spirited teaching, with touch, with steady soprano song.

Related article: (I talk about “must-listen-to” music as well.)

Announcement: Chapter Two of the book, Encountering the Edge, consists of stories about my singing to patients as well as the effects of other music. This link will take you to my author page at the publisher’s site. The link includes a free excerpt: