Preferring the feel and the smell and the fillable margins of real books, I had never listened to an audio book until I received one as a Christmas gift from a dear friend seeking to relieve the tedium I experience on my 56.9-mile drive to and from work each day. I have now listened to more than half of this gift, a perfect one not only because I now look forward to my daily round trip. It is perfect, too, because it has inspired me to reflect with joy on the central and fulfilling rôle music has played throughout my life.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett takes place in an unnamed Latin American country. In order to woo a Japanese businessman to build a factory there, the country’s leaders have arranged a birthday party for him, a party he agrees to attend only when the hosts procure the services of world-renowned soprano Roxanne Coss to sing at the celebration. Near the end of the concert, a group of political terrorists enters through the air conditioning ducts to kidnap the president of the country, only to find that he stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera on television. Foiled in their plans, this ragtag group takes the more than 200 guests hostage. Much of the ensuing plot concerns communication; the characters speak Spanish, Japanese, English, French, Russian, German–with little overlap except in the person of Gen, the businessman’s translator. They must therefore learn to communicate with other tools–guns, knives, touch, smell, pain, and of course, music–the music that is always present to them when Roxanne begins to sing again.
That music is a universal language has become a cliché, but ideas gain cliché status only because they have been recognized as indisputable so long that articulating them becomes gratuitous. Listening avidly to the words of Patchett’s powerful novel (but wishing also to hear the music whose presence fills the pages) has allowed me to appreciate more fully how the gift of music can function not only as a means of communication, but also as a source of comfort and of community. More specifically, though, the novel has enabled me to consolidate my understanding that the richness of my own life has resulted from a series of lavish gifts of and from music.
Making music has certainly been a constant in my life since I had my first piano lesson at the age of 8. Playing in the band began with the cornet at 9, but I switched to the bassoon when I was in junior high. With a promise to write a concerto for me if I learned to play seven instruments, my band director inspired me to learn the fundamentals of the trombone and the tenor saxophone. I bought a bamboo flute at a craft fair and learned to play it in the loneliness of my dorm room when I moved across the country for graduate school. Of course, I picked up a recorder at some point. Doesn’t everyone? Over a long life, I also learned to play (or play at) the flute and the mandolin when I received them as much coveted holiday gifts.
Of course, music is not just a gift of brass or nickel, wood or strings. But neither is it just scales and arpeggios, tonguing and vibrato. Despite varying degrees of technical facility, I have never been comfortable with the suggestion that I am musically gifted. I can’t play without music, embellish what I see on the page, nor harmonize while singing. I have generally argued instead that my skills are merely the result of hard work and dedication; that is, I know the value of practice. However, these reflections suggest to me that maybe I am wrong. American Heritage defines gift as “a talent, endowment, aptitude, or inclination.” I certainly have the latter two, and I am warming to the idea that giftedness may result simply from the endowment of those qualities, irrespective of degree. And my experiences of providing acknowledged spiritual inspiration to others through my badly flawed performance at the keyboard have led me to understand that perhaps the simple decision to use the gift is what counts after all.
But music has given me countless gifts in addition to the ability to make it. Perhaps the greatest of these are the people. I remember the details of my first few years of piano lessons with Mrs. Curts, who plopped down beside me on the piano bench, spread her legs, and pulled up her skirt to reveal her stockings knotted just above the knee. Students waiting for their lessons had to sit in a worn armchair with a slipcover; we were allowed to sit on the good furniture only during the annual year-end celebration with milk and cookies. When she remarried, the legendary Mrs. Coleman became my teacher. She was the mother of eleven musical children, including a daughter named after Jenny Lind; the town piano tuner, Gale; and his mentally challenged younger brother, Wesley, who could identify missed notes from his small cottage on his mother’s property. I will have to write an entire post about Milton B. Nunamaker, the high school band director we called Nunie, surely the most unforgettable character in my life story. Because I attended music camp every summer, I was able to take private lessons from Jack Rausch, the bassoonist with the Gammage quintet at Arizona State University, and play in the honors orchestra under the baton of Mehli Mehta, father of the renowned conductor Zubin Mehta. And because I was in band when I went to college, I had the opportunity to march under the flamboyant direction of Jack K. Lee, composer of the University of Arizona’s fight song, “Bear Down, Arizona.”
In addition to these people who played such important rôles in my development, music has also provided me with some of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. On the day when Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind, I was beginning a tour with the Globe City Band, during which we visited the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone Park, and Las Vegas, playing concerts and collecting memories as we rode our bus caravan through parts of six Western states. With the University of Arizona Band, I played at the 1975 opening ceremony of the London Bridge when it took up residence with much fanfare at Lake Havasu. As part of the music team of the Kairos Prison Ministry, I took my keyboard to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, visiting–and singing with–the four convicted murderers on death row.
Music as my means of connecting with those incarcerated women enabled me to appreciate the most valuable and lasting gift I have received from music–that of community. I’m not certain I realized how large a part of myself music filled until the hole was empty. Between the ages of 10 and 20, I was always in a band, an orchestra, a woodwind quintet. I accompanied a flute and an oboe soloist and the girls’ triple trio. Whenever I attended a Christmas party, I sat down at the piano and we all sang carols. From junior high school forward, I was playing the piano for Sunday school and church, and people were singing along. Then, at the age of 23, I boldly declared that I would never set foot in another church–a vow I kept for 23 long years. Now and again during that arid time, I thought of sneaking into a church service somewhere just to join in the singing.
But then I found my spiritual home St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, and music became once again my path to community. I learned that despite my lack of proficiency, my playing could facilitate corporate worship; selecting, planning, and leading the weekly music became my surest means of servant ministry. Those were a glorious ten years, but then life intervened again. I left St. Christopher’s just after the Feast of the Epiphany in 2007. Since then, I have had recurrent nightmares expressing my deep need for relationships forged by music. I have dreamed of being at church or in a concert hall or in a rehearsal room. In each of these dreams, I am unable to play. I have forgotten to bring my music, my reed is broken, someone else is sitting in my spot at the keyboard. I awake with a painful longing that nothing can assuage.
Yet the reflections inspired by that serendipitous gift of an audiobook give me hope. I have lost my embouchure and my calluses, but those are small obstacles when my flute and my mandolin are in their cases under the bed. The keyboard lies fallow, but sheets of music are on the stand. I am beginning to feel that I can once again embrace music as part of my life. I would love to play with others, but for now, making music on my own will be enough. And I learned long ago from my dear friend, Emily, that even solitary music-making can be a gift to others. She once told me that she was often comforted on spring evenings when she listened from across the street as I played and sang at the old upright piano where I first learned about the gift of music so many years ago.