Reflections on a Musical Memory

Christmas Mountain Village SignLast week Mim and I spent four days at our Christmas Mountain timeshare in Wisconsin Dells. Four days is the longest we’ve been away together in years. We had a wonderful time, just relaxing and being thankful we could celebrate our one year wedding anniversary.

As I was enjoying my first real vacation day on Monday, I opened up the magic cloud that follows my computer wherever it goes, and started listening to an album called “Instrumental Songs of Worship for Quiet Moments.” I sat down on the couch and looked through the window at the trees just beginning to turn from dark green to light red. I was going to start reading my book, but I noticed that a symphonic version of an old, old hymn was playing, “The Old Rugged Cross.” As I listened to it, I remembered playing that hymn on a little electronic organ at a Bible camp 56 years ago. I think I was 10.

Mims Reed Organ

Mim’s grandma’s pump organ

Before I explain the significance of that memory, let me give you a little family background.  My mom grew up with a small reed pump organ in the farmhouse. I never saw that organ, but I imagine it was similar to the one Mim’s grandmother had, which we now have at the base of our stairway in our condo.

Sometime after my mom and dad married, they bought a used upright piano. That’s the one I grew up playing. I remember my mom talking about how much she missed having an organ. At that time, in the 1950s and 1960s, electronic organs had become popular. Mom finally saved up enough money to buy a Lowery organ. It had two short manuals and a one-octave pedal board. Mom had negotiated a deal that included our old upright piano as a trade-in.

The night before the organ was to be delivered, I spent all evening playing the piano, for what I thought would be the last time. I was excited about getting an organ, but I knew I would miss the piano. I was saying goodbye to my 88-key friend by playing through all my piano books.

Old upright piano

My mom’s upright piano

The next day, when I came home from school, I was ecstatic to see the new organ, and also to see that the old piano was still there. My dad had bought the old piano back from the delivery men for $50. My dad got a good deal – he paid less than the original trade-in value – because the delivery men were so happy not to have to load the big old upright onto their truck.

Although the piano was my old friend, the novelty of the new organ captured most of my attention for the next few years. The organ came with ten free lessons from the WardBrodt Music Store in Madison. After those lessons were used up, I switched to taking both piano and organ lessons, alternating weeks, from our church organist. The ten free lessons from WardBrodt broadened my repertoire considerably. I’m sure my church organist teacher would never have taught me “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

(It’s a good thing I learned it because a friend of mine, who plans ahead, has requested that I play “The Beer Barrel Polka” for her funeral!)

Lowery Organ 2

A 1960s era electronic organ by Lowery – just like mine.

The following summer, between fourth and fifth grades for me, our church youth group spent a week at Willerup Bible Camp on Lake Ripley in Cambridge. The previous week’s campers had rented an electronic organ for the chapel, and it was still there. Since the camp director knew I was taking organ lessons, she asked me to play a solo for a special evening service toward the end of the week, a service that would include all our parents as guests.

I chose to play “The Old Rugged Cross.” The hymn had two flats, B and E. I always remembered to play the B-flat, and sometimes remembered the E-flat. It wasn’t my best performance, but I was still proud of the fact that I was the only kid at camp who knew how to play an organ.

After the service, my mom asked me why I chose to play that hymn. I didn’t really know why. I guess I kind of liked the melody, and I knew lots of people liked the song. I couldn’t think of any other reason I had for choosing it.

I think my mom’s question had a profound impact on me. For the past 50-odd years, I have always thought carefully about what music I play on either the piano or organ – whether it’s for background music during the dinner hour at the Cambridge Country Inn and Pub or for a worship service in church.

For example, the Scripture readings for last weekend included two stories about God’s grace. The first one was about Jonah, after his whale adventure. He preached to the people at Ninevah, they repented, and God decided not to punish them. Jonah was mad that God had changed his mind. He wanted God to punish them as they deserved. The second story was the parable Jesus told about the landowner who hired people to work in his fields. Some worked all day, some just a few hours, and the landowner paid them all the same wage. The laborers who had worked all day weren’t happy. It wasn’t fair. The disciples also had a hard time seeing the fairness in Jesus’ parable.

Mom looking down at me

I’m pretty sure my mom’s looking down at me, listening to me playing in church…

So what music did I choose for a prelude?

I wanted to suggest the ideas that we need to try to understand what God is telling us, just like the disciples were trying to understand the real meaning in Jesus’ parables, and that God’s message this week is about generosity and grace. I cobbled together an arrangement of three hymns – “Open My Eyes,” “He Giveth More Grace,” and “Amazing Grace.”

I’ve been accused of taking my music selection process too seriously. Maybe I do. Occasionally I choose to play something simply because I like it, but that’s only when I can’t think of anything that relates directly to the Scriptures of the day.

At least I know that if Mom is listening up in heaven to whatever I’m playing, I’ll have a good answer for her if she asks me why I chose to play what I chose. And I’m sure she’ll approve.

Marian at Messiah organ 3

And I have a very good reason for playing what I’m playing!

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