Piano Practice

Walking back from the bank and the post office, up a summery street lined in green, I heard something I don't remember hearing for a very long time: the sound, heard through an open window, of a child practicing the piano.

Actually, I can't know that the person was a child: maybe it was an adult novice. I can't know whether it was boy or girl, but I fancied girl, possibly aged about nine. I know it could have been a male in his 50s, race and nationality unknown, but indulge me: let me have a smallish girl practicing her piano lesson. Because whoever the player was, it was definitely a piano-lesson practice.

What she was attempting, not very successfully, was one of those extremely simple two-part teaching pieces, one line of notes for left hand, one for right. Played properly, such pieces can be gently charming, if not exactly plumb-the-depths Important. Played with puzzlement and a certain grim determination, they're necessarily dreary. And that's what I was hearing through the window as I listened, with long irregular pauses as she tried to figure out her fingering or find the next note. She tried. She missed.

It made me smile the more since I'd blatted a few wrong notes myself that morning. I'd deluded myself into thinking I was being analytical and insightful when I was just looking for a chance to judge (i.e., put down) people who are different from myself, this being one of my besetting sins, and the fact that everyone does it does not excuse it. And I had been gently and properly called on it, and had made the necessary acknowledging "oops!" which is very good for my soul, if not for my ego. But I didn't really mind. It's always useful to be reminded that, like that little girl, I am only a practicing Christian. And I'm practicing because I still need a whole lot of practice.

It's one of the advantages of middle age, I think, that we no longer think we could be some Christian equivalent of Horowitz if we just tried hard enough. We are only practicing, and we are practicing because we haven't got it right. We don't have the inborn gift to get this Christianity business into our fingertips by sheer intuitive talent; even for the most gifted student, it's going to be very much a matter of working on scales and elementary exercises, which are not necessarily gratifying or even very interesting, but which are where we really make our own souls.

We don't get to be Christians, usually, by being bowled over by Revelation, although being bowled over may start us on the journey, just as being bowled over by a performance may get us to take up the guitar. Maybe for many of us, it's more a matter of overhearing bits and scraps of a Something that we want to know more about, a tune we want to hear more of; the way a scrap of music overheard on the radio or drifting from a practice room may stop us in our tracks: what was that? And where can I hear more of it?

But the thing about Christianity is that listening isn't enough. You are not, cannot be, only one of the audience; you cannot hang about the rehearsal overhearing what's going on. If you have declared for Christ, you are a member of an orchestra that stretches back, forward, and outward in time and space. And the strange thing is that while not one of the orchestra's members has ever managed to play perfectly in tune, the music is glorious. Do all our wrong notes cancel each other out? Or is there some other music that so floods ours that our errors vanish into it? Or does the ultimate music we bear in our hearts overtune the errors we commit with our imperfect fingers? Or all three? I only know that I've heard singing that, while technically imperfect, was so full of inner radiance that it must have been God's glory shining through.

That's one part of the good news; another is that God is not like one of those piano teachers who stands by with a ruler poised, waiting to rap your knuckles each time you make a mistake. God is far more interested in what we're doing right than in what we're doing wrong; his aim, like any good teacher's, is to bring out the promise in us, not to "correct" us right into silence and despair. (On the other hand, God would very much rather we concentrated on improving our own performance instead of critiquing the other guy's act, because critiquing the other guy's act isn't going to do a thing for our own performance except distract us from giving it the attention it needs.)

And a third piece of good news: God is no musical snob. No two of our tunes are identical; in soul terms, there are an unlimited number of melodies, and all--from broadest C&W to Bach at his absolute best--are beautiful in God's ears. For each can be perfect in its own way, and the celestial harmony is not played in unison.

I don't know why music carries as much spiritual whomp as it does, at least for some of us (not everyone). Music, for me, is the spiritual equivalent of smell: as the smell of burning leaves takes me back in space and time and is powerfully evocative, so music (some music, sometimes) feels as though it takes me into that place I dimly know of but have never actually seen or tasted. I'm not one for Platonic ideals, but I wonder if all our music foreshadows that music--some more accurately, some less so, but all reflecting the music we will live in forever when we cross that River. I don't know. If so, it's going to be heaven.

The child stopped, and started playing again, with a little more confidence; and I remembered that I had to get supper started and turned to go home. Humming.

(for my Deb)

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 10 Jun 2000
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