My First Stradivarius

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Written on National “Inspire Your Heart with Art” Day.

I had no idea there was such a thing as National “Inspire Your Heart with Art” Day, but I like the notion and have been stirred to share an occurrence in my life where someone’s art not only inspired but also healed my heart in unexpected ways.

As many of you know, I was a professional theatrical lighting designer for 24 years. It was how I made my living in my late 20s and throughout my 30s and 40s. I loved nearly every minute of it, and had some amazing experiences along the way, many of them etched in my memory for all time. What follows is one of my more transformative experiences.

I was in the lighting booth working on cues for an upcoming show. A 64 piece orchestra was rehearsing on stage. One of my favorite things to do in the theatre was to work while being serenaded by a live orchestra. Nothing quite like it! As a matter of fact, most of The LightBridge Legacy was written in the theatre duringorchestra rehearsals, and the down time we had while waiting for show trucks to arrive. I also wrote a lot after hours, when the stage was dark and the air had a wonderfully eerie stillness to it, but the most dynamic scenes in the book were written to live orchestral music!

At the end of the rehearsal, the members of the orchestra made their way to the green room to rest before their performance that same night. The crew left to procure pizza for dinner.

So I stayed in the light booth and continue to work.

The stage was still. The lights were off. Only the fly-loft fluorescents, hanging 75 feet above, remained on for safety. I was content to work in solitude and silence. It gave me a chance to catch up to my thoughts.

Because I was to be the only staff member there for an hour or two (while everyone lunched), and since a thick glass window stood between myself and the rest of the theatre, the soundman left the hanging microphones up so that I could hear the goings-on down on the stage and surrounding areas.

Out of the silence, I heard the faintest of footsteps, and a demure voice said, “Hello up there? Can you hear me in the booth?” Her words came to me via a small speaker on the wall.

I looked up from my work and peered through the glass at a woman that would have barely come to my shoulder if we were standing side by side. I nodded, for I could hear her but she could not hear me.

“I just acquired a new violin,” she said, “and I would like to practice a bit with it before tonight’s performance. Would that be alright?”

It happened a lot. The soloists often requested extra time on stage when the others went on break. It was not that they necessarily needed the practice; it was their chance to check the acoustics, to get a feel for the house and prepare themselves mentally.

I smiled, nodded again, and went back to my notes.

It only took a moment.

Most days I would just continue to work, happy to be serenaded once again, but not this time. I knew instantly that something was different.

I looked up and for a minute or two I just watched her play, standing alone, center stage, a few feet from the edge. The melody was unfamiliar. I knew she played not something memorized and precise, but something wild and untamed… something from the very depths of her being. And I was moved to the very depths of mine.

There was an ineffable quality to this music. It spoke to me like no other. And by this time in my life I had heard a thousand orchestras play and a thousand soloists perform and among them, hundreds of violin solos.

This was something else. Something more. Something special. I had no idea how or why, but I felt the summons in my soul.

I put down my work, stood, and as she continued to play, I quietly made my way out to the auditorium. I chose a seat in the center of the house, aligned with where she stood on stage, about 50 rows back. The audience lights were off. She did not see me or know that I was there. She did not know that she played to my soul.

I sat, transfixed. For how long, I couldn’t say. I lost all concept of time. At a certain point, I closed my eyes without realizing it. I began to soar the heavens. The beauty of this woman’s music was so exquisite, it was painful to conceive of the requisite silence if ever she were to stop. A beauty that reached so deep in me I began to weep. This woman and her violin moved me in ways that I had not thought possible. I felt for those few moments that life was more beautiful than we, as mere mortals could ever fathom, and that music was an art form so pure, so perfect, that to experience it in such a way meant I would be changed forever.

She played on as I wept.

When finally she stopped, I caught my breath. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe.

In the resulting silence, she heard me softly crying. She peered out into the sea of empty chairs and, squinting, finally saw me there and realized she had an audience. An audience of one. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone was there.” She quickly returned the violin to its case.

“That,” I said, attempting to regain my composure, “was the most beautiful thing I have ever heard.” My voice was shaking.

She smiled and said, “That was a Stradivarius.”

I gasped. Never before had I been in the presence of such musical mastery, delivered through an instrument so ancient and elusive, it carries a power and presence that is felt mind, body, and soul.

I remember standing for the first time before a painting by Rembrandt. I became lost in the play of light and shadow, the life of each brushstroke. I became lost in time. For an instant it was as if I were there, watching him paint his masterpiece. His vivid essence remained, even centuries after he put brush to canvas. I stood there forgetting to breathe for a moment.

This was like that but amplified a hundred times. And when it was over, I longed to return to such perfection and purpose. I had been granted, through this woman’s instrument, and her ability to let music speak its purest expression through her, an immeasurable gift.

That night, after the performance had ended and everyone had gone home, I sat alone in the dark theatre again, in the same seat where I had sat listening to a woman play the violin with her whole heart—listening with my whole heart—hoping to engrave the experience onto the marble of my memory.

Absent of the heightened experience of performers, crew, and the energy of the audience, a theatre still holds a lingering presence—an energy signature that gets imprinted on the place. It is palpable, almost visceral.

Like an infinite echo, it leaves an indelible impression. And the echo of that Stradivarius will forever reverberate in me, weaving its enduring essence, whispering to my heart of hearts, “You have been touched by something special, and will never again be the same.”

In honor of Inspire Your Heart with Art Day.

Thank you for allowing me to share this part of my life with you.

Elayne G. James

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