With the endless meter of climbing and descending tones, the piano haltingly at first, settles into a rhythmic scale. Moving from one tone to the next, repeating the process, this is not the sound of Bach nor is it the simple melody of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; it is repetitive and relentless hour, after hour, day after day. One more scale, one more key, one more chord. One more, one more, one more….like a solitary band member marching down a silent street, left, right, left, right. The march drones on and on. The word drone is used more for the person listening to the process because somehow it mysteriously brings life to the person who continues the solitary march. I hear it with the neighbor kid as he practices his drums day after day and I recognize it in myself as I repetitively chisel memory into my own fingers. It hooks the musician, seducing gently, with one more scale, and the simple new color of one more chord. I imagine it is similar to the satisfaction an artist feels as he pencils one more feather on a bird in his sketch book or the comfort a master woodworker experiences while sanding his oak project with yet another piece of fine sandpaper. The movements, the feelings, the sounds, the repetition all add to the experience. When I look at where I was one year ago and where I am today I am surprised by my progress but this is not about the results but the process itself. I have too often in my life focused on the result and ignored the process believing that the process was painful and the struggle not worth a mention. I was wrong. If I never learn to play the piano, the process will have been worth it.
When Ron died I realized just how short life is. One of the things that kept sliding into my mind was the piano. I desperately wanted my piano playing to be a personal expression and not just a repetition of someone else’s work. I experienced moments of connection to something larger, as I played and I longed for more access to that feeling and so began my journey. I stopped playing music years before. There is a part of me that knows when and why the music stopped but that is not as important as the process of beginning again.
Playing again began slowly, purposefully, and yes, painfully as I started facing my worst fears one at a time. I was afraid of failing, I was afraid of not being liked, I was afraid I was not talented enough and I was afraid of what people would think. I started listening to people who told me I would have arthritis soon after all I was 49, following that statement with stories of piano teachers who were forced to quit playing when they got older. I was asked what I planned to “do” with music and finally I was told that truly talented musicians could naturally play by ear. I started to question if I truly had a free will. It seemed like I had one choice. I had to know how I was going to “serve God “with my piano before I could start taking piano. To take piano anyway would be me choosing to walk away from God’s “perfect” plan. It is funny how when I get stuck in my thinking it often takes an outsider to break the cycle and that is exactly what happened, a new friend who was not involved in a church of any kind told me, he was sure we all had free will because he didn’t think God was an asshole. He shocked me into recognizing that my view of God was totally messed up.
I viewed God as judgmental, manipulative and distant. My friend, on the other hand, viewed God as understanding and loving. I came face to face with my created distant God. He was a master designer but seemed to me to have put everything in motion and then taken a long leave of absence. In the back of my mind, the idea loomed that I was predestined to accomplish certain things and if I did not follow his predesigned plan, I would receive a correction through bad consequences that would lead me back to his “perfect will”. I began to feel like a rat in a cage, being trained to run a uniquely designed maze. Somehow that didn’t feel like freedom to me. And so my musical journey continued… I found people who encouraged me and supported my efforts. I surrounded myself with the people who trumpeted the merits of learning a new skill and I listened to them. My piano teacher told me that music was freedom and I knew how Jazz symbolized freedom in many countries as well as in my own. I wanted to be free. Free to study what I wanted, free to fail, free to succeed, free to be me. As I started to walk in that freedom, I discovered that I was not as afraid of what people thought and I slowly started changing my view of God. I choose to believe in a God of grace and I choose to accept his grace and I started connecting to something larger then myself.
My next hurdle was that I had to learn to trust. Trust as a student trusts his teacher. I was a good student and had finished my Master’s degree, but being in a class of working professionals heading toward the next bench mark in a field was quite different from learning a brand new skill. There is a certain amount of professional respect and pride in previous accomplishments when working towards a graduate degree. With the piano, however, I didn’t know what the different scales had to do with music or why I needed to learn the next chord. I couldn’t neatly connect the dots in my mind, and I had no previous accomplishments. Quite basically, I didn’t know where I was going. I had to trust my teacher. This may sound weird because my teacher was an accomplished professional, of course I could trust him, but I had to become teachable on a primary level. I had to let go of the “whys” and just learn the next skill. I had to stop controlling and start learning. It felt like I was flying blind or falling backwards. My fears escalated as I faced my intense fear of failure but this same fear dissipated slowly as I plowed through it. I had weeks where I thought I knew a skill and I fell apart when I had to play it at my lesson. I had times of feeling totally inadequate and stupid and I had times of feeling like I just barely made it through that skill, and I didn’t really know it. At times, I questioned if I was totally hopeless or too old for this. But through it all I started to recognize just how lucky I was to have a teacher who was kind, and compassionate. I became increasingly thankful for a teacher who was willing to take time out of his schedule to sit down and work with me, week after week, one more time, one more scale, one more chord or in many cases the same scale, the same chord. I was inspired by my teacher’s deep love for music and his incredible energy and excitement. His inspiration started blooming and taking root in me and I became inspired in other areas of my life. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he encourages all of us to become like little children. I know for sure that I needed to become teachable. The simple trust of knowing that I am not in control, nor am I suppose to be. Simply allowing someone to speak into my life became a much bigger challenge than I realized. To teach a skill, to influence a future, to create something that wasn’t there in the past, I had experienced the process from the teacher’s side but becoming a student became a formidable challenge. As I became teachable and childlike a seed was planted and began developing slowly as I nurtured it week after week and it started growing, and developing into an intense desire to have fun and play. This desire to play is still in process and growing in me daily and so the process continues and it is beautiful.
As I sit and listen to musicians while they move, sculpt, create, molding the air around them, I find myself loving sound, listening and feeling new textures as they part the air and sculpt the sound waves into pleasant shapes and structures. St. Francis of Assisi once said, “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” I am impressed with craftsman in music but the artists are the ones who inspire and seduce me into their world of beauty. Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Chick Corea and Duke Ellington; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Jeff Beck. Much like a trip through an art museum, I relish specific styles and favor some movements over others but beauty is beauty and it touches and changes the observer. Connecting to anyone who will pause and wonder, listen and gaze, feel and engage, it refreshes, and recreates. As a teenager, I knew this, stowing away often to listen to music that engaged my emotions and made me feel better, but as an adult I forgot about the connection. I forgot about the refreshing life giving flow of energy that emerges from music. And so with this discovery, my journey with music continues…