Behind the Notes

In an article about stage fright in the New Yorker magazine  Joan Acocella writes,

“As musicians, especially, will tell you, what they are doing up there is not meeting an agreed-upon goal but, rather, creating something new. Vladimir Horowitz [the great Russian-American classical pianist] insisted that the notes in the score did not tell you what the music was. The music was behind the notes, he said, and the performance was your search for it..”

Superb technique is, of course, needed in order to be able to play a composition well and Horowitz, who was the greatest pianist of his day, had extraordinary technique. However, his quote points to his deeper understanding of his art: that it wasn’t the notes being played that comprised the music, but the artist’s striving to find what was on the other side of them.

This made me think of how the scriptures and holy books of the world’s religions are comprised of words and when we read them we only experience them superficially. However, if we follow Horowitz’s lead, we would be prompted to do whatever we can to find what is on the other side of them, and in that struggle, find deeper meaning. It is our relationship with the text that makes it come alive. We bring to it who we are as well as the entirety of our life experience. And, naturally, our relationship to the text—the stories, narratives, and teachings—changes and evolves along with us. What we saw behind the words when we were children changed after we became teenagers, and again when we entered adulthood, and eventually middle-age and then old-age.

Just as what we find deepens and matures along with us, so, too, what we experience there is unique to each of us. My encounter with what is behind the words will lead me to a place that will be different from someone else’s. What lies beyond the printed page is the Divine Source who uses the words as a way to instruct and guide us. Wisdom will inform the words with Truth and lead us back into wholeness.

It brings to mind of how, in the Book of Genesis, Jacob spends an entire night wrestling with God, and when God does not prevail against him, Jacob is renamed Israel, which literally means “He who struggles with God.” Some translations have Jacob wrestling with an angel and others, a man. However, what is important is that Jacob is grappling with something within himself that is keeping him from being whole—from being who it is that destiny is calling him to be. In his struggle with his doubt, he found himself. In Horowitz’s struggle to look through the music he found not only himself as an artist, but his own unique interpretation of what lay on the other side of the notes.

So, let all of us, when reading the stories and narratives of our faith traditions, go beyond the words, and search for the liberating truth and wisdom that lie there, allowing them to change who we are and how we live our lives.




  1. How has your relationship with your favorite Bible stories changed as you have aged?
  2. Do you ever read a text that you thought you knew well and feel like you were reading it for the first time?



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