April 9, 2008

Flats, Sharps, and Other Incoveniences

2008 1510 page31 capny Adventist kid who ever learned to play the piano at her mother’s knee in the 1950s—as I did—probably began their hymn-playing career with “Jesus Is Tenderly Calling.” Its chord structure is eminently transparent, and you don’t have to move your fingers around too much to form the chords. Thus began my career as church pianist in a small Spanish church full of dear folk whose patience with my early stumblings was superseded only by their unconditional love for me.
The problem with me as a musician is that I became good at making do with little. If you heard me play a piece in the key of C, you’d swear I was a consummate pianist. The key of C made me look really good. But just throw in some flats and sharps, and I would freeze up with fear. I got pretty good at playing with flats—as long as there weren’t too many of them. But those sharps! They always tripped me up. Then there were the key changes in the middle of a piece—why couldn’t the composer just stay in one key and be content with that? And why on earth write C-sharp as D-flat if what you really meant was that C-sharp should be played?
Eventually, I moved from the key of C to more complicated chords, key signatures, and scales as I struggled with Bach inventions and Beethoven sonatas. At this juncture in my musical journey, Mom decided it was time to sign me up for piano lessons from Mr. Parker. Now, you should understand that Mr. Parker was the most respected piano teacher in our town at the time, and it wasn’t easy to become one of his students. So I was ecstatic when he accepted me into that privileged cadre of young musicians. My brother Ralph was already studying with him and playing difficult pieces with astonishing aplomb. Would I be able to do that too?
2008 1510 page31At this point I was already somewhat initiated into the typical repertoire of “Für Elise” and other such beginner’s fare. But I was ready to take on a big—really big—challenge. I wanted to play Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” I had heard it on a recording and immediately fell in love with this breathtakingly delicate gem.
Mr. Parker was pleased that I wanted to take on a challenge, but when he handed me the sheet music, my mouth fell open—I had never in my life seen so many sharps in one piece! And with this I couldn’t play any compensatory tricks such as transposing to flats, as I often did with hymns. There was no choice—I had to play it in sharps. And so began an exhilarating and excruciatingly difficult journey that ended in a flawless performance (if I must say so myself!) of “Clair de Lune” at Mr. Parker’s end-of-year recital.
After pondering these mysteries of music throughout the years, I’m beginning to understand the necessary inconveniences of flats and sharps. In the music of his life, the apostle Paul discovered that spending your life playing in the key of C could be not only boring but dangerous. As a privileged child and youth, Saul (later named Paul) had all his music memorized and knew exactly what he needed to do to pull off a perfect performance. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees who drank in the mysteries of the Torah with his mother’s milk. Life seemed predictably laid out for this lucky young man, but the earthly score for his life was turning him into a murderer!
Fortunately, God had other plans to make his life not so much comfortable as beautiful, unpredictable, and transcendent. And so began Paul’s fearless journey through the flats and sharps of the musical score God had written for his life, a symphony of dark, introspective moments, sweeping movements, and ecstatic climaxes—and always centered on the will of the Great Composer. Paul took his cues from Jesus Christ, the Author and Finisher of his faith.
Seen metaphorically, the flats and sharps that Providence writes into the composition of our lives may make us uncomfortable, even desperate with grief, but we can be certain that in the end, the music we make will be healing, inspiring, and awesome!
Lourdes Morales-Gudmundsson, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Modern Languages at La Sierra University.