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Multi-Purpose Melodies

fullsizeoutput_2003When I was in eighth grade, our English teacher gave us the assignment to celebrate National Library Week by writing a poem about books. In general, I was a good student, and I liked to write. But I didn’t (and still don’t) like to write poetry. I complained to my mom about the stupid assignment, and she told me about a trick for writing poetry. She said, “Just make up new words to a song you like. It will turn out to be a poem.” She said the song that always worked best for her was the Stephen Foster song “Oh, Susanna.” I decided to try it, using that song. I remember I started the song with, “I went downtown the other night to get myself a book…” I think I wrote half a dozen stanzas, the teacher loved it, and I got an A. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I don’t remember the rest of the poem.

I’ve thought about that poetry-writing experience periodically throughout my life. I’m sure my mom and I aren’t the only people who know about that trick for writing a poem – or a hymn. A lot of contemporary hymn writers seem to use it, although I don’t think they use “Oh, Susanna.” A lot of them use the hymn tune called BEACH SPRING. I’m not particularly fond of the tune, although it’s okay. It’s not hard to sing. It’s just not all that pretty, in my opinion. But it must be a good tune for fitting lyrics to. One of my favorite hymns that uses this tune is “Come and Find the Quiet Center,” a hymn by Shirley Erena Murray of New Zealand. Here’s the first verse of the hymn:

Come and find the quiet center
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed;
Clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.

Another contemporary hymn writer that has used this tune is Ruth Duck, an American theologian. Here’s the first verse of a hymn she wrote for this tune:

As a fire is meant for burning
with a bright and warming flame,
so the church is meant for mission,
giving glory to God’s name.
Not to preach our creeds or customs,
but to build a bridge of care,
we join hands across the nations,
finding neighbors everywhere.

The reason I’m thinking about “multi-purpose melodies” this week is that last weekend (Labor Day) we sang a relatively new hymn in church, one that uses one of my favorite melodies. The tune is FINLANDIA, composed in 1899 by Jean Sibelius. As a hymn tune, it is most commonly associated with “Be Still My Soul.” The hymn we sang this weekend was “This Is My Song,” a different kind of patriotic song. Verses 1 and 2 were written by American song writer Lloyd Stone. Verse 3 was written by another theologian, Georgia Harkness.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
So hear my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O God of all earth’s kingdoms,
your kingdom come; on earth your will be done.
O God, be lifted up till all shall serve you,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
So hear my prayer, O God of all the nations;
myself I give you; let your will be done.

As I was preparing the music for church this weekend, I was reminded of another new hymn written to this tune, “When Memory Fades” by Mary Louise Bringle. Basically it’s a hymn about aging and Alzheimer’s Disease, and where God fits into this picture. Here’s the first verse:

When memory fades, and recognition falters,
when eyes we love grow dim, and minds confused,
speak to our souls of love that never alters;
speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused.
O God of life and healing peace, empower us
with patient courage, by your grace infused.

I love all three of these hymns – Be Still My Soul, This Is My Song, and When Memory Fades – and this tune is the perfect complement to the message of each one. As I was looking for a piano arrangement of FINLANDIA to play for the offertory to subtly remind people of the opening hymn we had sung, I came across an arrangement by Anne Krentz Organ, currently the music director of a church in Chicago.  The arrangement begins with a bold phrase from FINLANDIA, which is followed by soft and tender phrase from “Jesus Loves Me.” The arrangement moves back and forth between the two hymns, phrase by phrase. Although a piano arrangement has no words, the juxtaposition of musical phrases from these hymns emphasizes the point that Jesus cares about me and loves me always – whether I’m praying to God to “still my soul,” or praying to the “God of all earth’s kingdoms” for peace, or praying for comfort “when memory fades.” God is always near – “Jesus loves me.”

I’m not sure exactly what God created when She created music, but I’m sure glad She shared the same trick with many hymn writers that my mom shared with me – that melodies are multi-purpose, and that using a tune is a great way to write a poem, or a hymn.

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Peace – Let It Begin with Me

Floe-Marian faces 2015“Hey, Mom.” My dog Floey came ambling over to me as I sat at my desk.

“Good morning, Floey. What’s up?” I replied.

“I just saw on TV that it’s supposed to be as hot and humid today as it was yesterday. Do we have to go on any long walks today? I’d rather stay inside where it’s nice and cool.”

“I agree with you, Floey. Maybe we can run up and down the stairs a few extra times for exercise. You let me know when you need to go outside to do your business, and the rest of the time we’ll stay inside.”

“Great plan, Mom! What do you want to do while we’re inside today?”

“I think I’ll get back to writing my next book. It’s coming along pretty well. I’ve completed the first draft of the first couple chapters, and now I’m working on the third chapter.”

“Is this book going to be just like your last one, TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns?”

“It’s very similar in style. I’ve made a few structural changes based the on feedback I got on that book, but it’s the same concept – choosing a favorite hymn and reflecting on its history and meaning. The first chapter includes 16 hymns about peace – hymns like Dona Nobis Pacem, Let There Be Peace on Earth, Peace in the Valley, Peace Like a River, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace, and lots more.”

“That’s an interesting mix of peace hymns, Mom. One of my favorite hymns is Let There Be Peace on Earth. Can you read me what you wrote about that one?”

 

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TUNE: WORLD PEACE
COMPOSER: Sy Miller (1908-1971)
AUTHOR: Jill Jackson Miller (1913-1995)
SCRIPTURE: Romans 12:18 (NRSV)
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

THE HUSBAND AND WIFE TEAM of Sy (Seymour) Miller and Jill Jackson Miller collaborated to write many songs together. In 1955 they wrote “Let there Be Peace on Earth” for a very specific purpose. They wrote it to be sung at a week-long retreat for young people who had come from very different religious, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. 

Sy Miller described the effect of the song this way. “One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment – ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me’ – helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding.”

When the retreat was over, the kids took the song home with them, and it quickly spread throughout all 50 states, and then internationally.

The author of the song, Jill Jackson Miller, had lived a life of many challenges. Her mother died when Jill was only three years old. By the time she was 12 she and her sister were placed in a foster home. One of her two brothers died from an accident with fireworks. 

Jill’s life dream was to become a movie actress. After two years of junior college, she moved to Hollywood. She starred as the heroine in several westerns. In 1940 she married Felix Jackson, a German writer and director, and she gave up her movie career at his request. 

They had two daughters. They divorced in 1944, which led to Jill attempting suicide. During her recovery she developed a strong belief in God and felt inspired to become a writer. In 1949 she married Sy Miller, and he convinced her to write songs with him – she wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music. After they wrote “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” the quest for world peace became her life focus. She traveled widely to speak about the power of each person to help create peace. She encouraged people to keep searching for their meaning, their inspiration, their true beliefs, and to forgive themselves and others for mistakes made along the way.

——————-

“Hey, Mom. If what you said is true, that song was written 63 years ago. Do you think the world is more peaceful now than it was in 1955?” 

Danny and Marian in haybarn - brown“That’s a good question, Floey. In 1955, I was seven years old. My fiercest enemy was also my best friend – my 9-year-old brother Danny. I wasn’t very aware of international politics back then. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president – that’s all I remember.” 

“Didn’t you watch TV way back then?” 

“Yes, we did, but there weren’t any round-the-clock politics channels back in those days. We watched comedies like “I Love Lucy.” We spent our time together laughing, not arguing.” 

“How about racial discord?” Floey asked.

“The only non-white kids in my school were Robert and his sister Sandra. Robert was in my class and was a good friend. Sometimes he shared his candy with me. I especially liked it when he gave me a whole envelope of lime Lik-m-maid. We drifted apart over the years, and the last I heard, about twenty years ago, he was in prison somewhere.” 

“That’s kind of sad, Mom.” 

“Yeah, it is, Floey. Peace can be very elusive – on a personal level as well as community-wide and globally. But the message of this song still holds – “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” 

“How’s that, Mom?” 

“Do you know what day it is today, Floey?” 

“It’s Tuesday, August 14, 2018. Is there anything special about today?” 

“Yes, there is, Floey. In Wisconsin and a few other states it’s voting day for primary elections. I’m going to ignore the oppressive heat and go out and vote. That’s one little thing I can do to help us all move toward peace on earth.” 

“Good for you, Mom! I wish I could vote, too. Maybe I should begin a fight for the right to vote for dogs (but not cats – they don’t have the intellectual capacity that we dogs have).”  

“Now, Floey, if you really want peace on earth, you’ll fight just as hard for the right for cats to vote as for dogs. When you accept the universal right to vote as your cause, you’ll have taken the first really big step toward peace.” 

“Maybe, you’re right, Mom.”

“Floey, let’s try to find a shady block or two, and walk down the street together. Maybe we can even sing all the words of Let There Be Peace on Earth.  

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.
With God our creator, children all are we.
Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony.
Let peace begin with me; let this be the moment now.
With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow;
to take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

The Little Books Are Here!

9b9cc55960ea3611d835b85b118f3ac4When I was a freshman in high school I went to a national convention in Washington D.C. sponsored by Youth For Christ (YFC). If I remember correctly, there were 10,000 high school kids from all over the country at this convention. The main speaker was Billy Graham. I had heard him speak before in Chicago, and I heard him speak again several times later. He was even our commencement speaker when I graduated from Wheaton College. But the one thing I remember most vividly from all the times I’ve heard Graham speak was at that YFC convention in Washington. He said that one of the most important things in his Christian life was spending time reading the Bible. Specifically, he said he read five Psalms and one Proverb every day, month after month, year after year. The Psalms helped him learn how to communicate with God, and the Proverbs helped him learn how to get along with people.

I remember I tried reading the Psalms and Proverbs every day for a few weeks after I heard him say that, but no magic lights went on. I didn’t quite understand what the Psalms and Proverbs really meant for me in my life as a high school student back in the 1960s. There are a few Psalms that I like reading, like Psalm 23 and Psalm 100. And there are a few verses that stand out, like:

Psalm 19:1 – The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.

Psalm 46:10 – Be still and know that I am God.

Psalm 51:10 – Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

But in general, I haven’t bothered reading either the Psalms or Proverbs very much in the 55 years since the day I heard Graham commend them so highly. That is, until I started working on my current writing project –  TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC, a book of reflections on some of my favorite hymns.

As I started to organize my thoughts for this project, I made a list of over 300 of my favorite hymns, and then I started to do research into the historical background of each hymn and the Biblical references within each hymn. I was quite surprised to discover how prominent the Psalms were in what I was learning. I decided to make the first section of my writing project include only hymns that are based on scriptural references from the Psalms. I selected 31 of my favorite Psalm-based hymns for this section.

My original concept for this writing project was to write a 365-day devotional, with a 2-page spread for each hymn, with the first page being factual information and my reflections on the hymn and the second page being the melody line and lyrics. The 31 Psalm-based hymns would be the hymns for January. It has since dawned on me that a 730-page book is a bigger project than I want to undertake. My current vision for this project is to include 101 of my favorite hymns, with reflections on about 10 hymns for each of about 10 different themes – like peace, joy, comfort, etc. A book that’s a little over 200 pages will be much more manageable to write, and even to hold as you read it.

fullsizeoutput_22baAs I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve decided to publish my 31 Psalm-based hymns as a separate book, a 68-page prototype of what my 101 favorite hymns book will look like. That spin-off project is now completed. If you would like a FREE copy of this little book, please send me your mailing address, and I’ll be happy to send you one. After you have had a chance to look at the prototype, I would appreciate your sending me any suggestions you may have for how to make the next book better. The last page of the book provides details on how to send feedback.

Meanwhile, an unexpected personal benefit to me of this writing project is that I think I understand a little more of what Billy Graham meant 55 years ago when he talked about the importance of reading the Psalms for learning how to communicate more deeply with God. I’ve gone back to looking at the Psalms again – both in the Bible and in hymnals. Maybe, you will find that reading TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns will provide you with a similar unexpected benefit.

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Dementia, Music, and Talking with God

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Last Thursday Mim and I took a day-trip to Lake Geneva for Rainbow Hospice Care’s 14th annual “End-of Life Conference.” The theme this year was “A Focus on Dementia.” The whole conference was excellent! This is what continuing education is like for people in our business – assisted living.

The morning keynote speaker was Teepa Snow who helped us understand the functional limitations of individuals in each of the seven stages of dementia. She taught us how we can be most helpful when we try to provide care for residents in these stages, as well as how to care for their family members. As Teepa’s speaking and actions evolved into the typical behavior of a person in each stage of dementia, a lightbulb went on in our minds. So that’s why… Now I understand… Behaviors of many past residents came to mind.

The closing keynote speaker was Jolene Brackey, the author of Creating Moments of Joy. Throughout the past 15 years that Mim and I have been doing assisted living in our home, we have given away many copies of her book. The majority of people we have cared for have had some degree of dementia, and this book provides practical examples of how to provide “moments of joy” for these individuals. We’ve made the book required reading for anyone who works with us, and we routinely give the book to the families of our residents with dementia.

fullsizeoutput_22a6Jolene Brackey didn’t disappoint us as a speaker. At the end of a long day of learning for all of us at the conference, she provided us moments of joy as she told us stories and gave us practical examples for sharing joy freely with our residents.

One of the afternoon Breakout Sessions that I found particularly interesting was “Music and Memory.” From my own experience, I’ve known that music still communicates with many people who have very advanced dementia. I used to play the piano monthly for a senior respite organization in a nearby town. One of their clients was a man in his 50s who had early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He would sit in the group all day long without saying a word. But when it came time for the sing-along, he would join in and sing enthusiastically, remembering all the words of the golden oldies and hymns I played for them.

fullsizeoutput_22a8The “Music and Memory” Breakout Session was an update on the progress of a non-profit organization called “Music & Memory.” The vision of “Music & Memory” is to provide the means for caregiving organizations to give an iPod with a personalized playlist for each person in their care. The playlist includes the favorite songs of each individual, often the popular hits of their high school years. Research has shown that people, even in the advanced stages of dementia, exhibit signs of happiness when they are listening to their favorite music.

In this session, we were asked to pair up with another session participant to learn about their favorite music – something we would need to do with a resident or their family if we were to try to create a personalized playlist. My partner was a college student, whose favorite music type is heavy metal, and whose favorite band is Metallica. In contrast, I’m nearly 70 and my favorite music type is sacred piano, and one of my favorite performers is Steve Hall. Our music vocabularies had almost no overlap. If I had to prepare a playlist of her favorites, I would really struggle. But I enjoyed talking with her and learning a little about heavy metal music. I now have a little better understanding of the incredible breadth of music that can speak to our souls.

Thinking about the power of music is something I’ve been doing for several months. As you may know from previous blog posts, I’m writing a book with the current working title of Talking with God through Music. I’ve actually been working on this book for over a year. Originally I intended it to be a daily devotional with personal reflections on 365 of my favorite hymns. I started writing the book in late 2016, and I started the project by writing reflections on hymns of thanksgiving. Then I worked on Christmas Carols. The more I wrote, and the more I organized my favorite hymns into different categories to figure out where in the year they should be placed in the book, I decided it made sense to start the book with a month’s worth of hymns based on Psalms – the hymn book of the Bible. I finished writing the Psalm section of my book the last time I was at our Christmas Mountain timeshare, a few weeks ago.

Now that I’ve written 31 reflections on Psalm-based hymns, I’ve decided to publish this collection of hymns and reflections as a separate book, Talking with God through Music: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns. My plan is to use this 68-page book as a prototype for the larger book. I experimented with a lot of new things in writing this book, and I want to find out if all my extra homework is worth the effort. I did quite a bit of research into each hymn to be able to provide information about the author, the composer, and the historical context, along with my personal reasons for choosing the hymn as one of my favorites. I also learned to use music-writing software to create a melody line for each hymn so that readers can actually see the music and lyrics next to my paragraphs to help them remember what the hymn sounds like – to be able to sing it in their mind or even out loud.

I hope that readers will give me feedback on the prototype that will help me tweak the style and format for the larger book. My goal for the final book is to help readers discover how music, hymns in particular, can enrich their ability to talk with God. Music is the language of the soul. As St. Augustine said more than 1500 years ago, “Whoever sings prays twice.” And, as we were reminded last Thursday, music is an amazing means of communication for everyone, regardless of their cognitive state.

fullsizeoutput_22a7If you would like a copy of Talking with God through Music: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns, let me know. I’ll be happy to send you one. I’d really appreciate your feedback on the concept and structure of the book before I put together my next book. My goal is to submit the text of the prototype to the publisher this week, and to receive the printed copies within a week or two. I’ll write another blog post when I have the books in hand.

 

Playing with My Circle of Pianos

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Big Red – my first piano

I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t had a piano as one of my best friends. I was born into a household that had a big old upright piano living in it. Big Red. I remember trying to read its name scrolled in Old English typeface – Bush & Gerts, Chicago – but Big Red is a better name. My mom taught me a couple little melodies to play on some of the white keys near the middle of the keyboard – “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and something about “Birdies in Treetops” so that I could do more than just pound on the keys. When my big sister Nancy (11 years older than me) started to give actual piano lessons to my brother Danny (2 years older than me), I demanded my rights to the same advantage. He was 6, I was 4 when we started. Danny gave up on developing a friendship with Big Red within a year or two. Once he learned “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” all on the black keys, he thought he knew enough to quit lessons. I kept on until I graduated from high school, although I had to move on to different teachers when Nancy moved away to college.

Throughout my school years, as soon as I got home from school, I’d check the mail lying on the dining room table where my dad had left it (my mom was at work in Madison), run upstairs to change my clothes, and then go straight to the piano to practice. I’d play each song of my lesson 5 times, and then I’d play with Big Red just for fun. Sometimes we’d try to figure out new tunes that I mostly remembered in my head from when I’d heard them on the radio. Sometimes we learned new songs from “Singspiration Gospel Songbooks” that my mom picked up from religious bookstores whenever a new songbook was published.

That’s when Big Red and I really became close friends, spending time playing together after school. Big Red was able to figure out immediately whether I was having a good day or a bad day as soon as I sat down on the old piano stool. If I was feeling sad, Big Red knew just what songs to remind me to play to feel better.

Big Red and I drifted apart a little when I was about 10 and an electronic organ moved into our household and tried to distract me from my piano friend. I developed a close friendship with the organ, too, but never as close as my relationship with Big Red.

The next piano in my close circle of piano friends was Lonnie Lyon & Healy. I’d been living in Chicago with my new best friend Mim for about a year, but I knew that something was missing in my life. I needed a piano friend. The big music store in Chicago at the time was Lyon & Healy, and I heard from another friend that they didn’t just manufacture and sell pianos, they leased them for a mere $15 a month. One phone call and a week later, Lonnie Lyon & Healy moved into our apartment. She was a little spinet with a squeaky sustain pedal, but she quickly became a good friend. We settled into a routine of me getting ready for work about half an hour early, so we could spend some time playing together before I took the “L” downtown to my job.

After a couple years of playing together with Lonnie, she confided in me that she was getting tired and wanted to move back to the store for awhile. I said OK, and went looking for a new piano friend.

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Sally Sohmer – the first piano I bought

That’s when I met Sally Sohmer in the Lyon & Healy store at Woodfield Mall in suburban Chicago. She was a little bigger than Lonnie, but not as big as Big Red. The store called her a console. I thought of her as a short studio piano. I really liked the touch of her keys when I tried her out. I also tried out several of her cousins in the store, but it was an easy decision. I liked her the best, and she was going to come home with me. I knew we were destined to become really good friends. As Sally and I got to know each other better, we experimented with different kinds of music, especially the easier works of classical composers. We had so much fun with Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” We also began to explore more creative arrangements of hymns, like I had begun to find with Big Red when I was in high school. We also built up a bigger than necessary library of Christmas music.

il_570xN.717033260_mgycSally Sohmer moved to Wisconsin with Mim and me in 1992 when me moved back to the farmhouse where I had grown up, and that’s where we had some of the most fun of our lives. We discovered golden oldies. My mom used to buy popular sheet music before she was married (in the late 1920s and early 1930s), and her collection was still in the store room upstairs at the farmhouse. Mim joined our playtimes for this. She sang some of the most hilarious lyrics we’ve ever heard. “Pink Elephants” became one of our favorites.

A couple years after we moved to Wisconsin, Mim invited Jim Forrest to join our circle of people and piano friends. Mim had met Jim as a patient at the clinic where she worked, and she learned that he was a piano tuner and technician. Jim became our piano tuner – both for Big Red who still lived in the farmhouse and for Sally Sohmer.

After a few years of seeing Jim at least twice a year, sometimes more often, when he happened to be in Cambridge to tune someone else’s piano and we met for lunch, we learned that Jim’s real passion was being a matchmaker between people and pianos. That came up one day just after he had tuned Sally Sohmer. He said, “Marian, I have just the piano for you. It would fit perfectly in this end of your living room. It’s a Baldwin baby grand. It’s a beautiful 5’ grand that I’m rebuilding in my workshop right now. I’m almost finished with it, and I’ll sell it to you for a really good price. You and this piano need to be together.”

Maxine-Marian at piano

Playing with Betty Baldwin while an assisted living resident watches

I responded with, “I already have a really nice piano. Two of them, actually. Why would I want another piano?”

Jim replied, “Ah, but neither of them is a grand. Have you ever played a grand piano?”

“No, I haven’t. But I’m very happy with the pianos I have right now.”

“Why don’t you just come to my workshop in Madison and play the Baldwin, so you can hear and feel the difference between a grand and an upright.”

Mim joined the conversation at that point, and said, “Let’s just go and try it. It will be fun to try it out, and then we’ll know if there’s a big difference, or not.” A few days later we did. I couldn’t believe the difference in touch and sound, especially hearing the high notes just ring out. I may be fickle, but I fell in love with Betty Baldwin on the spot. I sold Sally Sohmer to my brother Danny (not for him to play, but for his daughter Emily to learn on), and Jim found a new home for Big Red at a Victorian style bed and breakfast in Stoughton, where she would fit right in. (At least we could still visit my two old friends.)

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Stella Steinway

A few years later, matchmaker Jim told me that he had just the right piano for me. He was rebuilding a Steinway, the next size up from Betty Baldwin, about 5-1/2 feet. We repeated nearly the same conversation we’d had before, and I went to his workshop to try out the Steinway, just so I could hear and feel the difference between a Steinway and a Baldwin. I fell in love again, and sold my Baldwin to Danny who ended up with two pianos, with his greatest personal musical accomplishment still being “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” on the black keys.

Stella Steinway has been my best friend (except for Mim, and maybe a handful of other people) for ten years now, and I’m pretty sure our relationship will last for the rest of my lifetime. Then Stella will need to find another friend. I’m helping Jim match up pianos with other friends of mine – hopefully, no more for me. Stanley Steinway, Stella’s bigger brother, went to the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge. I still play with him about once a month, or so.

The only other piano I play with any regularity is Stephanie Steinert, the piano at my church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison. Stephanie Steinert is a cousin of Stella Steinway, and they’re almost identical. Stephanie’s designer had worked closely with the Steinway Company over the years, and the style and quality of Steinert pianos rivals that of Steinways.

So, why am I reminiscing about all my piano friends today? Last week Stella and I had so much fun playing together that I just laughed and laughed and laughed. Last weekend our church celebrated All Saints Day, and I wanted to pick out some fun but appropriate music for the Saturday evening service I was scheduled to play. Saturday night services are a little more casual than Sunday morning services, and I usually play the prelude, the opening hymn, and communion hymn on the organ, and I play the offertory, closing hymn, and postlude on the piano.

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Messiah’s Steinert piano and tracker organ

I worked with my digital piano, Claire Clavinova (pretending to be an organ), first to find an appropriate prelude to play on the organ.  We came up with an energetic arrangement of For All the Saints and a fun variation of Shall We Gather at the River. The two pieces fit together nicely and timed out at 5 minutes 30 seconds, just about the right length.

So I was ready to move on to my friend Stella Steinway to play around with all the music we could think up related to All Saints Day for the offertory and postlude. I thought about old gospel songs like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder” and “When We All Get to Heaven” but I didn’t have any fancy arrangements of either song. Then I turned to my James Koerts 3-ring binder of spirituals I’ve down-loaded from the Internet. Stella and I just played and played and laughed. We finally narrowed down our offertory and postlude choices to just a few, and played them for Mim and Carolyn (one of our 96-year-old residents) so that they could help us decide. Carolyn chose a very jazzy “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for the offertory, and Mim chose an equally jazzy “When the Saints Go Marching In” for the postlude. By the time we finished making our selections, all the spirits in our household were having a great time. It’s amazing what music can do for the soul. And my friend Stella Steinway never lets me forget that.

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!

[Psalm 150 – New King James Version]

Little Hands

6360489455192162291563850737_TrumpDonald Trump gets very angry when people say he has little hands. I noticed his hands last night when he addressed the nation about his Afghanistan War strategy. He used his right hand to gesture a lot as he spoke, and I noticed that his fingers are relatively short. But obviously, his hands are big enough to hold a pen to sign executive orders, and big and strong enough to swing a golf club.

I have little hands. The only adult I know with hands smaller than mine is Mim. Her fingers are about a quarter of an inch shorter than mine.

IMG_2271I sometimes wish I had longer fingers. Most people who play the piano have longer fingers than I have. On both of my hands, my thumb and little finger can stretch over eight notes to play an octave, a frequent requirement when playing special arrangements of hymn tunes. If my hands are in the right position, I can even hit a ninth note, if needed. But absolutely no farther than that. The challenge comes when I need to fill in three notes of a chord with my other three fingers. Sometimes I can do it, sometimes I can’t, depending on the position of each note. Fortunately, I usually play hymn arrangements where I can freely substitute notes I can reach for the ones I can’t, and the music still sounds okay. (Good thing I don’t play too much demanding classical music where substitutions would be considered a musical crime.)

I really enjoy playing the piano (and organ, too). I can get totally lost playing a song like “Be Still My Soul” or “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” The music becomes a conversation between God and me.

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When I select music to play for preludes, offertories, and postludes for church services, I try to select music that can prompt others to communicate with God in the same way. I start the process of planning the music for the service by reading the scriptures assigned for that Sunday. Usually, that will bring related hymns to mind. Then I’ll search through my books of piano and organ arrangements and choose something that seems to fit the theme for the day.

For example, last weekend, the Gospel was Matthew 15:21-28, the story of Jesus refusing to heal the daughter of the Canaanite woman because he didn’t want to waste his healing powers on the “dogs.” Those powers were intended for the Jews. But the woman persisted with great faith, and Jesus healed her daughter after all. It’s a difficult story to understand. What better hymn to reflect on that than “More about Jesus.” I really want to know more and more about Jesus to be able to understand this story better. As the song says…

More about Jesus I would know,
More of His grace to others show;
More of His saving fullness see,
More of His love who died for me.

More, more about Jesus,
More, more about Jesus;
More of His saving fullness see,
More of His love who died for me..

[Eliza E Hewitt, 1887]

“Coincidentally,” earlier that week I had downloaded a new piano arrangement of that hymn from one of my favorite websites, and I decided that would make the perfect offertory. For the people familiar with the hymn, they could silently pray the words as I played the music. For those who didn’t know the hymn, they could simply enjoy the music. (The tune name is SWEENEY.)

As I was looking for a postlude, I paged through a new book of arrangements I had ordered a few months ago, and came across “O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.” That seemed to me like a very appropriate postlude, considering how Jesus healed the woman’s daughter, even though she was a Canaanite. But, I thought this was another old hymn that would most likely be unfamiliar to most of the congregation. So, I decided to test Mim, a life-long Lutheran, to find out if she recognized the tune. I played the arrangement for her, and asked if she knew it. She said, Oh sure. That’s “Once to Every Man and Nation.” Well, she was right. The tune name is EBENEZER, which is commonly used for both hymns. I guess that made this arrangement doubly appropriate. The theme of that week’s Gospel is both about the deep love of Jesus and about the fact that Jesus’ love is for all people, not just the Jews. group handshake 1

So, what does all this have to do with little hands?

In my devotional reading this morning, I read 2 Corinthians 10:12-18, as specified in the devotional booklet, CHRIST IN OUR HOME. Here’s part of the reading…

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense. We however, will not boast beyond limits, but will keep within the field that God has assigned to us…

Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.

[2 Corinthians 10:12-13, 17-18 NRSV]

The reflection on this text in CHRIST IN OUR HOME ended with:

Paul’s point is this: we boast and are proud of a … gift that God gave. In fact, to do otherwise might be to deny the gift that God has provided. God has given us many gifts. We can be thankful for them, be proud of them, boast of them, and use them to enlarge God’s kingdom.

God gave me little hands, and a wide exposure to sacred music – from the gospel songs of my Methodist childhood, to the more formal hymns of the church, to Evangelical praise songs and choruses. My fingers are too short, as is my ability to memorize long complex musical phrases, for me to be a classical pianist. But that’s not what God created me for. That’s not what I should compare my talents to. God created me to help create music in church, to help others pray and worship God. And for that, I am thankful – little hands and all.

Marian at Messiah organ 2

And best of all, I don’t have to get as dressed up for church as I would for a fancy concert hall!

PLAY – the Best Medicine

A couple weeks ago Floey and I went for a long morning walk, and it really felt like summer for the first time this year. The sun had warmed the air to the mid 70s, a few white clouds floated in the bright blue sky, the birds were singing, and cornfields were showing off neat rows of 2-inch baby plants. Floey trotted beside me on her 16-foot extendable leash, watching carefully for any movement along the side of the road that could indicate a chipmunk, rabbit, or squirrel was hiding from us.

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As we walked along the country road that goes by our old farmhouse, a song that was popular when I was in high school popped into my mind – “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.” In my mind, Nat King Cole was singing it, and I was in the driveway of the farm, washing my first car, a 1963 Corvair. I remember I did that on perfect Sunday afternoons in 1966. That song made me smile and feel good 51 years ago, and it made me smile and feel good now as I was walking Floey.

Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Those days of soda and pretzels and beer
Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Dust off the sun and moon and sing a song of cheer.

When Floey and I got back home, I said, “Alexa, play Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer by Nat King Cole.” My Amazon Echo gadget accommodated my whim, and I listened to the song just as I had remembered it.

Danny and Marian in first go-kart

We also built go-karts.

Summer is my favorite time of the year for lots of reasons. Most of my happy childhood memories took place in the summer – planting tobacco, baling hay, playing cowboys and Indians in the barn, walking down to the woods to explore, playing croquet on the front lawn. There was always lots of work to do, but there was always enough time to play, as well. Now that I’ve grown up, I find that it’s much harder to find time to play, although I’m usually most successful in finding time for play in the summer.

For the month of May, Joan Chittister wrote in the “Monastic Way” devotional pamphlet all about the importance of finding time to play. She started by quoting Proverbs 8:30, “I, Wisdom, was God’s delight day by day, playing with God every moment…”

fullsizeoutput_208aI’ve never used words quite like that to talk about “playing.” But as usual, Chittister gave me something to think about every day. One day she quoted Albert Einstein, “Play is the highest form of research.” She went on to explain, “Play frees our minds to think things we have never had the opportunity to think before. It enables us to come to know ourselves in other ways. It prompts us to think differently – about old things and new.”

Another day she said, “Adults get so work oriented, they forget to keep on growing. As a result we risk never becoming the rest of ourselves. To know who we are and what we can be requires a great deal of aimless activity…”

The next day she added, “To be really happy, we have to discover how to play as well as how to work.”

One of my favorite reflections of the month was on May 23. “Play … gives the mind room to think about more than the present. It provides the space we need to remember what life was like before arthritis of the soul set in.”

“Arthritis of the soul” is an image I won’t forget. I have a little arthritis in my knees, hips, and wrists. I don’t like it, and I do whatever I can to keep it from getting worse. I certainly don’t want to develop “arthritis of the soul,” and if taking time to play can prevent it, finding time to play will become a new priority for me.

So, how do I play as a “mature adult?” I’m not sure that rounding up my cousins to play cowboys and Indians in the barn will be quite as much fun as it was 60 years ago. Chittister had a suggestion. She said, “Get up tomorrow and go do something you’ve never done before. Then, decide if you’d like to do that again. If not, try something else the next day. Keep trying until you discover a whole new part of you. You’ll like yourself a whole lot better if you do.”

I think I have a few ideas of my own about how to play, too. Going for walks with Floey is fun and provides aimless time to think. Going on a treasure hunt with Mim usually ends up at a resale shop where all kinds of discoveries can be made – especially in the book department. Cuddling up with a good book can provide hours of escape from reality. Sometimes playing through a songbook of golden oldies on the piano can be unbelievably refreshing.

Now that the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” are here, I’m ready to play. I need to prevent “arthritis of the soul.” And, as Joan Chittister says, “There’s no substitute for knowing how to do nothing [i.e., play] without feeling guilty about it.” And now you know how.

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Floey and I also play with gardening on our deck.