Tag Archive | Psalms

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.”

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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]

Progress

imagesLast week I was at our Christmas Mountain timeshare in Wisconsin Dells again for a 4-day, solitary getaway. I packed heavier than usual this time. It took me 9 trips to bring everything from the car into the condo. I had one small suitcase with a few clothes, 3 briefcases full of books and notebooks, my computer, my piano keyboard with its ironing board-like stand and folding bench, a step stool so I can reach the top shelves of the kitchen cupboards (where the wine glasses are kept), an ice chest, and a bag of groceries. I’m not a backpacker when I travel. I like to have everything with me that I might “need.” Needless to say, I make myself comfortable in my 1100-square-foot timeshare.

I spent most of my 4 days sleeping, reading, working on my latest writing project, and going for walks when it wasn’t raining or snowing. I had a nice, relaxing time, and I made good progress on my writing project.

fullsizeoutput_2052Several months ago, when I stopped blogging weekly, I defined my next major writing project to be a daily devotional book that will be reflections on 365 of my favorite hymns. I started the project last fall by creating a list of all my favorite hymns and sorting them into the most appropriate month for each hymn.

By October, I was ready to start writing about the hymns for November – mostly hymns related to All Saints Day and Thanksgiving. I did my research on the background of each of those 30 hymns, and I contemplated my personal reasons for liking each hymn.

I designed a 2-page spread to follow for each hymn. The left page will include the hymn title, the tune name, the author of the hymn text including a brief bio of the author, the composer of the tune including a brief bio of the composer, the scripture the hymn is based on, and finally the story I want to tell about the significance of the hymn – what will make the book a devotional rather than just an annotated index to hymns I like. The right page will be a lead sheet for the hymn. I plan to create these lead sheets myself using Finale music writing software in order to address copyright concerns.

I have done most of this thinking, organizing, and writing during a few 2- or 3- day writing retreats at Christmas Mountain over the last several months. At home I’m too busy with other things to focus on such a big project. Over the past 10 years, most of my Christmas Mountain getaways have involved some writing – either writing blog posts or working on bigger projects like this.

fullsizeoutput_2051Late last fall when I had about a quarter of the November hymn devotions drafted, I decided to jump ahead to December’s hymns.

When I was about half done with December’s hymns, I decided to jump ahead to January’s hymns.

When I finished writing all 31 of January’s hymn devotions, I decided to change my approach. Rather than organizing the hymns seasonally, I decided to come up with 12 themes or styles of music, and to organize my favorite hymns within those 12 categories.

Each month will have a particular focus, rather than just being a collection of 30 or so separate hymns that loosely relate to the time of year. I’m currently envisioning this project as being twelve 68-page, self-published booklets. When they are all written I’ll decide whether or not I want to re-publish them as a single book.

My 12 themes, subject to change, are:

  1. Psalms
  2. God’s Love
  3. Lent
  4. Easter
  5. New Life
  6. Nature
  7. Classic Hymns
  8. Spirituals
  9. Gospel Songs
  10. Contemporary Styles
  11. Thankfulness
  12. Christmas

Obviously, many of my favorite hymns could fall into more than one category. Maybe I’ll incorporate cross references in the introduction to each section.

fullsizeoutput_204fI decided to start with Psalms because that’s where church music has it’s beginnings. In my “Introduction” to the Psalms booklet, I wrote:

God loved us so much that God gave us the ability to express ourselves through music. And God told us to use that gift. We are supposed to make music. The Bible is filled with examples of how to do that.…

The book of Psalms is often referred to as the hymnbook of the Bible. It consists of 150 poems set to music. Many of them are songs of praise addressed directly to God. Others are laments, sometimes blaming God for the sorry state the singer is in. Some of the Psalms plead with God for help. All the Psalms can be viewed as tools that can help us express our feelings to God, all kinds of feelings, both good and bad, or maybe it’s better to say happy and sad, peaceful and frustrated….

Over the years, many of these Psalm-based hymns have become favorites of mine. I can identify with the words, and the music helps me express the feelings within my soul….

I started the Psalm booklet with what is perhaps the most widely sung song throughout the English-speaking world today, Psalm 100, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell.” This well-known paraphrase of Psalm 100 was written by William Kethe for the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, published in 1561. The hymn has been published in more than 1,000 hymnals since that time. It is usually sung to a tune called “OLD HUNDREDTH,” composed by Louis Bourgeois in the mid-1500s.

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But this isn’t the only hymn out there that’s based on Psalm 100. About a hundred years later, Thomas Ken, an Anglican priest, wrote another paraphrase of Psalm 100, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” often referred to as the “Doxology.” This hymn is also sung to the “OLD HUNDREDTH” tune. (This is the hymn we sang every Sunday while the ushers brought our offerings to the front of the church in the Methodist church where I grew up. We also sang it as the blessing at potlucks.)

About the same time this hymn was first being sung in England, Joachim Neander, a German Reformed Church teacher, wrote a much looser paraphrase of Psalm 100, and adapted a German folk tune to serve as the music for “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” This tune is now referred to as “LOBE DEN HERREN.” Two hundred years later, Neander’s paraphrase was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth. Her translation of this hymn has been published in more than 300 hymnals.

Over the centuries, many other hymns have been written based closely or loosely on Psalm 100. One of the most recent hymns that falls into the “loosely” category is “Halle, Halle, Hallelujah” written by prolific contemporary hymn writer Marty Haugen. He used a Caribbean folk tune to carry his joyful hymn.

The first 8 pages of the Psalms section of my devotional hymns project are devoted to Psalm 100, as expressed in these 4 hymns.

037615d43a4eb23542337b122c5d54d1The original song writer of Psalm 100 must be delighted to know how far and wide this Psalm has spread, especially considering that the Psalm begins with the words, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands! Serve the LORD with gladness; Come before His presence with singing…” [Psalm 100:1-2 KJV] Millions of people have been singing this song of praise for thousands of years. I’m delighted to be counted among them!

That’s why I’m committed to undertaking this large writing project. I want to become even more aware of how valuable God’s gift of music is, and I want to share that awareness with others.

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Caring for Parents

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My mom in June, 1986, about the time she was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Thirty years ago, in 1986, Mim and I were still living in Chicago. That’s when my mom was diagnosed with liver cancer. She was 78. Mom and Dad were living on the farm in Cambridge, Wisconsin where Mom had lived her whole life. When Mom told Mim and me about the diagnosis, we made weekly trips from Chicago to Cambridge to take her to the clinic in nearby Stoughton for chemotherapy. After a few weeks of chemo, Mom chose to discontinue the treatments because of how sick they made her feel. Her oncologist predicted she would live only two or three months without more treatments, maybe a year or two with treatments.

A couple weeks after Mom stopped receiving chemo, Mim and I went to Door County in northeastern Wisconsin for a week-long vacation. We stopped to see my parents on our way, mostly to see how Mom was doing. Already she was much weaker.

Mim and I had a wonderful week relaxing in Door County. Little did we know that God was providing a week of rest for us before what would become an intense six-week period of caregiving.

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Relaxing in Door County

On our way back to Chicago we stopped to see my parents again. Mom’s health had deteriorated further and she was quite weak. We offered to get Hospice and some local caregivers lined up to help Dad care for her at home. As an alternative, we invited Mom and Dad to come to Chicago to live with us, and we (mostly Mim) would take care of her.

We stayed overnight at the farm with my parents. The next morning, Mom got up and said she’d made up her mind. She wanted to go home with us to Chicago. We spent the next few hours helping Mom and Dad pack up their things – a few clothes, Mom’s crocheting, and their Bibles. We told my brother and sister about the new plan, and they came over to the farm to say goodbye and help pack up for the move.

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Mom and Dad with their grandchildren celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, about a month before Mom and Dad came to live with us.

Dad rode to Chicago with Mim and me in my car. My nephew Dave drove Mom in his parents’ van so that Mom could be lying down for the two-hour ride. Then Dave carried her up the stairs to our second-floor apartment.

We called Hospice the next day to help us get a hospital bed and a local hospice physician to prescribe pain medication. We also enlisted one of the physicians Mim had previous worked with at Circle Christian Health Center on the west side of Chicago. He was willing to become her primary care physician and to make house calls for us.

Mim was teaching nursing at North Park College at the time, and she had a flexible work schedule. She also had very kind and highly skilled colleagues who volunteered to help care for my mom to give Mim and me a little time off from round-the-clock care giving. I had just left my corporate job and was in the process of starting up my own small business consulting practice, which meant that I also had a flexible work schedule.

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Mom and Dad reading the Sunday paper together in the sun room nook of our living room.

We turned our living room into Mom’s room. For the first couple weeks Mom was able to walk around the apartment and eat with Dad, Mim and me in the dining room. As she got weaker, she spent almost all of her time in the living room. I played her favorite hymns on the piano, over and over again. I read to her. She really liked “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson, a good story that made her smile and laugh. She also enjoyed having me read to her from the Psalms. My brother and sister and their families came down to visit Mom and Dad weekly.

While Mom was living with us, Mim periodically asked her, “Do you know where you are?” as a means of monitoring her mental well-being and cognitive decline. One day Mom answered, “I know you want me to say I’m in Chicago, but I’m not. I’m at home.” That said to us we were providing the kind of care she needed.

Mom lived with us for six weeks. She was the first of more than twenty people who have lived with us during their final weeks on earth. There can be many precious moments as the end of a person’s earthly life approaches. We’re thankful for the opportunity to share these special times.

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My sister Nancy visiting with Mom

Caring for Mom throughout the last weeks of her life happened thirty years ago. Why am I thinking about it today? A very close friend of mine is living through a similar experience in her life right now, and she is under an incredible amount of stress. Her parents, both in their 90s, have been in relatively good health and have been living in their own home in northern Illinois. That all started to change a couple weeks ago.

First, her father, who has been the healthier of the two, got quite sick and had to be hospitalized for a few days. My friend took a few days off from work (she’s a teacher) to go to Illinois to care for her mother, and also to be an advocate for her father as he was being shuffled through the impersonal and complex medical system that has replaced family doctors and community hospitals.

Then my friend’s mother became very weak, and she had to be temporarily moved into a caregiving facility, just as my friend’s father was being sent home from the hospital. Her mother’s doctor said she is no longer capable of living at home and must move into an assisted living facility. Her father’s doctor said he can’t drive, although he can live at home if he wants. However, if he can’t drive, going to see his wife – wherever she ends up – may be very difficult.

My friend is trying to help her parents figure out their options and move ahead into the next phase of their lives, which may be moving into an assisted living facility together – although at this point her father is unwilling to consider any option that involves him leaving his home. Meanwhile, my friend is driving back and forth to Illinois (a couple hours each way) almost every day, or every other day, as her already busy life in Cambridge goes on.

So what can I do to help my friend? Good question. I can listen. I can pray. And occasionally maybe I can even do a few practical things like checking in on her home while she’s gone.

About a year ago, a good friend of mine in Chicago went through a similar crisis with her parents. Again, about all I could do was listen and pray.

“Honor your father and your mother” is one of the Ten Commandments that almost everyone remembers. As we get older, honoring them means more than obeying them. In my case, honoring my mother in her last days meant having her live with Mim and me in our home in Chicago – and making her feel so at home there that she really knew that she was at home. In our friend’s case, the best way of honoring her mother and her father is still a mystery. That’s partly why she is feeling so much stress these days. I guess that’s why Jesus told us in his simplified list of only two commandments, that the second most important commandment, after loving God, is to love our neighbor as ourself. (Matthew 22: 39) That’s why I’ll be praying every day for my friend while she is caring for her mother and her father in whatever way she can.

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