[I would like to be remembered as] someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has – Ruth Bader Ginsburg
As 2020 comes near its end, I reflect on the things I learned this year, the lessons life constantly has for us when things don’t go our way, and how to search for our musical voice and purpose in times of turmoil.
This year is full of pain; national, international, natural, man-made, political, social, medical, environmental, and personal on so many levels. We have all felt disappointed, angry, and uncomfortable, we have all faced uncertainty, and we have all had to adapt to circumstances that were out of our control.
Growing up a Palestinian refugee in Jordan, I remember living in a house of 2 bedrooms with 8 other people, my family of 5 members huddled up in one small room with us sleeping on the floor. I remember my parents watching the news a lot, being nervous, upset, angry and frightened. I also remember feeling confused about who we were and who I was supposed to be.
But listening to my father play his oud, I saw him smile a rare smile, and for a few minutes he would look carefree, not nervous, not angry. My father would teach me solfege, and it made me happy to focus on reading something with him. As a child, I believed that practice would make me better. And when I grow up, my life will be better, music will take me there, music will make my life better.
Just as William asked me to write this blog, I was quarantining at home, and trying to stay optimistic by focusing on piano practice. I turned to music to escape the pain in 2020, and to cope with difficulties in the same way I did when I was a child, in the same way we all turn to many things from our childhood that bring us comfort.
But some pain is inescapable.
Pain like that of the African-American community in the United States; an old, tragic, powerful, and real pain resonating through hundreds of years of injustice and explaining to me that I don’t fully and can never really comprehend its weight.
Pain like that of women in Jordan, protesting what is known until today in the Middle East as “honor” killing; a brutal violation of women’s lives and safety which legally protects murderers and abusers in the name of ‘Honor’.
Some pain is inescapable and overwhelming, it disconnects us, and makes us feel helpless. I didn’t know how to play the piano, I didn’t know how one could do anything when the world seemed to be falling apart. I felt disconnected from music and from all the dead white guys whose music I was playing. It didn’t seem like life could get better or that music can make life better.
And so, with nothing to lose; I played a prelude for the piano by Julia Perry; an African-American composer whose music won her two Guggenheim fellowship awards. Perry studied composition with Nadia Boulanger, her style of writing is best described as neo-classical, with African- American influences on her earlier works, such as her Free at Last and I’m a Poor Li’l Orphan which showcase her incorporation of black spiritual music.
Some kinds of pain must not be escaped, some kinds of pain need to be looked in the eye and told “I’m here, I’m still standing, what do you have to teach me?”. The pain of the African-American community teaches us values of justice, the pain of women in the Middle-East teaches us values of equality, the pain caused by COVID-19 teaches us values of responsibility, and all pain teaches us values of resilience.
Many years ago, I took a cab in Malaysia. The cab driver and I start chatting, I tell him I was born in Syria but I lived most of my life in Jordan. He replied, “Ah, so you’re Palestinian!”
In a short cab ride, we were both versions of ourselves we hoped the other would see, we tried to be kind and pleasant, we tried to listen, we enjoyed a short transition from point a to point b, the ride was short, and it took the exact amount of time to really talk to someone. We both knew we will never see each other again, so we allowed ourselves to be our truth, our dreams, and our most vulnerable selves.
I got to know Julia Perry in a duration shorter than a cab ride, her music is her truth, her dreams and her most vulnerable self.
In a short prelude for the piano, Julia Perry and I connected through history and in time with each other, with others, with our communities and with the sounds we make through our different ways of musicking.
Often as performers, we forget that part of our job is to take music where it needs to go, just like cab drivers. It’s our job to try to connect people, and to listen, not only to our instrument, but to the voice of the composers whose music we play, and to the sounds of the world we live in.
The music of Julia Perry gave me insight on how a musical voice can translate pain, and use pain to become stronger, her music helped me look for and find different ways of connecting with music and practicing resilience, through music.
A New York Times article by Eilene Zimmerman captures some of the characteristics of highly resilient people. These characteristics offer some guidelines and inspiration in navigating the crises we face today:
- Resilient people have a positive, realistic outlook. They do not dwell on negative
- information and instead look for opportunities.
- They have a moral compass, a solid sense of what they consider is right and wrong.
- They believe in something greater than themselves.
- They are altruistic.
- They accept what they cannot change and focus energy on what they can change.
- They have a mission, a meaning, or a purpose.
- They have social support.
The Hidden Brain podcast features an episode on habits in which psychology professor Wendy Wood briefly mentions that times of turmoil are in fact some of the better times to start building new habits. Professor Wood justifies this by explaining that when things are turbulent or uncertain, the brain is more adaptable to new habits and change.
Practicing resilience can be the habit we choose to hone, for our personal well-being and benefit, but we also practice resilience in order to help each other, for the well-being and benefit of our community.
In the time of COVID and the injustices we see in the world around us, we search for hope, but what if we also took responsibility for the changes we need to make?
What if the habits we build are not just practicing our instruments effectively, or becoming faster, healthier, stronger musicians? What if we also build habits of long lasting empathy, kindness, and of raising voices that need to be heard? What if we use the difficulties we face to find our place in this world, as human beings, and as musicians?
Music doesn’t have to be an escape, a mere hobby that we use to while away the hours, an auditory distraction from the pains of life. Music can be more. It can be a pathway to growth, a door to understanding, a bridge of sonic empathy from one soul to another. Music can be the journey through pain in which we learn to practice resilience. Music can be anything, so make it into something beautiful, something brave, something powerful.