• Monique Mead

In the Face of Tragedy

When I announced the “Beethoven in the Face” initiative after my March 9, 2019 performance with the Edgewood Symphony at the JCC in Squirrel Hill, only four months had passed since the tragic mass shooting at the nearby Tree of Life Synagogue and Pittsburghers were still reeling from the trauma.

Little did I know that the first performance requests I would receive would be from the victims of that tragedy. This request, in particular, was keeping me up at night: I had been asked to play for the 18 family members of those who had been killed. Just them, no one else. I had no idea how I would be able to get through it.

So that you can understand how difficult this was for me, I have to take you back to a brisk November morning a few weeks after the shooting when I visited the synagogue with my daughter. We were overwhelmed by flower bouquets piled high, candles, stones, banners of support from all denominations. I suppose it never really hits you until you see it for yourself. But more than that, you have to feel it for yourself. There was an energy there so heavy with grief that I felt as though gravity had doubled its pull. People of all kinds came to pay their respects and police were monitoring all activity. I turned to my daughter and asked, “What’s missing here?” “Music,” she said, and then quickly followed up with what anyone would say, “…but I don’t know if we should.” True. No one had invited us, it was cold outside, people might not like it, the police might send us away, we might be mistaken for buskers, harp transport is very inconvenient and it would go out of tune, and what would we play, anyway?...all legitimate concerns.

On the way home, I decided for myself that as a member of this community I could not just walk away. My grandmother had survived the Nazis in Berlin and I had been born to play the violin, an instrument that for ages has been part of Jewish culture. At home, I printed out sheet music for “Eli, Eli,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and a Hebrew Melody and made my way back to the synagogue.

After speaking to the police chief, I set up my music stand and attached a sign with a quote from my mentor, Leonard Bernstein: “This will be our response to violence: to make music more beautifully, more passionately, more devotedly than ever before.” And then I played. Although I was playing for people, this was not a ‘performance.’ It was my offering, my bouquet.

These were simple melodies I was playing, and yet each time I repeated them, they felt drastically different. At first, the music was infused with my own grief. Slowly, I became aware of other mourners. Each carrying their own emotions, staring in silence. My intention shifted to playing for them, providing a backdrop of music to hold our collective pain and allow us to connect without words. The glances and gestures of the visitors began to come into focus for me, and I felt infused with their emotions, all of which influenced each rendering of my melodies. A woman silently placed a heart-shaped stone on my violin case and thanked me with a glance that came from the bottom of her soul. An older gentleman—a music lover—told me that he had been in the synagogue at the time of the shooting and that today was his first visit back.

After two hours, I was so emotionally drained that I could barely walk back to the car. For two weeks afterwards, I felt as if I had sunk to the bottom of a well, and even the basic functions of daily life seemed an enormous challenge. And ever since, any mention of the tragedy would pull me right back into that dark hole.

And then, four months later, I received the request to play for the 18 family members. There had already been several large-scale concerts for the community, but this one was to be different: an intimate performance just for them, without public display. How would I be able to keep myself together and maintain the focus necessary to play this difficult violin concerto? What would I say? What was there to say at all?!

I was inspired by a quote by Robert Schumann: “It is the duty of the artist to shine light into the hearts of mankind.” This was not about me, it was about them. I had learned this glorious concerto for a reason, and if it had the power to uplift others in times of grief, it was indeed my duty as an artist to shine that light into the world. But first I needed to empty my own darkness so that I could be a vessel of light and create music that can hold their grief.

The day of the performance I canceled all appointments, went to yoga, got a massage, practiced, and kept my intention in focus. Out of respect for their privacy, I will not describe the details of the performance other than to say that I was tremendously grateful to hear them say, “For the first time, I was able to forget my grief, even if only for a few moments.”

Now once again, I find myself feeling deeply honored that on the one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life tragedy, these family members have asked me and my children to come play for them at a private gathering on October 26, 2019.

Video about the Tree of Life Tragedy:

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