Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Crayon Scribbles

The following was originally a short talk delivered at Cohutta Seventh-day Adventist Church in June, 2014, in conjunction with a piano program I presented there.

          Back in my boarding school days, two staff children, ages 2 and 4, took a particular liking to me and, as a sign of their affection, frequently gifted me with very sloppy pictures they had drawn—often just some scribbles made with a crayon on the back of the church bulletin during a long sermon. Yet I always loved receiving these and was loathe to throw them away. Looking back on that now, I ask myself why. Why would you want to save some crayon scribbles, especially considering that the child who did the scribbling probably forgot all about it five minutes after she bequeathed it to you?

Though I did not fully realize it at the time, the gift of those crayon scribbles was meaningful to me because it was unique; you could search the whole world over and never find another paper with identical scribblings. But, more than this, the gift was special because, not only was it given specifically to me, it was created specially for me.

That was a profound realization. You know, I’ve struggled with self-doubt at times—I’ve doubted that my music is a worthwhile contribution to the world. I’ve thought that perhaps I should have chosen a different career path; perhaps I should’ve chosen to become an evangelist or a doctor or something that would allow me to touch people’s lives in a way that I could immediately see—rather than having to go out on stage to play the piano thinking, Well, I hope this is a blessing to someone… whatever that means.

And yet, my mind goes back to the boarding school and the little redheads whose drawings made me feel so special. You know, music is not so different. Every time I perform a concert, the attendees hear a program of music that no one else will ever hear in exactly the same way. Even if I tried to replicate it exactly, I could not. Every performance is unique; it is impossible to play the same composition twice in exactly the same way. Most musicians don’t even try to make it the same. Our performances differ depending on many factors—such as how we’re feeling, the experiences we’ve had since we last performed, the weather, the mood in the room, what we had for dinner, and who we’re playing for. Therefore, music is as unique a gift as the church bulletin with crayon scribbles. Even if I were to play something as “concrete” as a Mozart Sonata for one person on Tuesday and another person on Wednesday, they each will have received something unique—that Mozart Sonata will never be heard exactly that way again. Performances are like snowflakes.

Dr. Julie Penner, the professor of voice at Southern Adventist University, has organized a small group of students to sing for elderly and sick people who aren’t able to get out. I had the privilege of singing in her group during my years at Southern. We were all full time college students with conflicting schedules, so mutual rehearsal time was limited. Our performances were therefore less than perfect. And, yet, it was rare that we sang for an individual who was not moved to tears. Again, I’ve asked myself why. The somewhat snobby music major I was at the time was taken aback that anybody could be so intensely moved by something so imperfect.

I’ve since come to the realization that it was not the “quality” of what we presented to them that moved them. No, it was the uniqueness of the gift.  On some level, the people we sang for knew they were receiving something that no one else would receive in precisely the same form. And they knew that, on that day, in that moment, we sang just for them. On top of that, they knew there was not anything they had done to merit receipt of the gift—imperfect though it be. Their need, their loneliness were what motivated us.

And perhaps the realization, even if only subconscious, that it’s impossible to assign a monetary value to the gift of music is also meaningful. Sure, sometimes we have to pay to get into a concert. It helps cover the expenses of making and sharing music.  But it’s impossible to pay for the music itself. What would, for example, a Beethoven Symphony be worth? $100? $1,000? $1,000,000? $100,000,000? No. It’s priceless. It’s painfully wrong to even think of trying to put a price tag on it. The most meaningful things in life are the things whose worth can’t be measured.

So to return to the question I tend to ask myself on sleepless nights: Is music worthwhile? Yes—if for no other reason than that the uniqueness of the gift of music can remind us of another unique gift, whose worth can also by no means be measured: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Though all who accept it receive it, this gift is also unique to each one of us, because we are all unique individuals. We each have our own special needs, failings, and sins we need blotted out. God’s gift covers our unique faults and empowers us to share our unique gifts with the world.

Will we still play wrong notes? Yes, but, to the ears of God, we play perfectly; to the ears of the feeble and ailing people we visited, my colleagues and I sang perfectly; and to a confused, doubtful, and troubled high school student, some scribbles on the back of a church bulletin were perfect art.