Some years ago, following a performance of which the details have long faded, someone from the audience approached me and, among other things, said, “You’re so gifted.” Responding dutifully according to my performance etiquette training, I graciously thanked the woman. But I remember thinking, “Gifted! What do you mean gifted? This was no gift. I practiced hours and hours for years and years in order to be able to do this. A gift is something that’s given to you, and if this is a gift, it sure isn’t free!”
It was several days later that I had the revelation. It didn’t come to me like a bolt of lightning; it welled up slowly. What if the gift isn’t something you get? Rather, what if the gift is something you give? What if I worked all of those years in order to be able to give the gift of music? Yes, that’s it! That’s why I sacrificed spending time with my friends, riding my bike, and reading my precious books! My former indignant attitude shamed me.
I wish I could say that this revelation happened as a teen or earlier, but it came embarrassingly well into my adult years. I’m not sure if anyone tried to tell me this earlier, but perhaps I couldn’t really take it to heart until I discovered it for myself. It changed my entire perspective about performance and gave me a new-found gratitude for my gift. I was able to recapture the unfettered exuberance that I felt for my instrument when I was first discovering its magic, before the realization of the arduous road that would lie ahead set in. I thank my mother every day for her fortitude to persevere when I begged to quit. I was far too immature to understand the prize that would one day be mine. She knew. A mother knows.
These days, I have the rare privilege of playing chamber music on a regular basis. The delightful folks with whom I play are all well into retirement and their skills are admittedly not what they once were, but I’ve rarely met people who love music more. They gather weekly to read string quartets and then enjoy a repast and the company of these friends united by their gifts. They are teaching me how to age well. When we meet, there’s no rehearsing and no grand visions of performing in public, just reading and exploring those gifts that our favorite composers have left for us to enjoy.
There was one noted exception to this routine. One of the members asked us to play for an aging and ailing friend. Happy to oblige, we chose a work that suited our ability and reflected the delight that we felt in performing this good deed. We rehearsed—a novel adventure for this group! Then we packed up our equipment and traipsed to the care facility that would be the final home for the old gentleman, the intended beneficiary of our efforts.
Who could have guessed that meeting Victor would leave such an indelible mark on my heart? Victor was 104 years old. His eyes were bright even though he could barely see. When he squeezed my hand, the warmth and intensity that he exuded was completely disarming. In his earlier years, Victor had built a reputation as a highly respected scientist, authoring fourteen books. What lay before us was the frail remains of a once robust mind. So we patiently waited as he searched for the words to express his delight at our surprise visit. Victor never played an instrument, but he loved music. On this day, Victor was unable to get out of bed and the room was small, so we set up our minstrel band outside his bedroom window. It was a beautiful day, a perfect day. And so we played. We played our hearts out.
I felt so virtuous about this random act of kindness I had performed for this lovely gentleman I had just met. After packing up my gear, I went back inside to bid Victor farewell. Slowly and with great effort, he grasped my hand with both of his. Through eyes welled up with tears, he looked at me and said, “I feel…treasured.” Treasured. I struggled to keep the flood of tears at bay until I left the room. He had returned my gift a thousand-fold.
Victor passed away shortly after our visit. I wish I had known him a long time so that I might have had a chance to wick more of his wise and generous spirit. But I’m grateful for the one great lesson he gave me. I narrowly missed it. How could it have taken me so long to understand? The gift, earned through diligence and hard work, and freely given, is monumentally returned in the joy and meaning that it brings to others.
“Thanks, Victor, for showing me the true meaning of music and revealing to me the power of my gift. That’s the treasure you gave to me.”