27 June 2011

A Musical Autobiography

Note: I'm at the University of Pittsburgh for the summer, studying at a summer institute called "Voices Across Time: American History through Music." I'm writing this as a draft of my first project, to provide a "musical autobiography" of myself, using an experience I had through music.

I have always been steeped in music. I can't remember a time in my life where music wasn't important to me. My father is an accomplished pianist and organist who today earns his living playing for churches. My mother grew up playing the violin and planned--through the end of her freshman year of college--to be a professional musician. By the time I came into my parents' lives, you could say that music was part of my destiny.

I began taking piano lessons in first grade, and I continued--summer and school year--all through elementary school. I was not an exceptional pianist, but by the time I finished eighth grade, I could play well. It was the summer after eighth grade, that I faced an important decision about my future in music.

I was bored. I practiced my exercises and the classical pieces assigned to me, but I didn't have a love for the piano. I was thinking very seriously about quitting. I was about to start high school. I felt like moving on.

I remember sitting at the piano in my living room, muttering. (I have since learned that muttering is about as natural to 14-year-olds as breathing, but it seemed really important to me at the time.) I put away my Beethoven book and pulled out a book of songs from the movie, "Snow White." It didn't take me long to learn the songs. As I was playing, "Some Day My Prince will Come," something happened.

I had a vision.

In my vision, I was playing the piano. There was a girl there, sitting on the bench next to me as I played. And she liked what I was playing!

It was a powerful vision, I must say. The girl, she sidled closer to me, so that our arms touched--from shoulder to elbow, no less. I can't remember what other fantasies might have moved my 14-year-old mind, but it probably also involved squinching my lips together at the end of the song and seeing hers--squinched up too--waiting to meet mine.

I should add that at this time in my life, there was nothing more confusing to me than teenaged girls. In reality, had one sat next to me, I probably would have been unable to play anything--not even "Chopsticks." But that shouldn't take away from the vision. I realized something about my music. I could benefit from this, I thought, this might be just the thing that will attract a girl!

So I stuck with the piano. Not only did I keep up with my lessons, I began to learn--for the first time--how to play by ear, how to pick out songs that I knew and arrange them to fit my purposes. I continued lessons through the tenth grade, by which time I was able to arrange songs, perform them at church, and even write some songs of my own.

Six years after I devoted myself to my vision of music, I found myself in the small town of Minehead, England. I had hitchhiked there with a group of friends from college. It was a rainy, blustery day--the kind quite commonly found in England during the late fall. After a night of camping in the elements, my friends and I sought refuge through the unlocked door of a church, a 15th-century Anglican structure called St. Michael's Church.

There was no one in the church that day, but we entered anyway, to find warmth more than anything. At the front of the church I found a piano, and I sat down to play some of the hymns I had learned. I had a few arrangements that really meant a lot to me, and the songs added to the reverence of this darkened, empty sanctuary that had echoed with the songs of worship for centuries.

And you want to know something really cool?

There was this girl there. She sat on the piano bench right next to me.

The song wasn't, "Some Day My Prince will Come" (it was a church after all). It was a hymn, "Softly and Tenderly."

As I played, this girl, she sang along, and she asked me to harmonize. For about two hours we played hymns and listened to our friend, Gavin, read from the huge Bible at the front of the church. When we left, the sun was out. The day was warm. Mist rose from the cobblestone streets below the church. We took some pictures and moved on to other adventures.

Last week my wife Jenny, our three kids, and I drove to Bardstown, Kentucky to watch a production of "The Stephen Foster Story."  I've been married for seventeen years now, and I've been a father for fourteen.

On the way home, Jenny kept coming back to the relationship between Foster and Jane McDowell, the woman who inspired "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" and other songs. Their relationship is at the center of the play, and it had been a rocky one. Foster had struggled to earn a living even though his songs were very popular. In the end Foster's music--the songs he had written for Jane--had been a glue stronger than fortune. They had wed, despite her parents' misgivings.

The music had been the bond, Jenny said. Jane couldn't have been with anyone else after those beautiful songs.

She looked over at me. "Do you remember that day in Minehead?" she asked. "Do you remember the church--the song you played on the piano?"

"Of course I do," I replied. "'Softly and Tenderly.' I really liked that arrangement."

"That song was such a bond," she said. "It is what made me begin to fall in love with you."

I smiled. It made me remember the vision I had in my living room at age 14. It had come true, far beyond the most fanciful hopes I could have mustered at the time.

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