Not enough notes

2016-12-14-13-36-00 2016-12-14-13-35-36 Mom was a pretty good pianist. I have no idea for how long she took lessons, but after she graduated from high school, she didn’t walk away from her music. She must have played for her own enjoyment and that of others. By the time I came along, she was 39-years-old. I remember from my youngest days Mom sitting at the piano in the living room and making wonderful music. When I was old enough to stand next to her and help turn pages, she had me do that, nodding when it was time. And before I could read, she taught me the words to many songs she played on the piano and I crooned along in my toddler voice. A particular favorite of mine was called “The Birdies’ Ball” and while the book in which that music was contained disappeared when Mom died, I kept up my search until I found an old copy on Ebay. When I sat down to play it myself, it just didn’t have the same lilt to it. It was missing Mom and so was I.

She was never a classically trained pianist, but she was a good sight-reader. I recall that she accompanied some of the Sunday School classes at church. But most of the time, when the Spirit moved her, she just sat down to the piano at home and played everything from Dad’s favorite “Stardust,” to a particularly rousing piece that I loved called “Clayton’s Grand March.” I think she must have played that one from memory because when I sat down to learn it, the pages were so worn and torn that entire sections were missing. I was glad when I could find a copy for myself.

2016-12-14-13-31-41Now, Terry is an accomplished trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn player. He’s been working at that since he was a kid. But when he was in high school, he determined he needed some basic instruction in piano. When Mom came to visit us after we were married, she was digging through our piano bench looking for something to play and she pulled out one of his books. She started to play and then just stopped after a couple of measures.

“I can’t play this!” she exclaimed.

“Mom,” I said. “It’s easy. It’s big note beginner’s music!”

“I know that,” she said disgustedly. “I can’t play it because there aren’t enough notes on the page.”

2016-12-14-13-38-16I can blame a lot of things on my own pianistic demise, but mostly I have to blame myself. I just didn’t keep up with my practicing. I’ve always had performance anxiety when it comes to playing a musical instrument in front of anyone. I don’t understand it. I have absolutely no problems with public speaking. But when it comes to playing music, I can only play for my own enjoyment. And I don’t do that often enough.

When we were in Chicago last week and visited the Grande Dame of the Marshall Field’s (now Macy’s) stores I was struck by what was missing. It used to be that there would be live piano music wafting through the air and up through the atrium and many levels of floors. At Christmastime, the familiar songs and carols would put the shoppers in the proper and festive mood for shopping. But last week I heard nothing live. There was music piped through ceiling speakers. I use the term music lightly as most of it sounded like noise. The familiar carols, I suppose, have become politically incorrect as I heard none of those either. I’m already tired of hearing about Grandma getting run over by some reindeer.

But I was inspired to take out my own Christmas music this week and try my hand at the tunes that were so familiar to me.

I can’t complain about the numbers of notes on the pages. They were all there just as I recalled, but I had and am having a hard time getting them all in the proper order and without adding sour ones of my own invention. Arthritis in my fingers cried at me to stop (as the cats seemed to be doing as well), but I kept at it as I remembered my mother’s arthritic fingers and knobby knuckles and how she played through the pain to keep her hands limber.

“There aren’t enough notes on the page,” Mom said.

There weren't enough notes on this page for Mom to play the music.

There weren’t enough notes on this page for Mom to play the music.

Life is kind of like that. We sometimes yearn for an instruction manual to teach us how to get from moment to moment and from one life crisis to the next. We haven’t been given enough notes on the page to be able to intuit what comes next. Mom didn’t play the piano by ear. She still needed the music in front of her. But with most of life, we do have to play by ear unless we have been taught by parents or teachers or experience what note comes next.

2016-12-14-13-39-24The obvious answer for those so inclined in terms of an instruction manual is The Bible. God’s Word. Problem is that most of us don’t know that tome well enough to find our way to the answers it does provide. We are also snagged too often because we don’t bother to look in it until we run into a crisis and because we aren’t familiar with it, there are just too many notes on the page and we can’t find the guidance we need.

I admire good musicians who have never left their music behind and who have remained not only vigilant about maintaining their skills but have challenged themselves to become even better at the keyboard. I also admire those folks who, at whatever age, have picked up their Bibles and become true students of them, marking them as Mom would mark a piece of sheet music; little pencil notes to remind her how to express a phrase or anticipate a new one.

Years ago I found myself in a Bible study with several women who were decades my senior. Week after week, I learned from their wisdom. I studied the Bibles they toted with them and noted how worn the covers and the pages had become. These were well-worn pieces of wisdom, both in human and in book forms.

I think we all desire to have a few more notes on the page whether we are musicians or not. The irony is that different musicians will interpret the same music in very different ways. Some will play it exactly as written. Others will jazz it up. Some will add entire sections of improvisation.

That’s the way many of us read the Bible too. But like music, scripture is alive and it changes according to the day it is read, who is reading it, what is going on in the life of that person. But scripture can take on a new meaning every single time a single passage is read.

That’s the Holy Spirit at work if we allow that to happen. The Holy Spirit will fill in the holes in our music as long as we don’t cling too hard to old ideas, old translations, old traditions. It’s also important to try our interpretations out on others to make certain we’re being held accountable and not just making stuff up along the way.

After Mom’s vexations with the big note versions of the music she had picked up, I put a copy of “Clayton’s Grand March” in front of her. She took off like an airliner soaring into the heavens.

Sometimes we just need a few more notes.



     “Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.” – Psalm 119:105


“The hills are alive with the sound of music.” — Oscar Hammerstein II

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