Wednesday, January 8, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: Finding Joy in an Out-of-Tune Piano


"Virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician."  Kurt Vonnegut  

Our son Evan at the family piano, Christmas 2015

As a family, we've encouraged our children to develop their musical talents. We provided each child piano lessons, membership in their respective high school bands, and training on violin and guitar for those who were interested. Some of them have become very accomplished musicians. Many can sing well and some have become professional piano instructors, guitar teachers, and church organists.

Our children learned to play the piano on a baby grand piano we inherited from my wife's grandmother. It's definitely not a Steinway or anything close to it, but it was adequate for lessons and family sing-alongs. It's now well over 100 years old and holds generations of loving memories.  

Unfortunately, as our children grew up, moved away, and stopped taking lessons, we tended to neglect the piano's care.   It has suffered through several moves and has gone many years without the benefit of a good tuning. As a result, this grand old lady is a "little off."


My brother Brent and his family visited us on the Sunday after Christmas. Brent's five children, all young adults and teenagers, are exceptionally gifted musicians. The three older daughters have won dozens of awards in music and have majors or minors in music performance or music education. The middle son is first chair in his All-State Honors orchestra, and the younger son, a fine brass player in his own right, is following in his siblings' footsteps.
As my nieces and nephews were leaving Sunday evening to go back to their hotel, some of them stopped at the old piano. I apologized for the mediocre quality of its sound and for its lack of tuning. Kimberly, the oldest and a college graduate in piano performance, responded with a positive and cheerful comment:

"Oh, I love to play an out-of-tune piano. You can really get into . . ." She paused, searching for the right word.

"Ragtime!" said Matthew, "or Honky-Tonk!" completing her sentence. "It's so fun to play Ragtime or Honky-Tonk on a piano like this."

Both he and Kimberly jumped on the bench and launched into a lively Scott Joplin duet, their four hands full of energy and enthusiasm. They made those old out-of-tune keys sing and dance, filling the room with happiness.

I was positioned to watch their faces during this impromptu performance, and in those youthful countenances I saw pure joy.  

In their faces I saw the joy of making music; the joy of playing together; the joy of bringing pleasure to their audience; the joy of using their well-honed talents; the joy of employing this less-than-perfect instrument in a manner for which it was perfectly suited.  

Never mind that this rather ordinary piano didn't - and probably never could - measure up to the quality of instruments they were accustomed to playing in All-State orchestras and college symphonies. What mattered was that they were making it resonate according to the full measure of its creation.

They overlooked its faults and flaws and indeed used those weaknesses to their advantage. This piano, at least in its current state, would not suffice for a senior recital or a grand concerto, but that didn't stop it from being the belle of the ball at a Sunday evening ragtime gig in the Farnsworth living room. What fun for all of us!

After they left and I reflected on their visit, it struck me that my nieces and nephews had just taught me two magnificent life-lessons, tutorials more about people than about musical instruments.

First, even "average" people can produce exceptional results when they are placed in the right environment and are nurtured by leaders, friends, or family who care for them and are willing to overlook their imperfections. Such supporters recognize abilities and ignore disabilities. They guide ordinary folks into roles and situations where success is possible, then believe in them wholeheartedly. Hand in hand, they bring out the best in everyone. I'm so thankful for leaders, friends, and family who have this amazing gift and use it to bless and bolster me and others in their circle of influence.

Second, as frail mortals, each of us can do far more and can become far more when we allow ourselves to be instruments under God's direction. He can make much more of us than we could ever achieve alone. One of my favorite poems is "The Touch of the Master's Hand" by Myra Brooks Welch. I realized after my brother and his family left that I had just seen a live demonstration of that beautiful composition.  

The Touch of the Master's Hand 
'Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
      Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
      But held it up with a smile.
"What am I bidden, good folks," he cried,
    "Who'll start the bidding for me?"
"A dollar, a dollar. Then two! Only two?
      Two dollars, and who'll make it three?"

"Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;
      Going for three..." But no,
From the room, far back, a grey-haired man
      Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin,
      And tightening the loosened strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet,
      As a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
      With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said: "What am I bid for the old violin?"
      And he held it up with the bow.
"A thousand dollars, and who'll make it two?
      Two thousand! And who'll make it three?
Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice,
    And going and gone," said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,
    "We do not quite understand.
What changed its worth?" Swift came the reply:
    "The touch of the Master's hand."
And many a man with life out of tune,
      And battered and scarred with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd
      Much like the old violin.

A "mess of pottage," a glass of wine,
    A game - and he travels on.
He is "going" once, and "going" twice,
    He's "going" and almost "gone."
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
    Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
    By the touch of the Master's hand.

Thank you, Kimberly, Kayla, Karina, Matthew, and Michael, for a wonderful Christmas message, taught not from a pulpit or lectern but from a rather ordinary piano bench. And thank you for also teaching me to love and appreciate our old piano by focusing on its capabilities rather than dwelling on its disabilities.

And thank you, Brent and Delwyn, for raising such remarkable and talented children.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: A Good - Better - Best Christmas


"Just because something is good is not a sufficient reason for doing it. Other choices are better, and still others are best. The number of good things we can do far exceeds the time available to accomplish them. Some things are better than good, and these are the things that should command priority attention in our lives." Dallin H. Oaks  


Is it just me, or do you also find that each year the space between Thanksgiving and Christmas seems shorter and shorter, while the list of things to be done grows longer and longer?  

When time, money, or other resources are at a premium (as they always seem to be at this time of year) how can we make the smartest choices? When I feel in a pinch, I turn back to the "good/better/best" principle taught by my law school will-and-trust professor, Dallin H. Oaks (who was the co-author of the multi-volume treatise Bogart & Oaks on Trusts, and also the president of the university).

According to President/Professor Oaks, just because something is "good" is not a sufficient reason for doing it. There are simply too many good choices, he says, for us to jump at the first one that pops up. Instead, we should be asking, "Is there something better than good?" or "What is the best outcome in this situation?"

This good/better/best approach can help us sort out all the choices that demand our attention during this blessed yet busy time of year. That means we can still do good things, but we must be mindful as to whether the "good" is preventing us from enjoying "better" and "best" opportunities.

Using this decision-making framework, what is an example of a "good" Christmas activity? For me, a "good" Christmas would be finding and giving the perfect gift to a person I love - something that pushes all their buttons. It's great when it includes an element of surprise; they are totally not expecting that! When I find such a treasure, I love wrapping it and looking forward to their delight and excitement as they tear open the brightly-colored paper on Christmas morning. Yes, giving wonderful presents makes for a very good Christmas!    


What would be a "better" Christmas? When I picture "better," I envision a season of togetherness and love with family and friends - an opportunity to hang out and talk and tell stories and catch up on everybody's hectic lives. Enjoying all that glorious food! Simply BEING TOGETHER after all the hustle and bustle, the decorating, the traveling, the cooking, the busy-ness of the holidays. Gifts are wonderful, but they pale in comparison to sweet fellowship with family and friends.


If perfect presents and family togetherness are "good" and "better," what's "best"? In my experience, "best" has to do with remembering the reason for the season. It means celebrating the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ in ways that transform a holiday into a Holy Day. How can we do that? Here are five ideas:


We can start by focusing on the coming of the Christ Child as we read the scriptures and recount the story of the first Christmas in Bethlehem . . .


We can seek for a "best" Christmas by worshipping together the Father of us all, the Supreme Giver of the incomparable gift of His Only Begotten Son, sent to earth to love us and to save us . . .   


We can uplift our Christmas season by singing the hymns and carols of Christmas, echoing those angelic choirs of long ago who wished upon the humble shepherds the blessing of peace on earth and good will to all . . .


Nothing tops the importance of finding meaningful ways to serve others from our hearts and our own abundance, being truly Christ-like in our care for those  in need . . .   


Finally, we can spend time praying and meditating reverently and silently, pondering the wonder and miracle of the Babe of Bethlehem, considering the deeper meaning and purpose of His birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection . . .

By reading the scriptures, worshipping together, singing sacred carols, serving in Christ-like ways, and praying and meditating about the true meaning of the birth of Christ, we can celebrate Christmas as a Holy Day.  

We can honor the Savior and Redeemer of Mankind on this greatest of all days, set aside to remember Him, the Greatest Gift of All Time. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." John 3: 16.  

To me, that's Christmas at its "BEST."

My prayer is that each of you will thoughtfully and purposefully choose those things that will make this Christmas "good," "better," and "best" for you and those you love.

* * * * *

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Farnsworth Family and all of us at SunBridge and Will & Trust Express.