Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Tuned to True CallingTuned to True Calling

Tuned to True Calling

Pianist Chiara Bertoglio reflects on her two-fold identity, as both a musician and a Christian. When, as a child, she wanted to be the greatest pianist in the world, she now realizes she was trying to be something other than the actual, flesh-and-bone Chiara – and something other than what she was designed to be.

Chiara Bertoglio
5 minute read

When people discover I’m a professional musician, I usually get one of two reactions: 

  1. “But what is your real job?
  2. “Amaaaaazing. You must really be passionate about it! – etc. etc.”

I confess that I find both reactions rather disturbing. The former implies that being a musician is not a “proper” job, the second that I'm a “happy-you” person who basically does only what she likes in her life.

Being a professional musician is no child’s play, even if it is born of a child learning to play. In my case, I was just three when I received my first piano lessons; I liked them a lot, of course, but I couldn’t have foreseen what this would have meant for my future life. What started as a game became very serious, very soon. 

Playing with toys became much rarer, as the time I spent playing the piano increased. The hours spent practising, the innumerable journeys for lessons, courses, competitions etc., the loneliness of being “the odd one” among the other schoolchildren; but also the funny and exciting adventures, the emotion of being a soloist with orchestra, the pride at winning this or that competition… all these were the feelings and emotions of my childhood and my teens. 

But I had also a kind of a parallel life. There was the ambitious child who dreamt she’d become the most famous pianist in the world; and there was the child who loved praying and staying silent in the church. There was the child who saw any other child pianist as a rival; and there was the child who loved making friendships, and sometimes felt she had so very few friends. 

My parents, two splendid persons who have always represented for me the living icon of God’s unconditional love, have transmitted to my brother and me their faith – simple, true, strong and sincere. Among my first and most cherished memories is a scene where I’m sitting on my mother’s knees; it’s dusk, and the sea is breathing slowly in the calm of the approaching evening. She’s telling me the parables of Jesus, the stories of his miracles, and sometimes she stops for a while as we observe the seagulls flying madly in the clear sky. 

So, I grew up as a pianist, and as a Christian. But these two identities, though not exactly conflicting, were also not fully integrated. A good piano soloist must be self-assured, authoritative, powerful and communicative. A good Christian – so I thought – must be humble, meek, full of self-denial. 

How could I be both? 

Then life started teaching me - and, to be sure, I’ve just about started learning something, at the venerable age of 35. My plans for becoming the most famous pianist of the world went quite smoothly for some years, and then a series of failures started to pile up. I felt that I had wasted my childhood, practising for hours… and for nothing. If I couldn’t become the great soloist I must become, then what was the point of it all? 

I went through a very deep crisis. And the good God helped me through it and to come out from it. 

This happened ten years ago. In these ten years, a lot of things have happened. I’m performing very frequently, sometimes in major venues, but more often in smaller settings; I’m loving it a lot, because I feel a much closer contact with the audience, and it’s not like soliloquizing at the piano – it’s really a give-and-take, or, better, a mutual gift. 

I’ve started teaching, and though sometimes I admit that it is a bit boring, it is also a deeply rewarding and profoundly touching activity. I teach both piano and musicology, at conservatories and universities; I write a lot (I’ve always loved reading and writing!), both in the academic field and in newspapers and blogs, and this kind of verbal communication complements in a beautiful fashion the communication through music. 

Most important of all, music has become a true help in my itinerary of faith. My faith has in turn – I believe – enriched my way of playing (among other things). Even though the theologian in me can find several sermons a bit bare of interest, the musician in me is frequently moved to tears by the enchanted beauty of sacred music. And it’s not just a matter of emotions or tears: I’m more and more fascinated by how music can really become a theological expression, a language in which and through which one can say and hear meaningful truths about the God who is Truth. 

I’ve realized that I can be an authoritative performer without being tyrannical to my audience; that to acknowledge the greatness of the One who gave us music, and of the musicians whose works we play, is a form of humility which is neither mortifying nor self-denying. Rather, it gives us the freedom of being ourselves, the freedom of responding “yes” to God who calls us by our names. 

When I wanted to be the greatest pianist in the world, I was trying to be something else other than the actual, flesh-and-bone Chiara; so, pride was betraying me and twisting me in a shape which wasn’t my own. When I accept to be just what I am, just what God has imagined me to be, then I really become “powerful” – "I can do all things through him who strengthens me”. 

The less I care about people writhing their hands in amazement at how good a pianist I am or how quickly I can move my fingers, the more I can care about what my audience needs, and how I can help them for the hour we’ll spend together. 

Before playing I pray briefly, and I try to love all the people who have come to listen to my music, even though I don’t know them. I ask God to help my hands to bring something beautiful to them; something which may comfort their sorrows and worries, which may touch their hearts, make them less lonely; something which can help others to feel that there is a reality greater than our material world, a reality which encompasses and transcends it, and from which the world itself takes meaning and order. Or they may need an experience of harmony and peace, the cathartic power of music which re-enacts the tensions and anguishes of our life and transforms them into a miracle of hope. 

I will never know if and when or how much my music has really helped my audience. But I know it’s my own language; the language through which I can pour out those gifts I’ve received, trying not to keep them for myself, not to use them just for my own glory, but rather to share them with the joyful thoughtlessness of one who gives freely because has been freely and generously given much more than she could ever hope. 

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