Marcel Tabuteau

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.

 

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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