I was asked to play a piece of music during the communion at our local Episcopal Church. It was years ago and I was experimenting outside of classical music — folk, jazz, improvisation.
I only needed a 3-4 minute piece and didn’t have time to rehearse with the pianist, so I chose a piece for solo violin — the Partita No. 2 by Bach.
I liked playing in this particular church because, even though the space is small, the vaulted ceilings and the wooden floor provide cathedral-like acoustics that allow a solo violin to bounce the sound around and harmonize with itself. Perfect for Bach.
My job was to provide music during the communion. As I approached the end of the piece, there was still a small line of people waiting to be served. I didn’t want to simply leave those people standing up there in awkward silence. Nor did I want to repeat the entire piece. I only needed another minute of music.
I chose to improvise. For another minute, I simply carried on the theme of the Partita. It was an unusual move for me as I was inexperienced in playing off-page. It felt like a tight-rope walk without a net. It was exhilarating, nerve-wracking and tremendous fun.
After the service, I was anticipating conversations with people about the piece and the unusual ending. A woman walked up to me and told me how much she loved that particular piece. I explained why I had to change the ending. But she had no idea that I made the last part up. No one, in fact, knew that the piece was a departure from the original.
I had an epiphany in church that day. But not the sort one normally has in church.
I realized that the people I play for as an adult are very different from the judges and teachers that I grew up with. I could depart from the written page, make wholesale changes in a piece — not to mention the bowing, fingering and dynamics! — and no one minded. I enjoyed the music more. The audience enjoyed it. It was a game-changing way of performing for me.
I no longer felt like a conduit that simply delivered the music from the composer to the audience. I felt like an artistic partner that added value to the music.