Genuine beginnings are rare in human experience. Birth, which seems the most obvious example, comes close. But it too is contingent on events and processes that reach back through the generations. In music, what we refer to as a beginning in a composition or performance functions as a genuine beginning only once, at first hearing. After the initial hearing, beginnings are compromised by memory. From that point on, beginnings have a ring of familiarity. For listeners, beginnings of works of music become the fulfillment of expectation and anticipation set in motion long before the first note sounds. Once a work has been played and heard, we might remember back to the beginning and think about it in a completely different way, now that we know the rest of the piece. In musical works, the beginning is often the end result, the last thing revised after the composer has already written the rest of the work. The same holds true for books, where beginnings are often constructed only after the conclusion is certain. In both cases, the real beginning, that which the composer or author first started with, is submerged, camouflaged, or discarded. Indeed most of the little beginnings we experience in everyday life, from getting up in the morning to beginning work, and even in personal relationships, can become obscured or forgotten. Beginnings therefore have the aspect of an illusion, because they do not arise from the unknown, but like anything else, possess roots and legacies buried in the past. Yet we continue to yearn for the illusion of genuine beginnings, even though we realize that the idea is an artificial application of aspiration onto a certain point in time. For this reason, beginnings have enormous significance and value. A beginning manifests a conscious opportunity to reflect on how the future might be different from the past. When musicians interpret a piece and play it, they rethink it from the beginning in the hope that the work will become stronger. We go back to the beginning, but that doesn't mean we erase the past - rather, we use the experience we've gained in the past to make our efforts more powerful and effective. Beginnings are imposed by humans, societies and traditions as rituals, and therefore they can be powerful if we wish them to be. Music teaches us this regularly. But everyone has an experience of this at some point in their lives, when they decide not to wipe the slate clean, but to bring back what has been forgotten and overlooked, to repair and renew, and to use the sense of a new start, however artificial it is, to make more progress than they did at an earlier beginning. This new year, as we strive to make ourselves better people and better artists, to make a contribution, we should exploit and celebrate the opportunity to determine the course of our own future. That chance is what is offered to us by beginnings, so long as we are prepared to confront the past. The writer is director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College in New York.

Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin

Think others should know about this? Please share