Last week I was drawn into a video on The New York Times website about a string quartet and the ways its members communicate as they’re playing. “Drawn into” is exactly the right term for what happened. The Times’ home page had a thumbnail of the video that included some beautiful flickering lights, and I went after it like a raccoon grappling for a shiny object. Moments like this are when I realize that I fall into that humble category, “easily amused.”
In my defense, the video featured the Kronos Quartet, a group that during its 40- year history has explored musical styles ranging from string interpretations of African rain to collaborations with the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. They’re amazing performers. But truly, it was the lights that made me put aside several pressing work tasks.
To my surprise, the video included a virtuoso description of the elements necessary for not just music to succeed, but also selfless service.
The Kronos members talk openly about how they work together so that no one instrument dominates. Sunny Yang, the cello player, caught my attention when she said, “My part cannot exist without the other three parts. . . . Everything is a conversation in a way. Everything affects one another. There is nothing by myself.”
David Harrington, one of the violinists, agreed. The music, he said, “is a delicate and beautiful fabric. You want to contribute in a way that keeps that beauty.” Each musician must be completely flexible. “The way you play your note is deeply affected by the way the person before you plays their note. . . . It’s like the perfect dinner conversation. When someone says something, it’s just exactly the outcome of what someone else has said, and it leads to a new thought.”
In this way, working together with no hint of domination by any individual, music becomes art and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
I often say that selfless service is never a one-person show. The Kronos Quartet video is the best explanation I’ve seen for why that’s the case. The most effective Seva workers create their own music by building close collaborations with colleagues and the people they seek to help.
Our lives are works of art, or have the potential to be. It’s up to each of us to maintain the integrity of that gorgeous fabric, even through setbacks and heartache. The only way to achieve this is to work and play with others so that no one dominates and everyone can contribute pieces of themselves—not just any old pieces, but ingredients of their best selves. This requires ceaseless encouragement and openness by each of us. In return, we receive the same.
The fabric disintegrates when one or two people take control and try to impose a solution, especially from outside the community. As violinist John Sherba says, when he practices a song alone, he often thinks, ah, this is how I’m going to play it with the quartet. But he’s almost always wrong. His playing style shifts during the conversation that emerges as the group begins to rehearse. It evolves even more when they perform. Viola player Hank Dutt says the freedom that group members give each other allows spontaneity. That enables the music to blossom in a way it couldn’t have if every detail had been mapped out in advance.
Compare that to a conversation where one person holds court, telling his companions that he knows how to solve their problems.
If we truly long to help others, we must put aside ourselves—our desires and egos, our convictions that we know what needs to be done—and let collaboration take root and bloom. I don’t need to tell you how difficult this is. But it’s vital.
Letting go of all defensiveness, erasing the singular I or you or me and becoming a thread in the fabric of the whole, are the most important steps any of us can take in the spiritual practice that is true service.
Here’s a link to the Times video, “The Kronos Quartet as a Dot Cloud.” Enjoy!
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