A Musician’s Saddest Task

This week, the joy and excitement of playing in ensemble and making music with others is bookended by the sadness and grief of losing an ensemble member and saying goodbye.

Last summer the evening recorder ensemble lost Ruth. She was hospitalized the week of our spring concert – after all her work to learn our challenging repertoire, she could not play with us. At our last class meeting I learned that she chose to only have palliative treatment for the leukemia that took her life only two short months later. But I had the chance to say goodbye, to tell her how welcomed she made me feel as a new member of the ensemble, and to fulfill the request she’d made many times – to play the harp for her.

Ruth played in this group for close to thirty years. When her daughter asked us to play at the memorial service, it seemed exactly the best way to honor Ruth’s memory and to say goodbye. The afternoon was a celebration of a life lived large, a life filled with love given and received, and a celebration of our own lives being enriched by having known and played music with Ruth.

Yesterday I said goodbye to John – too soon gone, killed as a result of a freak accident. He is someone I’ve known for years from attending concerts of the many ensembles he played in. A classically trained clarinetist, there was not a wind instrument he couldn’t play. The more ancient and obscure the instrument, the better, which is undoubtedly why he became a master of the hurdy-gurdy. He played in almost every ensemble at the community college – early music, baroque, big band – as well as more ensembles in the community that I even knew existed, including Celtic, Renaissance, contra dance band and klezmer. Almost any day I was in the music department I would see John, either with his head in his locker searching for music or an instrument, or scurrying to his next rehearsal.

He was so welcoming and supportive when I began playing with the early music consort last fall. He had a wicked sense of humor, and sitting just one chair over from me, he could always make me laugh and relax when the sight-reading and rhythms were just too much for me. Every week he reminded me that playing music was about having fun together. I so looked forward to many more years of playing together in consort, to many more years of getting to know him. I was just starting to say “hello” and now I already must say “goodbye.”

His brother asked that the consort play a prelude to yesterday’s memorial service. The church sanctuary is huge, seating a thousand people. Our joy at knowing John, and our grief at losing him poured into our recorders, and we filled the soaring space with sound. The music we played was from our hurting hearts, and was never sweeter or more beautiful.

The reception after the service included musicians playing a Celtic jam session. It was the kind of gathering that John loved; the kind of music-making where he would have pulled out any number of instruments from his backpack and played along.

So on this day, death is bookended with the sounds and songs of the living. For a few blessed minutes, there is just the music. For a few blessed minutes, healing can begin. The music binds us together, holds us tight against the sudden emptiness where John should be. And perhaps, if we squint hard into the fading sunlight, music allows us a glimpse of our absent friend, and gives us our only golden chance to say goodbye.