Yesterday for the first time in years, I played violin at a funeral. I hesitated when I was asked to do the gig a few days ago, by a dear colleague for a death in his family; because of the horrible travel time to pay ratio on a precious Saturday off, yes, but also… I cry when other people cry. I used to tease my mom when she would cry during a sad movie or so much as a sappy commercial about a family shopping for furniture at Ikea; but I’m realizing as I age, I am turning into a blubbery overly-empathetic mess.
And that doesn’t exactly make it easier to play sad music, contrary to what you might think. It makes it a whole hell of a lot harder; my shaky tense arm shitting all over the soft wistful beginnings and oh God why does it have to end on a high sustained harmonic…not to mention all the tears blurring my eyes making me unable to discern between sharps and flats, playing a disturbingly happy version of Schindler’s List. Nobody wants to see the musicians crying at a funeral!! Just like nobody wants to see the priest crying, unable to get through the words. We are on the Titanic, and something needs to remain stable while everything around us sinks. The musicians must go on.
So I take some deep breaths before walking into the church, and put up as much of a “wall” as I can muster to keep all my emotions inside. Ah, this must be how men feel.
Upon entering however, I’m struck with how happy people seem! Wow, maybe I won’t need this wall after all! The guest of honor (is that morbid?!) passed in her wisest old years, a life lived to the fullest. This seems more like a celebration of life, a gathering of loved ones to reconnect and share stories, than a dark somber affair. I breathe a sigh of relief.
That is until the woman’s eldest son comes up to speak. There is something about watching a grown man, unable to get his words out while remembering his mother because he is fighting so hard not to cry. The energy in the room starts to shift. Oh God. Now they want me to play this slow beautiful ethereal piece… KEEP IT TOGETHER LAUREN!! I pull my violin, and my wall up; and get through the piece somewhat successfully. Those slight shakes in the long notes are a deliberate musical choice dammit!!
As the ceremony draws to a close, the priest walks over to the coffin and holds an incense bowl at the foot, letting smoke gracefully twirl and dance over this woman’s final resting place while a soprano sings one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Mother Fuck. I can hear it start in the front row… those very people that were all smiles and laughter when I first walked in are now hunched into themselves, Kleenex in hand, sobbing. Audibly. My wall starts to crumble. As though they’re doing “the wave” in a football stadium, the sobbing spreads to the back of the room and EVERYBODY is crying now. HOW the CRAP is this singer KEEPING HER COOL?!? I am so relieved I don’t have to play this one.
As I’m sitting here, taking it all in, my chest burning and my eyes welling up… it strikes me, what an honour this is. To be able to give these people such a beautiful release. Music has this incredible power to allow people to take their walls down and really process their emotions. If we were playing happy upbeat music, they might have stayed in that “celebratory” mode from earlier, but because we are playing slow, beautiful sad music, they feel safe to cry. They know it’s okay to be sad. That we will be up here playing until it’s all over, so they feel no pressure to do anything but reflect on their loss. They don’t need to talk to anybody; they don’t need to smile and pretend everything is okay. We are their protection when they are at their most vulnerable.
And so I build my wall one last time, but I build it big enough to surround everyone. I am strong so they don’t have to be. I take a deep breath, and make it through the last piece.