One Chicago Cellist Plus One Dalai Lama Equals a World of Compassion

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Picture an idealistic Northwestern University cello student, circa 1993, playing a tune for a crowd of colorfully-robed monks from all over the world and you'll have visualized Michael Fitzpatrick.

Since his years in Chicago, Michael -- golden-curly-haired, tall, and possessed of a chill-axed surfer dude vibe -- has been featured on the recent PBS special The Music Instinct: Science and Song and has performed for political and religious royalty around the world. Really, the plaudits are so lengthy one's eyes glaze over.

I met him when he was in town giving a live performance of his musical accompaniment to the new Frederick Marx documentary The Journey from Zanskar, a labor of love in a similar vein to the work he's done on his signature "Compassion Rising" project. The project serves -- as the title of one of the tracks declares -- as an "Invocation for World Peace."

What Fitzpatrick does with a cello cannot be adequately described as mere music; I can best describe the sounds Michael pours out of that four-stringed instrument as simple beauty that fills one's soul with nothing less than pure joy and peace. Plus, he just flat-out rocks, too. No kidding.

How Michael Fitzpatrick went from being a socially-conscious musician to becoming the virtuoso who travels the world injecting musical spiritualism into sacred events large and small -- he's served as featured Soloist, Music Director, and Producer for the unprecedented musical collaboration recorded and filmed at sacred sites including Mammoth Cave, the largest cave in the world; the Abbey of Gethsemani; and the Furnace Mountain Zen Temple -- is too a long a story for today.

But I was able to get Fitzpatrick on the phone for a few minutes in the hour before he went onstage with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, who is in Melbourne, Australia this week addressing the Parliament of the World's Religions. Here's Fitzpatrick on the art of making music, spreading compassion, and providing the soundtrack for spiritual leaders. Pictures from the morning's performance, too, courtesy of Chicago-based photographer Graeme Sharrock, NPPA.

EJC: What are you doing right now?

MF: I just got done with the sound check and am on my way back into the theater among the high, high security protocols. I'll go onstage first, with the Dalai Lama, Wednesday morning for the morning keynote and invocation.

EJC: What's the extra-special magic for you with this set of events?

MF: It's very, very special! We're performing Wednesday and Thursday. And December 10 is the 10th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, who was regarded as the most influential monk of the 20th Century. Also December 10, 2009 is the occasion of the 20th anniversary of His Holiness the Dalai Lama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. December 10 is also the anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and of course, the day President Obama will be accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, so it's very, very exciting.

EJC: How does one gear up for that?

MF: (Laughing) How do you prepare to go on stage with the man many people consider the most enlightened being of our time?

I eliminate the extraneous thoughts from my mind then I prepare to send the notes out to everyone in the world to touch their hearts and move them to the compassion that the Dalai Lama is the embodiment of.

I meditate before I go on stage but not like, "oh I'm going to set 15 minutes aside," I do more of a walking meditation but so much of the time I'm already in a meditative state -- I hold everything in, the energy, the creativity and when the show is going to happen I delve deep into that internal place. I review in my mind the Compassion Rising project then force myself deeper into remembering why we're all here: to come together in peace, love, compassion and to hold that space.

Basically, it's like getting ready for the big basketball game.


EJC: So what's it like to be onstage with His Holiness? You've performed for and with him many, many times -- spent a lot of time with him, actually, for a non-monk. So you're probably not nervous per se... Does His Holiness' vibe throw off your tuning or anything like that?

MF: Yeah, it's a very specific frequency he resides in, it's an extremely high vibration, but a really heavy grounded vibration at the same time. I've been working with him for 13 years and I've just learned how to adjust my frequency to him. It's kind of like downshifting.

Playing my cello is a bit different, yes. Being in the presence of the Dalai Lama and many other powerful beings, playing in sacred places all over the world -- I've played on the site where Jesus was baptized, in sacred caves where there is ancient earth -- the resonances are so different! When I start to play, [the energy] starts to wake up the sound vibrations and the sound molecules in the wood -- it, like, heats up and the sound and quality leaps and takes on a mystical dimension.

EJC: Tell that story about when you first met the Dalai Lama.

MF: I was attending Northwestern University in Evanston, working on a master's in performance in 1993 when he was in Chicago and I met him for the first time. I didn't really know a thing about him except that he was the Dalai Lama. There I was in the Palmer House Hilton surrounded by every colorful turban-ed, robed monk -- it was like something out of a movie.


EJC: What was happening in your training that was preparing you for the path you started on after that Palmer House Hilton performance?

MF: At Northwestern I had two exceptional cello teachers who gave me a tremendous amount of creative freedom to explore the other types of sounds a cello could make -- overlaid on the basics of the core principles, of course.

As a student in Chicago I was very concerned about the role of the musician in 21st Century, and the need to not just entertain but to inspire and uplift. In particular, my teacher and conductor Victor Yampolsky really allowed for that next-level of exploration of the music. He had a titanic energy about him! I remember performing Beethoven's 9th Symphony at Pick Staiger Hall and feeling the truest expression of spirituality -- it just blew me away! The way this master musician from Russia brought through this most ancient energy to that work was life-changing.


EJC: What about now? What keeps you going on this quest to bring compassion to the world through your music -- it's not a bed of roses every day, right?

MF: There's this great line that Tom Petty said during his 30th anniversary concert, he was just riffing, and he said something like "just for one moment I want to believe everything is okay, because then there might be another moment where everything is okay." That's how I feel when I'm making music for the world -- if that "one moment" is possible, then the reality of the violence and the dark side of life can start to be replaced with peace and compassion.

Esther J. Cepeda writes about music, self-reflection, and much, much more on