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Read more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly’s interview with violinist Rachel Barton Pine:
I grew up in a very musical congregation. The organist would play Bach toccatas and fugues for prelude music, and it only got better from there. The choir would do movements from Handel and Mendelssohn oratorios for the offertory and anthem. It was just incredible to have music of that quality, be part of the worship experience every Sunday. When I was three years old, I saw some middle-school-aged girls playing violin in my church, and they had on the most beautiful, long dresses. The sound of the violin was intriguing, and according to my parents I jumped up in my seat in the pew and I said, “I want to do that.” I don’t remember saying that. But I definitely remember how I felt — that somehow it was almost just like this moment of revelation and I knew that I had to play the violin. Well, my parents didn’t totally believe me, I guess, and they thought maybe I was a little more interested in those beautiful dresses. So they didn’t get me a violin right away. But luckily that same summer while I was still three there was a teacher in my neighborhood, just a few blocks down the street, and a lot of the other kids, neighbor kids, were taking lessons, and their parents encouraged my parents to let me give it a try, and as soon as I had that first lesson, I just absolutely fell in love with it and I just wanted to practice all day. My parents thought I was pretty weird. They would say, “Don’t you want to set that thing down and go ride your bike?” But I just knew that I was meant to be a violinist. I was just so excited to be able to create music and explore the instrument, and it was just a feeling of joy, really.
I really do believe that God is within each of us and is all encompassing and with us at every moment, and yet what kind of a specific hand does God ever have to be involved in our life? I really don’t have the answer. I’ve always believed that somehow it was fate or perhaps God’s direct intervention, meeting the violin. But since I’ve been older and I’ve started thinking about these things logically, one has to ask, well, God did this for me. What about people that perhaps God hasn’t shown their calling? It just creates so many questions that can’t be answered and yet, you know, sometimes I think life is random. But what God can do is help us make the most of both good and bad luck. And so perhaps God didn’t cause those violinists to play for me that day. But maybe God was there when I heard them. That might be the best way to put it. I also met my husband in church, and I think maybe there’s something to that, as well.
I really didn’t have a sense of being better than other kids or anything like that. I certainly didn’t care about it, even when I started to notice it. But it was just all about how much fun I was having with it and how fulfilled I felt when I was making music and how I just really felt the most like myself and how I just really felt the most myself during those moments when I was onstage or in front of my congregation, in church, sharing music with people, and that’s what really motivated me. Not any sense of competition or anything else. Certainly, I was very grateful that I had an aptitude, because it meant that I could get to more and more interesting pieces that much more quickly.
Bach has been such an important part of my life for so long. The church that I grew up in, where I was baptized and confirmed, they actually started as a German immigrant congregation before eventually becoming part of the United Church of Christ. Now the congregation is very mixed. It’s not even predominantly German, by any stretch. But the stained glass window of Bach is still there among the various characters from the Bible and so forth. And, you know, as far as I was concerned, Bach was right up there with the saints. There’s something about his music, both listening to it and especially playing it, you know? I can really feel the presence of God whenever I’m hearing Bach. And I know that was how Bach felt as well. All the music he was creating, whether it was specifically sacred or not, he felt that his musical gift was a gift from God and that all the music that he wrote was serving God, and playing Bach’s music really puts me in touch with that sense of music being my calling, because sharing music with people is the best way that I can serve God, by doing God’s work in the world.
It’s actually so challenging always to articulate, even trying to talk about music, because the amazing thing about music is that it goes beyond words. It’s the most profound way that human beings can communicate with each other and therefore connect to each other. Music transcends all barriers of nationality, of ethnicity, of race, of class — all of those things. It’s the common human language. Just recently I was in Africa doing some work with my foundation and working with some classical musicians in Ghana, and there’s a country that has absolutely no cultural background in classical music. And yet the music of Beethoven spoke to them so deeply. Music is what brings us together. That’s why it’s so important to be part of making music in the world, because I think it’s really how we can heal and uplift people.
Some repertoire you’re very meditative. Some repertoire is very extroverted. Some repertoire is full of angst, and then, you know, it’s very cathartic to kind of move through that piece to its ultimate conclusion and resolution. Other pieces are much more joyful and celebratory. Whatever the music is, it really reaches into the deepest part of our soul, but from many different angles. Some music is transporting, and some music is just about having a good time. But that’s equally important.
Obviously, I earn my living playing the violin, doing what I love, which I am so grateful for — that my calling can also be my job. But from the early age of five is when I really recognized concretely that I knew I was a violinist. I started signing my kindergarten papers “Rachel Violinist.” I knew that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life, having absolutely no clue about what kinds of different career paths you can have in music. I figured I’d be able to pay my bills somehow or another by playing the violin. But first I had to, of course, get to the end of my studies. And that was always very iffy, because while I relied on scholarships and borrowed instruments for virtually the entirety of my student years, just even paying for the gas to put in the car to drive to the lessons, sheet music purchase, paying for the piano accompanist fees, concert clothes, which we would very often get at the thrift store and then try to fix up before going to a competition, and where was the airfare to go to that contest going to come from? These were real difficulties in the life of my family. My father was unemployed most of the time, and my mom was taking care of me and my younger sisters. It was very challenging to hold onto the faith that this is what I was meant to do, and that this is what I was going to keep doing, when there were so many obstacles at every turn. From any practical perspective, it looked like, well, how is this possibly going to work? And yet I just believed so strongly that this is what my life was meant to be about that I just kept on practicing as hard as I could and just trusted that things would work out somehow.
That brings us back to the question of what is good luck and bad luck and the hand of God. We would be one payment away from getting kicked out of our apartment, and some relative or member of the church would come through and get us by just enough to make it through to the next month. Our electricity would get turned off. But then we would find a little bit of something and get it turned back on. Things always kept going through these ups and downs and through it all I just kept practicing. I don’t know if you would call it a karmic connection, but maybe the faith that I had so strongly, and the fact that I did as much as I could to increase the odds, so to speak, by working hard and trying to make the most of what I had been given probably did help.
By the time I was a teenager I was able to earn enough money with the violin, going out and, you know, not just my solo engagements but also playing background music, string quartet gigs and playing in local orchestras. What do they call it now? Busking. You know, playing on the street, that kind of thing, whatever I could do to bring in some income, and things were a lot more stable in my family once I was able to significantly help out with paying all of the bills and groceries and rent and all of that stuff. But in order to get my solo career going to the next level I really did need to participate in the European competitions. So I saved up and went off to Germany and Italy and Budapest and Belgium. I was fortunate enough to have success in all of those competitions that I entered. So things were progressing just as I had always hoped, where I had a series of invitations that had resulted from those competitions, successes, and prizes that I had received, and I was on my way.
As much as I love every aspect of making music with my violin, whether it’s chamber music or different kinds of chamber orchestras and all of that stuff, playing solo repertoire, concertos and sonatas and even unaccompanied repertoire, with my own personal voice, I just feel like that’s the way that I can most deeply express my artistry. And so it was always my dream to be able to share my music with people as a soloist. That’s what I always was aiming for, playing with top symphonies and famous conductors. Of course, those are such artistically fulfilling experiences. But there are great musicians in every orchestra, not just the most famous, and I love the variety of going around to different countries, different cities, different communities and collaborating with all of my colleagues wherever I go and just playing as many concerts as I can, because I just love making music, and the more the better. After my initial injuries in the mid-’90s, it was very uncertain about when I would be able to travel again, to what extent I would be able to continue touring and so forth, just because the complicated nature of the combination of my injuries was not what you see everyday, I guess. My doctors couldn’t point to ten other people like me and say that this is the result. It was really very up in the air. And it was many years before I was stabilized enough to be able to resume the path I had been on prior to my injuries. But thankfully I’m back now and able to do what I love and fulfill my dreams and my mission.
There was a period of time just after I was injured, right at first, when I couldn’t play my instrument because I was just too ill to even sit up in bed and have that kind of strenuous activity. And so far from music being able to sustain me during this difficult period of time, instead I had the added worry of wondering when I would ever be able to make music again. In a way, perhaps, the difficulties of my childhood prepared me for yet another challenge, because while a lot of people might look at this as the most dramatic episode of my young life, to me it was like, okay, here’s another obstacle. Here’s another roadblock. Here’s another challenge that I can’t see how I’m going to get through, and yet I know from experience that I will come out the other end, and that if I just hold onto my hope and faith in God, that somehow or another this will work out even though I can’t quite see how at the present time.
I did have to go through a process of forgiveness for those who were responsible for my having been injured. But I grew up in my church and I learned how to pray for help in being able to forgive. And I drew upon those lessons at that time because I knew that the only way that I was going to be able to heal would be if I was able to forgive for what had happened to me.
The question of God as interventionist — I’m not qualified as a theologian to speak super articulately about this, but does God ever do things to us of a negative nature? I don’t believe so. I know that some people believe differently. They feel that God might actually cause challenges to occur in their lives for them to learn lessons from. I personally don’t believe that. We can’t quite figure out about why does God not intervene. I mean, how could I be angry at God for not somehow preventing this from happening to me? I would have to extrapolate that and be angry at God for not preventing the Holocaust or not preventing, you know, an earthquake that might have happened last week or a tornado or — terrible things happen to many, many people every day on this planet, and can you be angry at God for not preventing all of those things? This is something that I had certainly thought about in Sunday school for years, you know, during my teenage years reading, oh, what’s that wonderful American history book? A People’s History of the United States, recognizing all of the ways that our society is flawed and thinking about where God’s role is in all of our human societies, and so it never even occurred to me to be angry with God. Certainly, you know, that day a couple of kind people happened to be in the same vestibule as me and happened to know how to do tourniquets and saved my life. Well, did God plant those people there as my guardian angels? Maybe not. You know, maybe in life you have random good luck and random bad luck, and that’s kind of the understanding I’ve come to, that God didn’t necessarily not rescue me. But, you know, maybe God didn’t necessarily send the people who saved my life. Maybe it was all very random. But where God’s role was in all of this — God’s place in my life was being with me at every moment during it.
Perhaps people might imagine that going through what seems like such a dramatic challenge in my life with my medical issues might have challenged my faith, might have strengthened my faith. I really don’t believe either of those things happened. I believe it perhaps merely confirmed my faith. You know, all throughout the first 20 years of my life I’d had a lot of ups and downs. I’d had so much to be thankful for. You know, the talent I had been given, the opportunities that I’d had to develop my talent and to share my music with people. So many wonderful friends in my life — people that I was so blessed to be a part of my life. And then, of course, the various challenges of the financial circumstances and stresses of my family life. All of those various experiences on both ends of the spectrum shaped who I was as a person of faith. I really don’t know that going through various medical challenges during my 20s changed or refined my faith all that much. But it was almost like the lessons I learned and who I had become during my formative years helped me to deal with all kinds of things in my life in my adulthood. While negative things might seem like very profound moments in one’s life, so are positive things, and meeting and falling in love with my husband, I believe, impacted my sense of faith even more so than any bad things that might have been happening to me.
I definitely feel like I’m so blessed in my life right now. A number of my longtime dreams have come true. I’m happily married and I have my foundation. I had all those years when I was being helped by so many generous people, providing scholarships and the loan of instruments so that I could have a violin to play on when I couldn’t afford to buy one. Now I’m able to, as they say, pay it forward by helping other young people in similar circumstances, and that’s what I had always imagined doing, and now I am. I just feel like I’m so excited to be alive right now and to be doing the things I’m doing and traveling all over and sharing music with people. It’s just a great joy, and I feel like it is what I was always meant to do, and I’m so happy to be doing it.
Music is an amazing place where God and people can come together, even outside of a house of worship, you know? On a concert stage, in a performance in a living room, anywhere where people are gathered. Of course, you’re playing music written by human beings who crafted the notes on the page, and then here you are as another human being playing the notes. But the inspiration to play the notes the exact way they’re coming out that night with all of the inflections and the phrasing and the emotions behind the notes, where does that come from? That inspiration, I really believe, is God’s presence. When you can fully open yourself up to that and receive that inspiration as you’re playing, whatever the repertoire might be, and then reach out to the listeners and share that inspiration with them so that they also can get fully caught up in the emotions that are going on in the music, that’s when — gosh, I don’t even know how to say it. Those are just, you know, the most amazing moments in life, and I just feel so privileged to be able to be a part of that. One of my favorite theologians, Marcus Borg, talks in his book The God We Never Knew about the various paths to worship experience or a spiritual experience or a connection with God. It’s different for everybody. Some people find that place through silent meditation. Some people might find it through ecstatic dance. I don’t know that music is a superior path to others, but it is a path, and definitely for me that’s where I find the closest connection to God is through experiencing God in music.
It’s interesting to read about how historically certain denominations have actually shied away from involving music and worship — that somehow they felt that music was not of God. I almost think that’s because music is so powerful. It’s like, you know, getting right down to the core of who we are and bypassing the thinking part of our brains, and maybe that can almost be a little scary — the power that music has. And yet who does that power come from? I think that music is something that is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. I truly believe that probably before people ever discovered language, they were probably already singing. And as they were singing, they were probably already feeling, and probably as they were singing, they probably already experienced a sense of the divine.
That’s always been an interesting question for me as a Heavy Metal fan. Where does that music come from? I know certain people have very strong opinions about that. But, actually, I’ve come to believe that even Heavy Metal is kind of like praying the Psalms, you know, where you’re crying out with a loud voice and moving through moments of great passion, to come out the other end with a real feeling of, what’s the right word? I always use this word when I’m talking about the Tchaikovsky concerto and now it’s eluding me.
Music is a part of our humanity that we can’t ever separate from. Music is part of our humanity that is so core to who we are. Playing things like Paganini pieces or my variations on the birthday song, which is sort of in the style of Paganini with all those techniques and virtuosic tricks, that kind of music, you know, it’s not a profound worship experience to play it. And yet I still do believe that God is there, because who gave us our human potential to do these physically amazing things? It’s like watching the Olympics. You can definitely see God in people reaching the limits of human potential and perhaps even exceeding them. That’s something that gives us all great joy and hope to see people being able to display great accomplishment that comes from hard work. It’s a lot of fun to be able to rip through all of the licks in “Happy Birthday.” It’s just fun to celebrate that. It’s also just really cool to be able to, you know, take a tune like that that everybody knows and show all the cool ways the violin can make it into something completely transformed and really show what the violin is capable of as an instrument. Working hard is how you’re going to get to anywhere you want to go — the hours of practice to get all the muscles and tendons and stuff working with your hands and your arms and your fingers and then all the hours of study. Reading about the history of the music, exploring the architecture of the score, listening to others’ performances and all of that — that’s really how you can maximize your potential is through working as hard as you can.
I always try to do at least a few hours a day of actual practice with my instrument in my hands as opposed to the studying kinds of practice, which I also spend quite a bit of time doing. But I certainly wouldn’t use my current self as an example for a student. When I was a student, I was incredibly consistent. I did eight hours a day of practice between the age of 11 and 17, when I completed my formal training. And, of course, not everybody can have the flexibility of schedule in their life to be able to do eight hours a day, and it’s certainly not necessary. It got me where I wanted to go that much more quickly. But whatever you can commit to realistically, whether it is three hours a day, six hours a day, 45 minutes a day, consistency is the most important thing. The statistic that I’m the proudest of is actually the fact that from my first lesson at age three till I was 13 I never missed a day of practice, even if I was having a birthday or Christmas or if I had the flu or something. I practiced every single day. That’s really what allows me to have the foundation to be able to do all the things I do these days and be a little bit more erratic and still be able to maintain the level of technical accuracy I need to be able to express the artistic side of the music the way I envision it.
I am interested in all the music that I can get my hands on. You can see my sheet music collection over here, which is completely dominating my living room. I just love all music, well, all good music for the violin, from the most famous and popular pieces to new music written today, early music written in the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, and obscure music which has been unjustifiably neglected. I have had the great pleasure of having a number of my CD projects resurrect repertoire that really should regain its rightful place, things like the violin compositions of Franz Liszt or music by Scottish composers from the 19th century for violin and orchestra based on Scottish folk tunes. My new album, which actually pairs Beethoven’s masterpiece of a violin concerto with the concerto by his dedicatee, which was written one year earlier in the exact same key, the same instrumentation, the same length, and the same musical aesthetic as Beethoven’s — it was obviously a big influence on Beethoven’s concerto and nobody is aware that it even exists, let alone how profound an impact it has on the Beethoven piece we all know and love. I just love doing that kind of historic thing. One of the projects that was really fun was my album of concertos by composers of African descent from the 1700s and 1800s. Chicago, my hometown, is very lucky to have right here in the city an organization called the Center for Black Music Research (CBMR), which is one of the only such facilities in the nation, and so being a Chicagoan and knowing about CBMR, I’d been interested in this repertoire for a while, and I made the album, and it was so amazing how this album really affected so many people. Students, parents, and teachers started coming up to me telling me that they had no idea that these composers exist and that classical musicians of African descent had existed way back when and were making such important contributions to classical music, and so that’s what inspired my foundation’s other project, the String Students Library of Music by Black Composers, which is our curriculum, which will be the first-ever anthology of music by black composers from around the world and throughout the centuries graded by skill level for beginners through advanced students, and telling the stories of things like the fact that Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass were both enthusiastic amateur violinists, the fact that just like there were the Negro baseball leagues there were all or mostly black orchestras in the U.S. during the 19th century, the fact that the violin is now being used in hip-hop these days. There are so many wonderful stories to tell, and I’m hoping that through the release of these materials, which we’re hoping will hit the shelves in a couple of years, that they will help to inspire African-American string students to recognize that classical music is part of their culture and heritage also and that they will stick with it and be inspired to be part of the next generation of performers and audience members.
In the exact moment when I was injured, it’s so hard to put into words. But I’d read about near-death experiences and I guess I have to say that’s what I had. In that moment when I was with God, it was really that I had a choice, that God was offering me a choice that I could either stay or return and that neither decision would be more right or wrong than the other one, and in that moment everything that I’d always believed about the meaning of my life was just crystal clear to me. I didn’t even have to spend a lot of time thinking about it. I just knew my answer instantly — that I had not yet done all the things that I had been put on earth to do and that I wanted to go back and do them. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy and I knew that it would okay to not do it, but I just really wanted to. And yet, returning and having so many obstacles really challenged that belief, as I said earlier. But now here I am, and I am able to positively impact the lives of many young artists with my foundation and with my other charitable and educational and outreach activities. I’m able to share my music with people all over the world and explore the great repertoire and bring that to people. When I think about the fact that I just recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto, a piece that has been, to me, the pinnacle of the violin repertoire since I can remember, and I’ve recorded it, and that recording is going to be out there for everyone to listen to, and to be able to share the profound spirituality of that piece of repertoire which surpasses almost every other, and I think, “Well, you know, I was right. This is what I was meant to do, and I’m doing it.” I just feel so blessed.
Being injured is something that is immediately apparent to people as an obvious challenge. But all of us have challenges in our lives, little daily challenges of interpersonal relationships or setbacks in our jobs and careers or the death of a loved one. We have challenges every month, every day, every week in our lives. I certainly don’t want to say that any challenge that I’ve lived through is harder or easier than anybody else’s. It’s, maybe, different. But we all have challenges. The one thing I’ve learned is that the way to get through a challenge is just to ask God not to change what’s happening, not to make it okay, but just simply to be with me in the worst of times and to be with me in the best of times. And for that I’m very thankful to God.