The Invisible Musician

I was in Munich a few months back on a holiday with my family. We attended a concert by Munich Philarmonic at the Gasteig. This was the first western symphony I was attending, and I was thrilled that the Director was Zubin Mehta.
As we walked in to take our seats inside the concert hall, I was surprised by the architecture. It was very modern and minimalist in design. The hall soon filled up to its full capacity. I counted the number of chairs on stage, and realized it was a 75 piece orchestra. The booklet informed us that there would be 3 main symphonies, composed by Handel, Wagner and Tchaikovsky.

I am not very familiar with western classical music. Other than the usual Mozart or Bach compositions that are popular through movies and ad films, my exposure to this art form is limited. So I was looking forward to the experience. The first piece had the piano in the lead, so most of the focus was on that instrument, with the many violins and the wind instruments supporting it. The composition went through its various movements and as the tempo built up, I heard a loud “clang”. It seemed to indicate the crescendo just towards the end of the piece. I looked for the source of that sound, as it caught my attention amidst all the other instruments that were dominating throughout the concert. I noticed it was a pair of cymbals, and just as I was looking, the cymbal player was placing them back on the stand. This was the first time I realized his presence. It seemed like he had only one note to play in the whole symphony. I thought maybe I missed noticing him earlier in the concert. So I decided to be more watchful during the next piece.

As the second symphony progressed, I kept an eye on the cymbal player. He sat still for a long time, with his hands on his thighs. But he was paying full attention to the music and the director. Then as the piece was reaching a crescendo, he stood up, took the cymbal in his hands and just at the precise moment brought the two plates together and created this almost magical sound that added richness to the crescendo.

Compared to the rest of the musicians in the orchestra, the cymbal player had 3 seconds of glory in the concert. He was like the invisible part of the orchestra. I was struck by the fact that there was a role defined for him in the entire piece, even though it seemed so small in comparison to the others. The composer had inserted a few notes that would be brought alive only through a cymbal, and the director had that piece on the orchestra as he knew, the symphony would be incomplete, without that clang.

I wondered what it might feel like to be a cymbal player in a successful orchestra. With all the other colleagues in the limelight for most part of the concert, mesmerizing the listeners with their musical prowess, there would be very few who would even acknowledge the instrument. So what keeps him motivated? I thought, may be this is a rotated role, that maybe they play other instruments as well and they take turns for playing the cymbal.

Surely one couldn’t be happy just playing the cymbal in an orchestra, waiting for that one note in the symphony. I said to myself, I know how the cymbal player might feel like. Both at workplace and at home, there have been times when I have felt that my work is mundane and that my contribution is insignificant. And at times, I have felt that my colleagues have far more important roles than I do and hence get all the attention, compared to my work, which is in the background. I wondered if that is how the cymbal player would feel.

So a few weeks later, I started reading up a bit about cymbal players and their role in the orchestra. Contrary to my expectation, I learned that in an orchestra, the role of a cymbal player is a fixed one. While the musician is usually an expert on many percussion instruments, he or she will only play the cymbal in the orchestra. The key is to be perfect in that art. Playing a cymbal requires an incredible amount of balance in the body – the two discs have to come together in a precise position, at the precise moment, with precise force. That needs phenomenal focus. The musician has to practice many hours every day to get right tenor of the note. The person needs be completely present to the orchestra, as he has to play the exact note at a precise point. There is no room for slipping even by a fraction of a second. Most of the literature said that the cymbal player had to have great tenacity. Every major modern orchestra around the world recognizes this quality. A symphony would be incomplete without the cymbals. It would not sound its best without the richness of its tenor, and the crescendo would not have the energy without those two discs coming together at the precise moment. There was nothing trivial about being a cymbal player once you learned its significance in relationship to the total and what it takes to play that seemingly “trivial” role.

Discovering about the cymbal player has given me new awareness. Every time when I feel insignificant about my work and wonder about its impact in the larger scheme of things, I am going to remember the cymbal player who is almost invisible in a high performing orchestra. I am also going to remind myself that the tiny “insignificant” acts that I perform require the same diligence, tenacity and the perfection like all the big important tasks expected of me. An orchestra would be incomplete without the cymbals, which add richness to the music, enhance its beauty and make it sublime. And I know I can make my everyday mundane universe glow, when I put life into everything I do. Folding laundry or arranging chairs for a meeting.

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