Music

Our home, when I was born, was the second floor of Melba and Harold Hyde’s house near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Though the Hydes were my parents’ landlords, they became like family to us, so we often shared meals in their kitchen. After dinner, Harold would move to his old upright piano, set his can of beer on top, and begin to entertain. He didn’t use print music; he just curled his fingers on the keyboard and played the music living in his head. When I grew old enough to stand, I would get as close as I could, gripping the edge of the piano bench to keep my balance, and watch his fingers dance across the keys. I was mesmerized by the beautiful sounds he created.

We moved to our own house when I was two, leaving the piano behind, but while playing with the children of new neighbors, the Farringtons, I discovered that they had one. Each time I visited their home, I made my way to the instrument, stretched my hands up to reach the ivories, tentatively pushing them with my fingers, until Mrs. Farrington noted my interest, set me on the piano bench, and began teaching me to read music. The best parts of my days were spent playing simple tunes with one finger.

We moved again when I was six and, heartbroken to have no piano nearby, I began begging my parents for one. They finally purchased a refurbished upright when I was seven but, sadly, the teacher they found was unwilling to work with me. She didn’t want to teach a child who couldn’t play an octave and my hands were much too small to cover those eight notes.

I cried and continued to play the easy songs I knew while stretching my fingers as wide as I could. And cried some more when I still couldn’t reach the octave, all the while begging my parents to find a different teacher.

It took six months, but Mother finally talked the lady into teaching me in spite of my small hands. The teacher had books filled with music staffs and notes that, when read and translated to the keyboard, expressed sounds and feelings that were new and, somehow, soothing to my spirit. I experienced pure joy as I felt and created amazing beauty.

It seemed a door had been unlocked inside of me.

I played for hours at a time. Every waking moment I tried to make that instrument sing, rarely giving my older sister a chance to practice. When it came to the piano, I didn’t share.

Why was piano music so important to me? Maybe, at age sixty, it’s a question finally worth exploring.

In high school and college, I participated in school and church choirs, which often sang old Negro spirituals like, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” My college choral director taught that these soulful, moving songs lifted the spirits of slaves as they did backbreaking work for their masters; the songs gave them hope, helped them to carry on, to survive.

Is that what my piano music did for me? I don’t remember feeling hopeless as a child. Maybe I simply didn’t feel free to be me.

Which brings me, surprisingly, to my Popeye doll. Popeye was my hero, the tough guy who fought for the people he loved. Spinach was the only green veggie I would eat when I was young and that was simply because my cartoon sailorman ate it.

Popeye was my favorite toy when I was a preschooler. He was soft and flexible, and since he was always with me, became the perfect vehicle for expressing my emotions. I would hug and cuddle him when I was happy. But if I were mad at someone, I would jump up and down on Popeye or wring him into unrecognizable shapes while I raged. My parents soon told me that expressions of anger were bad—not allowed in our home—and after several warnings, they took Popeye from me and threw him away. I wasn’t allowed to have him because I wasn’t allowed to be angry.

I saw my dad get angry, though he always insisted he wasn’t. I knew better. A raised voice, blazing eyes and red face couldn’t mean anything else, regardless of how heartily it was denied. I was confused by a dad who said I couldn’t be angry when he so often was.

But then I learned the story of Jesus’ anger at the moneychangers in the temple, when He overturned their tables and threw them out of His Father’s house. How could anger be bad if Jesus got angry? Some expressions of it might be, but not the anger itself.

Did I sin by beating up my Popeye doll? I think not. Had I beat my sister, yes. My doll, no.

There is no telling what other emotions were repressed during my early years; the memories are vague. But perhaps I loved playing the piano because it allowed me to honestly express myself. My parents, who encouraged practice, didn’t seem to disapprove of emotions released through a song on the keyboard.

It’s not surprising that Beethoven, the composer whose music so aptly expresses God’s fire, is still my favorite to play after all these years on my worn 1915 upright grand piano with its powerful soul.

Could I make prettier music on a new piano? Maybe. But I’m fine with what I’ve got. My piano is old and seasoned, like me. It’s slightly out-of-tune due to its aged soundboard, just as my body is slightly out-of-kilter with its thinning bones and arthritic joints. Together, we make music that comes from deep within our hearts, that expresses joy, sorrow, care, anger, fear, love, longing, frustration, hope—a full range of emotions.

Music that expresses all of those things brings the honesty, passion, truth and reality that combine to create beauty.

Music of my soul.

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