Learning to Love the Questions

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a remarkable poet and writer. Although he wrote primarily in German, he also did a considerable amount of work in French. Fortunately, much of his work is available in excellent English translations. One of my favorite examples of Rilke “wisdom” comes from his Letters to a Young Poet. Here is what he said:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

I conducted a concert today that was very satisfying to me on many levels. Probably the most profound satisfaction came not from the fact that the singers performed so well (which they did), but that many of the singers had at first been very “unsure” about the music and their ability to perform it when we began rehearsals. I encouraged them to take small, but steady, steps in learning the difficult rhythms, complex vocal lines and language challenges, and the singers continued to make progress at each rehearsal.

Sometimes we allow ourselves to be so consumed about an upcoming performance that we miss the joys of the rehearsal process. I was gratified to hear many of my singers tell me following the concert how they had finally developed an appreciation, respect, and, in some cases, even a love for the music we had been toiling on for nearly two months. I hope they realize the appreciation, respect, and love didn’t come spontaneously. It came because they were willing (as Rilke said) to “live the questions now.” Understanding the meaning of the music and text happened because the singers permitted themselves to “be patient toward all that is unsolved” and to “love the questions themselves.” Their determination and commitment resulted not only in a laudable performance, but I hope also in a renewed awareness that it is as much the journey as the destination that brings meaning to our music making.

  • Michael Welch

    I liked the part of Rilke’s comment that said “live everything”. As a singer in MOS, I was not familiar with all of this music, therefore there was a bit of fear of the unknown. It’s easy to gravitate toward one’s comfort zone and do what comes easy, but that is not always the most rewarding approach. Thank you Michael for pulling me out of my comfort zone and allowing me to “live everything”. Sunday’s performance was truly rewarding as was the process of learning something new.

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