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How enduring excruciating pain helped this musician portray Christ’s voice in the film ‘Lamb of God’

by | Mar. 18, 2021

In this week’s episode of This Is the Gospel, Lamb of God cellist Nicole does what no musician working long hours ever wants to do. She asks composer Rob Gardner if they can record her solo in the song “Gethsemane”—again. But after playing for many grueling hours, Nicole’s thumbnail begins to detach, causing excruciating pain as she plays, doing her best to portray the voice of the Savior through music. 

An adapted excerpt of the story is below. Find the full episode here or read the transcript here.

We were doing this recording during COVID, which means that we basically had to record the project [as safely and] as fast as we could before anybody got sick. [When we] should have been [recording] like maybe eight hours a day . . . 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 [can’t] take the abuse that big muscles and the mind do. The voice gets tired, the fingers get tired, [the] 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. . . . So that was one of the things that made this challenging—the compressed schedule.

Then there [was] the weirdness that [was going] on—right now, we’re all [wearing] 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. . . . 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 [of doing that]. At the same time, it’s important that we make that effort to understand what it is. . . .

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 [pianists use all 10] fingers. The string players can only use four fingers at a time. Many brilliant composers don’t understand this. Rob [Gardner] 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 [cellist] 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? . . .

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 [a] 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 [played] 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 [record] 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, “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 because it’s really expensive to ask an orchestra, a choir, the camera, the lights, the team, [and] the facility [to record again] and 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 [it]. He said, “Hey, sure, that’d be great. We can rerecord ‘Gethsemane’ when the whole rest of the oratorio 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. 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 [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 . . . 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 what it feels like when you receive a priesthood blessing. 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.

For the rest of the story, listen the full episode here or read the transcript here.

Lead image courtesy Nicole
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