My sister and I were talking the other day about a little bit of this and about a little bit of that when our conversation led us to a particular topic. Afterwards, I told my sister that her thoughts would made a great story, and that she should write down as a fond memory for her kids to one day enjoy. Not surprisingly, she did just that, then sent it to me.
It is with her kind permission that I am posting her story (complete with her photos) here as a “guest writer”.
Welcome Back Guys…Its Been Way Too Long!
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says.” - Revelation 3:22
PART ONE: The Mystery Friends
In the last month or so, I have had some regular visits to my house from a couple of old “guy” friends. We go “way back.” The three of us used to spend a lot of time together, and it’s been a long-standing friendship spanning a lot of time throughout my life. These old friends just turned up “on my doorstep” recently, and it was a wonderful, unexpected surprise. It’s a good thing my husband is a trusting man because they hang around off and on throughout the day most days now, and sometimes even late at night. My two boys even like them, and don’t mind them hanging around. They have even been around for mealtime, most especially around suppertime…funny though... they never ask to eat, and I don’t think it’s because of my cooking.
These friends must be a couple of really special people that I feel very comfortable around, because both have seen me in my pajamas…and even without makeup or hair done! Sometimes, if they visit late in the evening after the kids go to bed, I might even share a glass of wine with one or both of them. My husband supports, and even promotes, this behavior believe it or not. (Again…I write for a G-Rated audience…so read on… -wink-) When my friends come over, I don’t really talk to them much, or even really at all. It’s not that kind of relationship. With these two friends, I just listen. I have a history of being a VERY good listener to my two friends. After being away from these guys for such a long time, I am really enjoying hearing what they have to say to me. I find comfort and inspiration by their presence, and we have a lot of fun together. The old saying "absence makes the heart grow fonder" certainly is true about my friends. Good friends lift each other up, and that’s what they do for me. That’s how really good friends are over the years. I hope they keep coming around for a long, long time. I have really missed these guys.
PART TWO: Let Me Introduce You…. (Drum roll please)
I guess I will stop speaking cryptically at this point…although it’s kind of fun to get my audience thinking and guessing. The two friends that I speak of are figurative friends. They are the piano composers George Winston and Jim Brickman (and others like them, but these are my most favorite). Oh, how I love the music of these two composers…or rather, their style of music.
I am a piano player…not a tremendously GREAT piano player…but a piano player none-the-less. I won’t get into the story of how I began to play, and how I have played on and off over the years…that will be for another post. But, I will give enough information now to tell this story, and how it relates to my two figurative friends.
I took piano lessons as a child, and loved to play, but it was never easy for me. Looking back now with the insight of an adult, I think I never really learned the notes well because I have such an unbelievably strong ear. My greatest strength (by far) in playing is most definitely “by ear.” I can read music, but it is definitely not a strength of mine. The word "struggle" would be a better description of my ability to read written music. I can play most songs I attempt (with enough repetition and listening practice) by ear fairly well. Without being conscious of what I was doing, I recall repeating songs by hearing them, as young as maybe 8 or 9 years old.
By the time I was about 14 or 15 years old, I was actively trying to learn to play using only my ears to guide me. Around the same time, whole new world of musical style opened up to me when I started to listen to the music of George Winston. His style is so soulful and expressive. It was a new and different style at the time, and it touched something deep inside my musical heart. The only way I can describe this style is that it is akin to heartbeat… how I hear my own heartbeat. I so loved this music, and it was available at the time on audio cassette only. My first “tape” of his was entitled “Winter Into Spring.” One of my favorites on the album was a song entitled “February Sea.” I so loved the song, however, it was not available in print at the time. None of his music was. It was long before the time of internet, and easily attainable music at the click of a mouse. My only option at the time was to learn by listening.
With much determination, I set my goal to learn the piece. After listening to the song probably more than 100 times, both in part and whole, I finally learned the song...or at least my version of it. I am surprised that I did not wear out the buttons on my “boom box.” (I am also thankful to my very patient mother who was always so happy to hear me play, even when my music was far from perfect.) It was amazing both to listen to…and imagine… now to actually PLAY!!! What was amazing to me is that because of the relative difficulty of the piece, I would NEVER have been able to play it had I had the sheet music in front of me. It was a strange sensation to be able to play a piece of this complexity without reading any written music. Another odd thing I noticed was that I would make mistakes if I looked at my hands while I played. Somehow, the mistakes would stop if I either closed my eyes while I played or looked in another direction away from my fingers on the keyboard. That is definitely not the case with written music for me!
After I mastered “February Sea,” I played the song a few times at some special events and “talent shows” at the high school I was attending. The music teacher always gave me accolades for playing without a single note in front of me. Most people who can read music well have no concept of playing without the guidance of the written note. I am in the other “camp.” I play best using my ears as my guide. I default to printed notes if I must. I wish I could read notes more, but I feel it is a weakness I will probably always struggle with. Over the years, though, I have found great satisfaction in struggling to learn a written piece and finally being able to play it well in that form. It’s kind of a learned satisfaction that I have come to appreciate over time. It’s the kind of joy that emerges after a long struggle.
From a friend at the time, I heard about a talent competition at the Minnesota State Fair. After discussing it with my parents, with their encouragement, I decided to give it a try. It was kind of scary to think of doing this, but I was determined. A few weeks after trying out, I foundout that I was accepted into the competition.
On a clear and beautiful, late summer night, I played my song, “February Sea” in the bandshell at the Minnesota State Fair. The combination of darkness with the stage lights proved to be an incredible sensation to the young girl that I was. This was a very new feeling for me… playing in front of an audience of this magnitude! The bandshell seated up to 5,000 people. While it wasn’t filled to capacity, I can definitely say that it was mostly full. I recall my parents sitting very near the front right next to where the piano was located on the stage. I was so thankful to feel their presence with me!
When I walked onto the stage, my nervousness subsided (with lots of prayer!) and I played without a single mistake. I think that is part of what happens when you play by ear. The music becomes muscle memory, and the mind becomes submissive to the hands. As I played, I lost the audience. The music and I were the only ones in company together. It was an indescribable feeling, one I have never since felt, but one that I will definitely remember for the rest of my life.
PART THREE: Postscript - There’s Always A Lesson In The Story …
There were all kinds of “acts” performing that night. I wasn’t really concerned about who would “win,” or who would come in what place.
For me, it was about sharing the music I had worked so hard to learn in such an unconventional way.
As it turns out, I did make 3rd place in over 25 varying acts.
In the last month or so, I have once again taken up regular practice on the piano. With our sons out of the very young childhood age, I now feel like I have the time and energy to be able to devote to the piano once again. While I will likely never be considered a “great” pianist, and will likely never be able to read music well, I am very much enjoying the talent that God intended me to have. Recognizing the true value of this specific gift has helped me realize something...If I spend too much energy on wishing that I can do something that I likely may never be able to, I waste precious time in developing the talents either I do have, or have not even discovered yet.
As I look back at the joy and the gifts my ear has brought me, I don’t think I would exchange my “ear” for perfect music reading skills if given the choice. It definitely is not an easy means of learning music, but maybe there is more to it than that. Maybe God gave me my “ear” to really pay attention to “hear” things in my life, of my family and friends, and those around me. After all, one has to be a good listener to play by ear! I hope I can always (as the Revelation verse says) "hear what the Spirit says with my ear." It’s an interesting thought to ponder… I now choose to recognize, embrace, and fully claim the gift of “ear” that God gave me. I see how it has added so much satisfaction and joy to my life. What I initially thought was a weakness, I see now, has actually always been a strength. How you look at something sometimes makes all the difference.
Daytime View of the Bandshell
Muscle memory definitely is one that stands the test of time. 26 years later, I can still play “February Sea,” (even after not playing it for months, and even years!) and I still have to look away or close my eyes if I make mistakes!
Youtube link to "February Sea" by George Winston
The piece that I am learning and working on now is called “If You Believe” by Jim Brickman. Technology sure makes things easier today! Instead of constantly rewinding my “tape,” I can keep my laptop adjacent to the piano, and play along during the difficult parts!!! Its really the perfect marriage between ear and written music. I have officially made it through the first page, and I can’t wait to master the rest… –smile-*
Youtube link to "If You Believe" by Jim Brickman