During a grueling, marathon recording of the concert film Lamb of God, cellist Nicole does what no musician working long hours ever wants to do. She asks composer and conductor Rob Gardner if they can record her difficult solo—again. In this song, called “Gethsemane," Nicole's cello represents the Savior. Rerecording pushes Nicole to her physical and emotional limits, but it is there that she not only finds the ability to depict Christ through the cello, but also learns about the Savior's ability to heal the darkness in her life.
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Welcome to "This Is the Gospel," an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay.
I remember the first time I learned that there was even a thing called symbolism. It was in my ninth grade English class and we were reading "Silas Marner," the 1861 classic by George Eliot.
I thought George Eliot was so cool because she was a woman writing with a man's name. But what I didn't think was cool was the way Miss Terse, my English teacher whose name aptly described her personality, mind you, how Miss Terse kept pointing out the number three throughout the book. "Oh, look, the chair has three legs. Oh, look, there are three stars in the sky." I couldn't for the life of me figure out why the number three even mattered.
I distinctly remember using this as a jumping off point for some truly terrible junior high awfulness toward Miss Terse. I don't know if she's still teaching at a junior high somewhere in Pennsylvania and even if she is, I really doubt she's a podcast listener. But if by some small chance you're listening, Miss Terse, I was wrong. Please forgive me for being 14 because symbolism is now one of my favorite things in the whole wide world.
The fact that we can find connection and meaning by seeing ourselves in our emotions reflected in the world around us. To me, that is one of the deepest beauties of being alive on this earth.
Now, I still have no idea what the number three symbolizes. But the symbol of light is actually pretty easy. It's goodness, it's hope reflected in the life of Jesus Christ. In fact, we learn about the symbol in John chapter eight, verse 12, when Christ teaches, "I am the light of the world, he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."
And today, we have one beautiful story from Nicole all about light and pain and music and symbolism. But more importantly, it's about Christ and His ability to show us what light can really do for those of us who long to be made whole. Here's Nicole.
I have this sign that hangs in my office and it says, "A positive thinker sees opportunity in every difficulty. A negative thinker sees difficulty in every opportunity."
Recently, I had the opportunity to learn more about forgiveness. I had a really painful experience and to get to the other side of that experience, I had to forgive someone. And it was an act, I considered unforgivable. That wasn't the kind of thing that was just going to go away. It was going to have really lasting consequences not just for a long time, but to a real depth in my life.
I just got really down. I'm usually really positive person and so I went through the motions of life and just tried to keep my spirits up and push it out of my mind. But the more I tried to push it out of my mind, the more power it seemed to have over me, especially late at night. I stopped sleeping, really started worrying a lot and that's really not very good for anyone.
In the meantime, I was having all these cool things happen in my career. What I do for a living is play the cello. And really what that means to be a professional cellist, at least for me, is I get to do three different things. I get to teach children, which I absolutely love. I get to record really cool music. And then I also perform.I used to perform a lot but, of course, performing lately doesn't really happen.
During this difficult time, I was given the opportunity to do something really amazing, which was to record a concert film of the oratorio the "Lamb of God" by Rob Gardner. An oratorio is when someone tells a story, but they tell that story through singing. Unlike a musical or opera, it's not really acted out. Singers just stand in front of an orchestra and choir that's, you know, the most common way in oratory is sung.
The most common oratory most people would have heard of is "The Messiah." Now, "The Messiah" is about Jesus Christ. This oratorio [the "Lamb of God"] is also about Jesus Christ. In this oratorio, the cello, that instrument I play, represents the voice of Christ. So I have to admit, I was super intimidated because that is a role I never expected to play in my life—and I'm a very human person.
At the same time, it made sense because like all the human characters in the life of Christ are represented through people on stage. So it was really a brilliant way of communicating the divine. The cello represents Jesus. The violin also represents a divine person, he represents Heavenly Father. And by the way, if you end up listening to this piece, the cello doesn't always represent Christ. There's a theme that represents Christ. And it's like this.
There are different ways that theme appears, and the marker really is a step down and then a leap up. That's when you know that Jesus is speaking.
Recording is always hard. It's never easy. But this was a particularly difficult recording. We did not record to the click. What recording to click means is that there's like a metronome and everyone's earpiece so that the timing of the piece is exactly the same every time you play it. This is how almost everything is recorded, all the time, everywhere. Because what happens is, we're all human beings, even skilled musicians. If we play a song three times in a row, we might play one section best the third time, another section best the first time and another section best the second time. Or we might play a whole song fabulously, but five seconds is not good.
Well, when you record the click, you can take a few seconds from one take, and just snippet into another take and it works. But if you record without click, then you really must play the whole piece not just perfectly, because that's the wrong word for music, you must play the piece with spectacular precision and exquisite emotion over and over. That is what we were trying to do.
We were doing this recording during COVID, which means that we basically had to record the project as fast as we could before anybody got sick and as safely as we could. What should have been like maybe eight hours a day recording for five days in a row, we instead recorded for almost 12 hours two days in a row.
The reason it's so unusual for music to be recorded this way is tiny muscles don't take the abuse that big muscles and the mind do. The voice gets tired, the fingers get tired, lips get tired. So it's really unusual to ever be asked to record more than eight hours in a day. In fact, a recording day is more like five hours, which makes people think we don't work very hard for what we do. But let me tell you, musicians work so hard singers work so hard. So that was one of the things that made this challenging the compressed schedule.
Then there's the weirdness that goes on. Right now, we're all in masks, we're trying not to talk to each other. There was a lot that was really challenging, but there were really many cool parts of this process. And playing the music was definitely the best part.
I've been able to play a lot of concerts since COVID, which is really unusual. But they've all been really small intimate projects. This one involved a lot of people. Even though we weren't talking to each other and socializing, we were making a lot of music together.
So here we are in the middle of this process, trying to tell this really grand, magnificent story. I have the responsibility of expressing the voice of God and we come to this song that's called "Gethsemane." "Gethsemane" is about what happens in the garden, which is the Atonement. The Atonement is such a difficult thing for a human being to wrap their head around, obviously, we're not capable. At the same time, it's important that we make that effort to understand what it is.
So here comes the melody of Jesus, the one I told you about where it goes back and forth down and then rises up. There's some narration at the beginning of "Gethsemane," and then you come to the voice of Christ. It's so beautifully written. It's really hard for a composer to write for a string player, most composers use the piano to write, and pianos have five fingers. The string players only can use four fingers at a time. Many brilliant composers don't understand this. Rob totally does. He writes melodies that work for string players, they fit under the hand, they fit across the strings. It's like he plays the cello. Except at the end of "Gethsemane," the cello has to make these really awkward leaps. I didn't know how I was going to execute them gracefully. This is the most magnificent moment in history. This is why I believe in the Savior. So how am I going to pull this off?
Rob starts conducting and I'm thinking to myself, "Okay, I've got one shot to portray it well, beautifully. I think I can do that, which is a lot of confidence there. But this thing coming up farther on, oh my gosh, how am I going to make that sound good? Let alone be in tune, let alone be connected. So I prayed for help.
I was blessed with a calm feeling and the presence of a word—Abba. It's my understanding that Abba is a really unique and remarkable name for father because it doesn't really mean father, it means daddy. At the same time, it indicates a real depth of respect for a father while having this really sweet connection as daddy. So with that feeling, I was able to play through "Gethsemane" and Rob was happy with it. So we went on.
But even though I recognize the beauty of that gift, of that experience, the truth is that I didn't think I had done it good enough. It just kind of kept nagging at me and I was trying to decide, "Okay, am I being too hard on myself? Do I really need to play it again? Am I being inspired somehow?" I actually ruminated about this overnight, and came back to recording the next day. As I had more clarity, this phrase kept coming to mind. The phrase is, "The Lord appreciates effort." That quote comes from President Nelson. Every time I would think of that, I kept thinking of him smiling when he said it. So I thought, you know, "I think I need to play this again."
I got the guts up to ask Rob. I was kind of worried about what he'd say beause it's really expensive to ask an orchestra, a choir, the camera, the lights, the team, the facility, say "Oh, Rob, I know you consider that song done and who knows how much money it's gonna cost but can we play it again?" So anyway, I got the guts up and he was so nice about he said, "Hey, sure, that'd be great. We can rerecord 'Gethsemane' when the whole rest of the oratory is finished." I must admit, I thought to myself, "Yay!" I think because I was pretty wiped out already by then, but it made sense. We had to finish so if we had time to go back, we would.
We finished the oratorio and only the replay of "Gethsemane" was left. I was excited. I was scared. My arms were on fire. My neck was on fire. My back was on fire. I guess it's kind of like an athlete at the end of a marathon. I've never run a marathon but at that point, I was in the marathon of cello playing. My mind was tired, my muscles were tired. I didn't really think that I could actually play this any better at this moment because I wasn't fresh. I wasn't at my best. And, you know, I'm trying to act like none of that's happening because this is my job. I am a professional, at least I try to be. But I had asked for it. So what am I supposed to say?
My thoughts were kind of racing, but I took some deep breaths. I thought, "This is gonna be just fine. It's gonna be okay." And then right at that moment, I noticed some drops of blood on the floor. I was like, "Oh my gosh, I'm bleeding." It sounds worse than it really was because for string players and pianists, honestly, our calluses split open in the winter all the time. There's not a lot of feeling to the calluses. So for me, the way I deal with it, some people super glue it shut, but I just stick a bandage on it and some ointment. Luckily, a violist had some handy so I got rescued, put the bandage on my thumb, and he [Rob] started conducting.
Well, as soon as I put my bow on the string and started playing, I realized that it wasn't just that my callus had split but the thumb, the nail was separating from the skin of my thumb. So even though I was holding my bow really lightly, just that little bit of pressure, and every time I moved, I was pulling the skin away from the nail. This had never happened to me before. It was so painful. I really didn't know how I was going to keep playing. But I knew I shouldn't stop. The musician never stops.
So I prayed again. This time, I really cried out in my mind, like, "Help." And right away, it felt as if there were hands on my head. I recognize the feeling. That's that's what it feels like when you receive a priesthood blessing. And even though the pain was excruciating, it didn't change the pain, I knew that there was an angel there. I didn't really have a sense of who it was, but I knew I was being blessed and it comforted me.
We went through the piece. To be honest, because it hurts so much I didn't have a lot of awareness of how it was sounding. I was really connecting with that warmth of that feeling. So when it was all done, you know, Rob gives the conductor cue. He looked over at me and smiled warmly and said, "That was absolutely beautiful. Thank you, Nicole, would you like to do that again?" I didn't want to tell him and what bad shape I was in and what had happened to my thumb. But I looked up and I looked at everyone's faces around me and I could tell everybody was just as tired as I was. I'm usually pretty professional at sessions. I tried to behave professionally, but I looked around and I opened my mouth and I said, "I can't. That's too much pressure."
Everybody just cracked up because, you know, they're not used to anyone talking like that. So we all just cracked up. And Rob just said, "Well, hey, listen, we're here. So let's do it again." And I thought to myself, "Oh my gosh, typical musician, typical conductor. Of course, you gave him the choice, he's gonna say, "Let's do it again." It's the musicians only lie: one more time.
So we started again. This time, the pain was just as bad as before and I cried out in my mind for a third time. This time I expected a miracle, right? This time, nothing happened. I didn't feel hands. I didn't feel an angel. I didn't hear voice. I felt so alone. I felt so abandoned. So what I did to deal with it, is I just like crawled inside my head. I crawled inside my body.
What was really amazing about what happened then is I found an awareness of my fingers that I'd never had before. My fingers like had a mind of their own. They started just flying through those notes like they had lived their whole life for this moment. Me, the person, I had just been along for the ride this whole time.
So we got to the end, Rob gave the cut off. I just listened to the silence. I looked up, and all of a sudden, everyone started cheering. That was the first time I realized that I had played it well. Rob said, "Well, man, that is how we end." I was so happy to be done like everyone else. That wasn't just happy to be done. We were proud because a collective effort felt like it was worthy of the work. Everyone always gives their whole heart to what they do as an artist. But when you are deprived of the opportunities to communicate your music because of COVID and that is your chosen passion, your chosen vocation, what you've spent your life doing, that gratitude for the experience of performing was so powerful. We really celebrated. We were happy.
But this is the thing. That was an amazing experience, and surely it helped. But I didn't really snap out of it. Even though I wanted to leave my heart behind and genuinely feel happy, smile from inside when I saw people instead of pretending. As hard as I tried that real heaviness that darkness returned.
A couple weeks later, I finally hit bottom. It was in the middle of the night. I actually wasn't making any noise. I wasn't tossing and turning. But my husband spoke out loud. And he said, "Nicole, are you okay?" And I said, "No, I am not okay. I'm so not okay." I have spent so many nights of my adult life sad and alone. I am so blessed that right now, I'm married to the most amazing man. He just held me in his arms, and I just cried.
As I cried in his arms, I realized something. I thought, "You have all these tools at your disposal and you're not really using them. You could be praying more, you could be reading your scriptures more, you could ask your husband for a blessing."
And as all these thoughts quickly went through my mind, I blurted out, "Bryce, would you give me a blessing?" And he said, "I would love to, Nicole. I was hoping you would ask me." He just jumped right up. It was like 3:34 in the morning. And I was like, "Oh, you don't have to now. You can go to sleep. He's like, "Let me help you." So there in our PJs, in the middle of the night, a husband and wife got to connect in a really beautiful way.
Then one day, I thought to myself that I should talk to my bishop about this. I made an appointment with him and I went into his office. I told him this whole awful ordeal and it was the first time I had said it out loud. All of it.
I think for many of us, when we bring things to our bishop, we're embarrassed. We don't want to bring these burdens to their life. I definitely felt that way. He just listened carefully and after I had finished, he explained that it was a bishop's job not to take a burden and keep it. But it was a bishops job to take a burden and to give it to the Savior. And ultimately, my job was to take this burden and to give it to the Savior myself. But in the meantime, he could give this much away for me.
We talked about forgiveness. We talked about what it is and what it isn't. And it's interesting growing in the lessons of forgiveness because they're very simple. I think we all know them. It's so like music, you can know something is supposed to be a certain way as a cellist just because you know, it doesn't mean you can play it that way. It really must be practiced. So I think it's the same with forgiveness.
With forgiveness, we know it's not saying that something's okay. It's not saying something was supposed to happen or should have happened. We can completely reject the event. It's even appropiate to completely set up a boundary with that person. What forgiveness really is, is choosing to leave the hurt, choosing to leave that place of negativity, choosing to see opportunity in this difficulty.
At the end of our meeting, I asked my bishop for a blessing. It wasn't till then, when he stood behind me and placed his hands on my head, that I somehow put everything together that final few seconds of the cello passage and "Gethsemane." The ones that I struggled with in that recording, that few seconds that made me ask to do that piece over again. That difficulty was intentional. It was but a shadow of what the Atonement was for the Savior. The Atonement for the Savior is not something I can understand. But I can understand how hard it is to do that. The bleeding, the nails splitting, I was meant to play that at the end of my limits in pain and feeling totally alone.
There's a painting I love by the artist James Christensen. It shows a woman with her hand outstretched with this little tiny coin in her hand. The widow's mite represents this sweet old woman who has almost nothing to give. But the little that she has to give, she presents to the Savior.
In my mind's eye, as I was receiving this blessing from the bishop, I realized that I was that woman and now it was time to give up and submit. Just surrender not just my own widow's mite that I had to give, but the hurt that was locked inside of me. I saw the Savior reaching out to me, and he was smiling.
In that moment, I understood that he had already paid the price. That when I would give Him this burden, it wouldn't make Him hurt. That part was over. The path that lay ahead was one of light of love, and joy.
When we leave our pain and our hurt to the Savior behind, a new path opens before us a path of love, a path of service, a path of bringing light to other people's lives. And being the light that we didn't get to have. We get to be that light for someone else.
The blessing ended. I actually didn't tell my bishop what had just transpired in my mind. We parted with friendly, warm words. Then I left the church building out into this cold, sunny winter day. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, on my hair, even my mind.
I knew it would be different for me now because I was walking in the light. The light and love that really comes from our Savior–here's nothing quite like it. I took a deep breath and almost felt like I was taking the first deep breath of my life. I smiled a smile that came from the inside, all the way from my heart. And I put one foot in front of the other and walked into the light.
That was Nicole, the principal cellist in the film recording of the oratorio the "Lamb of God."
I'm going to tell you so much more about this film because, as you could tell from that little bit that you heard in the story, it is a powerful testimony of the life of our Savior. But before we can even get to that, we have to talk about the light. Couldn't you feel it in Nicole's story?
I love that shift, that symbol of reaching from the bottom of the string to the top in the midst of her suffering so that she could represent the Savior well with the voice of her cello. That moment when she felt the heavenly hands on her head, only to be asked to enter the pain one more time and this time to be left alone in her suffering, but with a supernatural ability to transform that pain and isolation into beautiful music.
And finally, the realization with her Bishop's support that all of those moments were an echo, however faint, of the very experience of our Lord and Savior when he drank the bitter cup, and as it tells us in Alma, chapter 7, verse 13 when he took upon Him the sins of His people, that He might blot out their transgressions according to the power of His deliverance.
All of these symbols, layered upon symbols of representation were exactly what Nicole needed to understand a simple truth. The truth that when we offer our sorrow and our pain and our infirmities to the Lord, especially the ones we don't know how to handle, the ones that cloud our heads and leave us sleepless with worry, we can trust that He can handle it, that He alone has already handled it.
We can trust that He knows the unique shape and heft of our burdens intimately, because He's already held them as He paid the price of our possible transformation. We accept the gift that he gave us in Gethsemane when we lift our hands up in a full surrender of the things that we cling to, just as Nicole did.
In that moment, the real work of His Atonement can begin in each of us. The real work of changing us from the natural man or the natural woman into a true disciple, a child of light.
And now I'm really excited to tell you that we have the incredible opportunity, for the first time ever to experience this oratorio, "The Lamb of God" this stunning work of sacred music in theaters–as they reopen safely in some areas. And I cannot think of a better way to spend an afternoon–oh, I cry every time I say this, I cannot think of a better way to spend an afternoon or an evening as we ride out the tail end of this pandemic, and celebrate the coming of Easter.
We'll have links in our show notes so that you can find it if it's near you. And I know that theatres aren't an option for everyone, especially our friends who are listening across oceans. So we'll have other links to some of the music, including that overwhelming piece "Gethsemane" in our show notes at LDSLiving.com/Thisisthegospel.
I honestly can't wait to hear how this music transforms your worship this year. I know that for me, it's been an important new expression of my faith ever since I discovered it and I am so happy to be able to share it with you. I hope it brings light, more light, into your life.
That's it for this episode of this is the gospel thank you to our storyteller Nicole for sharing her story and her gifts with us. I played the cello for a hot five minutes in that same ninth grade where Miss Terse was, and it didn't take me long to realize that I wasn't very good at it. So I really and truly appreciate all of Nicole's talents and the years and years she has spent honing that gift to testify of her love of Christ.
You can read more about Nicole and the "Lamb of God" oratorio in our show notes at LDS living.com/Thisisthegospel. You can also find us on Facebook or Instagram @thisisthegospel_podcast. All of the stories in this episode are true and accurate as affirmed by our storytellers.
And we find a lot of our stories through the pitch line. We'll be gathering stories and ideas for our next season soon. So get ready, get on there, share your stories. The best pitches will be short and sweet. And they'll have a clear sense of the focus. You'll have three minutes to pitch your story when you call 515-519-6179.
And if you're still listening this far into the outro of the podcast, you are a true friend. I tried to make them interesting, but I don't always succeed, so it is no small feat that you got this far. And if you've made it this far, maybe you wouldn't mind taking it one step further and leaving us a review. We'd love to hear how this podcast is adding to your practice of the gospel.
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This episode was produced by me KaRyn Lay with special help from Arthur Van Wagenen. It was edited by Kelly Campbell and scored mixed and mastered by Mix at Six studios. Our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom. You can find past episodes of this podcast and other LDS Living podcasts at LDSLiving.com/podcasts.
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