Joseph Robinson

There Will Still be Hidden Instruments Playing

 

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A few weeks ago I tuned in to a much anticipated Gala Concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, hosted by Dame Helen Mirren.

To set the timbre of the concert, she opened by reading the following poem by the 13th century Persian Poet, Jalaluddin Rumi:

Where Everything Is Music

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Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn’t matter.

We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.

The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world’s harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.

So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark.

This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!

They derive
from a slow and powerful root
that we can’t see.

Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

The poetry perfectly matched not only the music chosen by the guest artists, but also reflected the intrepid and authentic intentions of the IPO for deploying music as balm and reminder of good things we all have inside.

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Meanwhile, from dark forces on the outside: a cyber attack completely disabled the broadcast.

Yes, a cyber attack on a Global Music Gala. When the world needed music most, ugly politics, ignored the message of music, tried to destroy it.

And so, it is fitting that the Torah reading for that week was the story of Korach.

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The context of this tale in the Book of Numbers is that the Hebrews, my ancestors, had recently sent spies into the land of Canaan. Their report that the land was unsuitable, was just one too many complaints about how the world works outside of the familiar life of enslavement in Egypt. God tells them that no one from this group of former slaves will enter the Promised Land; their beliefs and mindsets were not shifting over toward formation of a mature self-determining  people.

Instead, the people that enters the Promised Land will be of a new perspective, a new generation that would have no memory of life in Egypt; enslavement will not be part of their narrative memory.

And then, almost before this serious information can resonate fully in the minds of the wanderers, an insurrection is mounted. It is led by Korach, who sees everyone as equals and believes no one person should be making all the decisions and challenges the right of Moses to lead the people, saying, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?”

He does not grasp, has no understanding of, what leadership means, or why they have been turned away from the Promised Land. He only sees that Moses and God are schlepping everyone endlessly around the desert, when they have finally made it to the Land: and like a child who does not understand the need to grow and ready oneself for new responsibilities, it is making him miserable.

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It might feel just like this, these days. We all want to be in the land flowing with milk and honey, we want to see our friends and families, get back to our jobs and earn money and have a good life, now and for our children. But, here we are—pandemic and isolation.

It is hard to see what the future holds. The truth is, we cannot. Instead, we must look at each day as the whole of our experience. All our familiar chores and socializing have been suspended, and by now we know that we must persevere and not rush to re-open our lives. Already, some countries or zones are reeling from an intense second wave of pandemic cases because of opening too soon. We are in a wilderness, right along with the Biblical Israelites.

We can’t do what we did in our former lives. In fact, we had lived a sort of enslavement before the pandemic. Like the Israelites our enslavement was a dependence upon things outside of ourselves. In the Hebrews’ case, they had to obey their human captors.

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Some of us were enslaved to the demands of advertising and peer pressure: have expensive cars, elite schools for our children, unnecessary medical procedures, fancy nails. Like taskmasters, they drove themselves and others hard to acquire the means to have these things and be worthy. Others had to make ends meet by taking multiple jobs and leaving children for others to look after.

Now we are forced to see life stripped of these things and can make decisions about whether to resume chasing them or not. So many have lost the little they ever had to get by on, and must find a new way to make ends meet.

Also, in truth, we have always had our own self to fall back upon. Whether living solitary, or with family, or house-mates, we are living a new type of life: facing ourselves, full on. We’re not used to that: being alone on Saturday night was the worst thing possible during our formative adolescent years. But maybe it’s time to change that, too.

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Being alone was billed as ‘scary’. Those thoughts you used to avoid are now dancing around your consciousness all the time with no distractions from work or shopping or parties, as before. Like the wandering Israelites, we have left the enslavement behind, but also have not achieved freedom. Like Korach, we are leaving the familiar past, but not seeing what is ahead or have a destination–yet.

We have this idea that there is a ‘when things get back to normal’ or ‘things open up again’, just as did the spies in the Bible. But, in reality, we have left all that behind.

We have to transform that thinking, from the inside out and see the new land for what it truly is, or end up like Korach, swallowed up by the great gorge of our fears.

There are some previous pandemics to look back at for clues about where this will lead us as a global community. But what about our own personal trajectory in all this? How do we emerge ready for the new land we will find ourselves in?

Some of the answers will come from during this time of peeling away distractions and allowing deep listening for what lies beneath.

Look back at the poem by Rumi:

Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn’t matter.

We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.

When a musician plays music, the instrument is a tool, and what they play, the music, comes from deep engagement with the heartbeat of everything. One of my oboe teachers and mentor, Joseph Robinson has said,

The best moments have been breathtaking, transcendent and unforgettable, and each reminds me of what [Marcel] Tabuteau once said when I asked him whether he could remember any best moments in his long career…Pausing for a moment and looking toward the Alps, he said, ‘There were a few good notes … and they are still ringing.’*

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Everything is music, as Rumi says; musicians use their instruments to capture these ineffable notes, to share the music.

You can do this, too–Yes, you.

Here’s how: In your present you have unfinished business, financial troubles, loss of loved ones, illness, grief. Don’t forget to look at what resources you do have.

…and even if the whole world’s harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.

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You too, can capture the music. It’s okay to be hidden. The Israelites had to stay in a wilderness with nothing familiar to anchor to, in order to coalesce into a people with an identity; with roles, structure, and distance from the desire to go back to how things used to be.

Finding a new angle of repose takes time; finding the music comes from listening, and from clues and from integrating the information. Write them down, share with family, make art, engage a counsellor.

We are in a time of broken and burned up instruments; just let the former structures that played your tune go and yield to the sounds that you hear.

Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

Oh, yes, and as for the cyber attack on the IPO Gala Concert? the IPO concert immediately became available for free until the end of July, on FaceBook.

*Robinson wrote in ‘The Wilson Quarterly’, in 1995.

 

Thunder and Music

Tonight I am breaking the silence.

It has been a year and a half since my last post on ‘The Compassionate Oboe’, and tonight I begin to write again.

Last night, I got out my big-sound oboe, my Yamaha 841L, my beauty that I can play as round and fully and deeply as I want; it is my instrument to make a Big Sound for outdoor playing. Tonight, it is my partner when the piercing voice of the oboe needs to be heard over the din of pain and chaos.

But, about my absence, where have I been? Where have we all been these past 17 months?

The answer begins with the spectacular thunderstorm began outside last night, a perfect response to the plaintive call of people in pain calling for healing, and needing to hear a response.

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Just the same way, two years ago before my absence, I underwent a major thoracic surgery. Some ligaments from my diaphragm had to be removed in order to release their pinching off the blood flow through the major artery that feeds my abdominal organs. I responded to those cries of organs beginning to fail and moved to the USA to have the surgery.

I did not know if recovery from such an invasive surgery could include playing the oboe again.

Then a few months later, just before my last Blog entry in September, my mother called me to be with her. She was dying and had begun to have home hospice care.

I flew north to stay with her, something I hadn’t done for years. My mother sat opposite me in her favourite swivel chair, a French wine cup balanced in hand, her belly swollen from the effects of leukemia on her spleen. The fire churned in her gas hearth and it was cold outside. She had never shared any of her inner thoughts with me before, but during this time together, her last weeks, she accepted and wore the mantle of elder, imparting her acquired wisdom to her surviving heir, as one is wont to do at the end of life.

“I’ve seen a lot”, she grimaced as she rocked harder in the chair, “grew up in the Great Depression, World War II, the 60’s and 70’s, but I never imagined things could ever be as bad as they are now.” She shifted her position, her breathing heaved and rasped but she spoke on. “We did so much to make things better–civic work projects made by the government to pull ourselves out of the Depression; fighting in those horrible wars, the Nazis. Then we had Vietnam and the fights for Civil Rights and Equality. Now look at what it’s all come to!” She paused to stare and conquer her breath. “The world is controlled by the wrong people, all our hard work is being undone.” Her voice changed to a sobering timbre now. “I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see any more of this.”

That was the end of her speech, and I felt so sad with her and for her. She indeed had worked hard; I recalled her grass-roots meetings at our home for liberal candidates in the 1970’s; her proudly taking me out of school to see Senator Eugene McCarthy speak; and how she showed us to not just hear about the plights of others in the news, but to roll up our sleeves and openly fight for causes we believed in.

And it was now about six months since my surgery. I had packed along my quieter oboe, my lyrical Covey, as a way to centre myself during what I knew would be an emotional visit. One evening, as she sat rocking in her chair by the fire, I quietly came in and set up my stand and music. I chose the most important pieces to me, and knew her fondness of classical music was deep. The pieces were Saint-Saens’ Oboe Sonata and Godard’s ‘Legende Pastorale’. I adored these pieces and had over the years striven to play them as well as my teacher, Joe Robinson, even playing along with his album recording. This time, I abandoned the student-mind and played the music; because music, this music, needed to be present here.

It seemed that some great shift happened during the playing. She never spoke, we were both silent, and I put my music away. I don’t remember what happened next, but all the years of vexation over my decision to play the oboe instead of the flute and so many other divisive causes seemed gone, and were replaced with the understanding that music had happened. A truce and peace emerged.

And then, last night, came the same.

I watched the news, the American news and saw what I already knew. I had gone back to the USA in 2017 to be in the quiet desert near where I grew up, and took advantage of the opportunity to have the life-saving thoracic surgery. Along with my mother last autumn, I realized that America had changed too much for my comfort.

I came back to Canada.

Part of my reason for returning to Canada was the violence in the United States. Not just recent politically motivated violence, but also the mindset that allows people to carry guns, literally or figuratively, to sort out disagreements, mirroring American values still extant from frontier tales and Wild West films. Being called un-American is just such a gunshot.

These were also the concerns of my mother. In her day, the protests effected political change and a peace-minded consciousness-raising for America. This time, though, America is not faring any better than other countries with their political problems.

As I watched the American protestors on TV I felt relief at the emergence of peaceful protest out of the more violent activity of the weekend; the images were so reminiscent of 1960’s on TV. With one exception: I do not see the same concerned reaction by the President or White House Administration.

Carried away with the energy and passion of the images, I longed to be there. I wanted to protest, too.

But I am here in Canada and the border is closed. Meanwhile, my move-in plans are stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. I live with piles of orphaned books and office supplies, because I cannot buy or bring in new furniture. But my oboe paraphernalia is unpacked, accessible and curated.

I stare at the grand Manhasset music stand set up for playing, at the music books and boxes of reed-making supplies that I had lovingly sorted for occasional use.

On Sundays I play a small concert of familiar tunes, ending with ‘O Canada’ in solidarity with others singing and playing at noon nationwide, to acknowledge our frontline health care workers.

That little concert is also the thread that keeps me alive and well in general and in particular, as an oboist.

But last night, outrage spilled over in me. In part it was over the huge expense of my new home paired with still living like a hobo out of boxes. Part was the outrage that political leaders could ignore science and common sense and forgo proactively taking care of citizens when the obvious signs of the coming epidemic were there in China months ago.

Thankfully, my personal inner outrage and pain were mirrored on the TV screen: I was not alone. We’ve all had too much. Too much anger with systems that are breaking down, with the racial indignities that are still rampant, with the replacing of facts with political egos: and in America, with a President who makes threats against its citizens’ safety and rights to gather and protest peacefully.

I was so pleased to see the peaceful yet powerful approach that was being taken and with the contained and focused encouragement by the mostly young leaders.

Their determined message for change surged through me, a charge felt beyond words. The years of confusion, of who I am and what my work is post-surgery, now became clear: Music.

My Manhasset was already set, and out came the Yamaha.

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I played, full, big, and passionately for all to hear, my balcony door wide open to the world. I began with the Beatles, because we all know they were the sound of the 60’s: ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘When I’m 64’. Then came a few more tunes: ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Kum Ba Ya’, and Dvorak’s ‘Largo from The New World’.

Afterward, I gave my oboe its seasonal bore care with sweet almond oil and put it away. I felt an inner calm resume that had been lost for a very long time, for years perhaps.

Remarkably, just as I began to settle back onto my rented sofa, Nature took her turn to let go, too. An hour-long thunder and lightening show, complete with pelting rain and hail, seemed to validate the outpouring of pent up energy seen across the globe.

 

I swaddled all my oboe things away for the night, ready to be played tomorrow; because with those loud blasting cries, I was reborn.

 

 

 

 

The Oboe–For Me and You

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Marcel Tabuteau

“You see what fun you can have with your music, ha ha” The scratchy, flinty French-accented voice came from my summer oboe teacher, Joseph Robinson, who was patiently and warmly showing me how to play music rather than strings of notes on the instrument. He was lovingly making light of one of his teachers, Marcel Tabuteau, as his way of affirming the ordeal of taking on the playing this instrument, which I along with so many others brought onto ourselves, because we cannot imagine life without it.

 

What is it about oboes? I was captivated by them at age 13 when my Beginning Winds teacher showed us a scratchy black and white film about double reed instruments. That afternoon I had been prepared to drop off to sleep as soon as the lights were dimmed in the autumn heat of the band room. Instead of boredom, I began to hear earthy, unctuous sounds crying out of the projector’s sound box. I was transfixed, bewitched by the slender and seductive black ebony body of the oboe on the screen. The memory of it predominated everything in my mind for weeks, and finally, my flute teacher brought me an oboe to try for a few months. He handed me a questionably useful reed and the advice that he didn’t know how to play an oboe, but the fingerings were similar to the flute’s. I tried it and a crappy sound came out: success! I’d made a sound! After he left, I took it into my room and shut the door. More crappy, happy sounds came out! I was playing! After that, I played my flute music on the oboe. I was enraptured; my dog hated it. After three months, my music teacher asked for the oboe back. It was rented on trial, and it had to be returned.orchestraproblems.tumblr.com

 

For decades, I wanted to play oboe, and put the flute away and became a biologist. Then a homemaker and parent. When I turned 50, I started to find time for myself again and walked into a music store one day, thinking I could rent one for a month and either get it out of my system, or maybe…keep playing. I kept playing.

Much of my life these days is structured around playing the oboe. I no longer scare my pets, in fact my cat goes for her special listening perch when I start to play. I considered going to conservatory and making it a livelihood, but the reality of my increasing age caused me to listen to advice and keep playing as a passion. In the meantime, I began to develop my studies and livelihood as a Rabbinic Chaplain. I have had no problem finding intersections between my work in spiritual care and playing music.Kol Nidre Lewandowski

 

There are times when words just are not right. Music is prayer without words. When Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi z”l died this year on July 3rd, I was in Oregon at the ALEPH Ordinations summer retreat program, along with most of the teachers in the ALEPH programs. When we heard the news of Reb Zalman’s death during the break in our morning classes, a reforming of our world began. People had been touched by Reb Zalman in so many different ways. Some had had very deep and personal relationships with him, others were colleagues, students, newly ordained, and some were his first musmachim, ordainees. I had met him for a personal moment last January, in a frame of stillness amidst a crazy busy conference room at the annual OHALAH gathering in Boulder, CO. He was very kind and loving, clearly appreciative of the efforts we students made to learn and then teach others how to live in the four worlds of doing, feeling, knowing, and integration. When I heard the news of his death, my mind immediately went back to that tender moment with the kindness in his eyes, and their beckoning instruction to share that kindness, and with strength and conviction.

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Another student and I were scheduled to lead the next service in the afternoon that day. At first, some balked at the notion that two students would lead this congregation of leaders and teachers in this first gathering and service after Reb Zalman’s death. I was not afraid: I said who but his students’ students should lead this service? The faculty debated this along with so many other immediate decisions, and they came to us with the request for us to lead this service. My companion and I then spent the rest of the day together. We supported each other: her poetry was perfect for this service, and my oboe playing was a natural complement. We chose thoughtfully and deliberately what order things would be in, maintaining the liturgical flow, but with the colours of poetry and music. There had been rumours that my voice was not strong enough: and also loving encouragement that nonetheless, I was strong, and to find the way to use that strength in prayer leadership. I decided to open the service with ‘Adonai Ro’I Lo Echsar’, Psalm 23, composed by one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hazzan Gerald Cohen. He had written the melody as a dedication for a friend who had died, and I always felt swept aloft when I played it.

We decided what to wear, bookended ourselves, her with colours and myself in golden hues. We went to the sanctuary and set up the room, and then dressed. It was getting to be time. One teacher wanted to lead the first Kaddish Yatom after Reb Zalman’s passing, the prayers of mourning. He suggested my partner read the psalm as the music was played. I confidently said this is a time beyond words now, and that prayer was also in music. He assented.

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I now have to admit that playing this piece as an unaccompanied solo had always brought me many challenges, especially in endurance over the length of the continuous playing, the many rises and falls in emotions and dynamics, and the juxtaposition of difficult fingerings. Despite this, I have played the piece numerous times in public, and what I wanted now was to create an opening in hearts, to give the signal that it’s okay, go ahead and feel as we move forward together.

The time came, and I brought the instrument to my tongue and rolled the reed back into my lips. It was a good reed, one Joe had made for me, and it was good music, re-written for solo oboe for me by Gerald. It would be okay, everyone was where they needed to be. I played what I felt in me, from the timbre of that day and of others, and what I so longed to be able to do when I was 13. As often happens when I play at auspicious times as these, the pages of music disappeared, and rather than being fearful, I let go and disappeared too.

endureinstrength.orgTowards the end of the piece I returned and knowing I had a good reed and instrument, brought the piece in to home with a dropping off of a pianissimo down into a soundless abyss. Then, my partner read her poetry, and I channeled my strength into leading the room in prayers. More poetry, prayers, and then a close of the service with my oboe. Uh oh, this last piece was such a low register, and I had not planned how much to play or when to let the congregation take over the melody. Somehow, it all blended, almost in a call and answer of melody and chorus. I put the instrument down and breathed. For a moment I looked at my partner, and then we were mobbed. Teachers and congregants came to us, grateful for the words and music, some in tears, others with hugs. We had opened a space together, poetry, music, prayers.

 

Why do I play the oboe? For me and for you.

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