“Music can change the world because it can change people.” – Bono
As I glided down the escalator and swiped my Metrocard, music bounced off the grimy walls and through the dank air of the Port Authority subway. Startled, I discerned the distinct tones of a cello in the distance. I couldn’t name that tune, but it resonated deep within me and was my own. The notes vibrated in my gut, personifying my complex feelings: rhythmic and dark, penetrating and lonely, yet full of beauty, strength, freedom and light.
It had started as an ordinary Tuesday morning. I caught the 126 bus from 15th Street in Hoboken and took my seat. My nose was glued to my Kindle for the entire ride, getting lost in the lives of my book’s heroes, except for the two games of Candy Crush between chapters 27 and 28. Lost in my own world, I didn’t notice the sign halfway through the Lincoln Tunnel alerting us we had entered the great state of New York.
Now, in the presence of this music, I felt fully alive, transparent, understood even.
Fluorescent bulbs lighting the way, I searched for the musician with the magic ability to translate my feelings into sound. The music grew more intense, staccato notes flying, and then he appeared: a man in his early thirties on a small stool, in a tuxedo and white bow tie, playing his cello. His dusty, ragged shoes on outturned feet belied the rest of his polished presence. His eyes were closed and his lips showed a slight smile. His shifting facial expressions reflected the mood of the music while his bow alternated between quick, sharp movements and long, luxurious strokes allowing the strings to sing with emotion. He had positioned himself out of the flow of pedestrian as though a handout wasn’t his intent.
I felt lucky I didn’t have to buy a ticket to enjoy this concert. I would have gladly shelled out $100 at Carnegie Hall to hear him play. Yet here he was, providing a stimulating score to a half-awake sea of commuters rushing to get where they needed to be that morning. Not that this seemed to register with any of them. Alone, I stood and bore witness to this man’s gifts unfolding before me.
I wondered about him. Perhaps he was a renowned musician seeking a spot away from a critic’s ear to test out a new piece of music. Did he care that no one stopped to listen or seemed to care? Maybe he just loved the acoustics and how his sound filled the underground passageway. Transfixed by his music, I eventually checked my watch and realized I had to hustle to catch the train uptown to get to an impending appointment.
The cellist and his music evoked something within me on that otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning commute. I thought about the person I’m striving to become as it struck me that this virtuoso didn’t change his tempo if he felt someone’s presence, or even crack an eye to see if anyone was noticing him or recognizing his gifts. He didn’t seem to be seeking money or even applause; he appeared to play for himself and his love of the music. I admired him.
Too often, I find myself looking for external validation. With one eye open, I look to others for the answers to questions that only I know: How am I doing? Am I doing it right? Am I good enough? Am I pleasing you? Too much? Too little? Who should I be? I’ll do anything, but please just see me and love me for who I am. The cellist played. He simply was.
Like the punch line to the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” the key to self-transformation is the same for the cellist and for me: “Practice, practice, practice.” I’m working on soothing the needy little kid within me, so she can relax and stop trying so hard. I’m striving to know my gifts regardless of how others assess them. I’m attempting to blaze my own unique path for happiness and fulfillment. And I’m trusting myself more to just close my eyes, smile, and play for the pure joy of it all. While I may have a positive impact on others, it can no longer be my soul…err…sole goal.
The repetitive patterns of life, such as commuting back and forth every day, can serve to numb a part of oneself, or it can magically transform you if you slow down, tune in, and let life’s vibrations heal you.
To the cellist who played by the ACE line at the Port Authority subway stop on Tuesday morning: Thank you for your beautiful music in such an unlikely place. You are an inspiration, and your talent is extraordinary! You might have thought no one was paying attention as they scrambled to get to their trains, but I was. You and your gifts made a real difference to me. Thank you.