The Job of a Pianist in a "Post Truth" Society

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words 
and that which cannot remain silent.”-- Victor Hugo

What is truth?

It’s an age-old question—one most memorably asked by the Biblical character Pilot.  What was once referred to as a “web of lies” is more of a “shell of lies” with few or no glimmers of light visible through a smothering shell of misinformation and DeepFake manipulation.  In this era of “relative truth” there are few absolutes on which to build a stable view of life and the world.  Simply put, there are few voices left to trust.  We’ve been betrayed and lied to by our leaders, our press, our churches, and our civic organizations. In too many situations we’ve been left with the information equivalent of a junk food diet. We’ve lost connection to universal human truth and replaced it with soundbites and tweets.

What is universal truth?

Universal truth is the bedrock of the human psyche.  It’s love, fear, passion, death, betrayal, playfulness, joy, celebration, and life.  It’s what allows us to find meaning in a Shakespeare play written hundreds of years ago.  It’s what stops us in our tracks and lets us lose ourselves in the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel.  It’s the way people all over the world want better lives for themselves and their children.  It’s how people continue to create community—despite all the forces trying to separate us from each other.  Universal truth is the ability we all have to respect the wonder of a sunrise or celebrate the birth of a child.  It’s what we touch when we mourn our dead.  It’s formless, wordless, and it can’t be manipulated or lied out of existence regardless of how many times people have tried to replace it with falsehood.

If there was ever a time when people need to language of music, it’s today.  Music slips under the shell of slick and jaded cynicism and goes right to the heart of the listener.  In music we find access to truths deeper than ourselves—universal truths—that connect us with the rest of humanity.  Because cynical liars and manipulators consider music harmless and benign, it’s the ultimate stealth weapon.  It targets what matters and reminds people that there are things deeper and more lasting than all the surface distractions.  Music reminds people that they’re not alone. 

Renowned pianist and pedagogue Russel Sherman, in his book Piano Pieces, wrote,

“The quest for serenity and sanctuary in an environment prone to violence, to violations of privacy and sanity, to relentless assaults on one’s sense and values becomes an ever real and persistent craving…As artists, are we quasi psychiatrists who mend the soul?  Do we provide the consolations, escapes, and reassurances which enable us to survive?  Or are we reporters of the truth, assembling the multiple shards of reality into intricate portraits which seek out the connections between misery and blessing, violence, and wisdom? Do we protect or investigate the heart?”  

Being a musician is an immense responsibility.  Music requires us to serve something greater than ourselves.  It asks us to find and live the truth we uncover in the notes—even if only for the length of a performance. We have to commit to looking beyond the score and find the music lurking beneath the surface of symbols, notes, and technique.  We, in effect, join hands with the composer to open doorways for listeners into universal truths deep and eternal.  The remarkable thing isn’t that we faithfully reproduce the notes, it’s that musicians and composers transcend their humanity in the service of things greater than any one human can offer. All it takes is wrestling with the score, the composer, and ultimately with ourselves so these eternal truths can pour through us.  When we succeed, we change lives.

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