To Serve Music

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Q. What is it that drives you at this point?

A. The experience of making music — really, the joy of making music is what I was put here for, I believe.

And I kind of knew — I knew right away once I’d started to kind of get it right, in my teens — once I’d started to experience the joy of getting a result from practice — that this was my destiny, I suppose.

And I always thank God [I] intuitively knew that music was the most important part of it. It wasn’t what I could get from music, it was what I could give to it.

When you asked me the question ‘What is it like?’ — well, I wish people could experience what it’s like to be really focused on doing something musical and have it work and be in tune and harmony.  And that can only come, I believe, if I am serving music, rather than trying to manipulate it to my ends, you know.

Eric Clapton
August 14, 2004
Transcribed from the DVD “Sessions for Robert J”

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The Gift of Deep Friendship

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I’m back from the fourth reunion of childhood girlfriends since 2010. We were born in the same year; three resided in the same neighborhood; our parents were friends; we were raised in the same faith; we know each other’s siblings. We’ve been friends since kindergarten.

Along with all these similarities are differences. Geographic, to be sure. The closest link between any two of us is over 800 miles. We differ in economics, vocations, passions, politics, tastes, theology, and in all the other ways people change.

The thing is that we six were not bff’s growing up. I think the phrase friendship by proximity describes some of our early years. Sometimes we hung out together because that’s who was available. Now that our friendship has come of age, we are repeating stories! (We = me, sigh…)

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This treasure, these friendships, are more precious to us than diamonds. Other than checking our phones and taking calls from husbands and children, our time is unplugged. We don’t watch movies; we don’t go shopping (except for groceries). It is time to attend, to be present, to listen, to share, to truly know each other. We laugh and guffaw, we cry (even the non-criers among us), we eat, we swim, we sing.

We established a protocol at our first reunion that we always follow. We could (and do) have a fabulous time cooking communally, grabbing a cuppa, letting the conversation meander like a river. But eventually we have a formal time of focus. One friend shares her heart: what’s good, what’s hard, what’s changed, what’s real. This is a time of transparency and trust. We take notes, ask questions. It can also be a time of discovery, when the perception of girlfriends translates truth we didn’t before see. Then we pray, asking God to help, to intervene, to strengthen, to bless our friend. Then we sing the songs we grew up singing that are imprinted on our souls. Rinse and repeat.

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These friendships are for each of us a bonus. We all have sisters — not just sisters, but close sisters with whom we regularly share our lives and hearts.

Two stories. Meeting in the airport has always been an exciting moment. We’re giddy and goofy and garrulous. This year, however, Ruth’s father died the Monday before our gathering. She drove to Virginia on Tuesday, buried him on Thursday, and flew out to Phoenix on Saturday. My plane arrived five minutes before hers. I parked myself in front of the gate to welcome her. Sitting at the back of the plane, she was one of the last passengers to deplane. Seeing each other we burst into sobs, running into a hug. It was a spectacle, but we didn’t care. All our griefs to share.

Eileen’s plane came in later than the others. Nancy’s sister Kathy picked her up from the airport. Eileen didn’t want to inconvenience her. Are you kidding? Kathy replied. When we were first married, we flew to Chicago, but couldn’t rent a car because I was under 25. We called my mom in Phoenix and asked her what to do. She told us to call your (Eileen’s) dad. We called him, he dropped everything and drove to O’Hare to pay for our rental. I am only too happy to give you a ride. More tears, and the gift of an previously unknown story about her dad.

One evening the Gibson sisters joined us for an old-fashioned hymn sing. I guess reading the lyrics on your phone wasn’t old-fashioned! Those girls (ahem, women) can SING!! Lots of nostalgia and gorgeous harmonies and rejoicing in a heritage of music.

After four girlfriend gatherings, I remain astonished at the profound transforming power of this deep friendship. It has all the hallmarks of grace: unexpected, unearned, unsought, undeserved.  Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.

Our 2010 Reunion
Anticipating 2010 Reunion

Long After Piano Lessons

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Why take piano lessons? Because one afternoon thirty-five years later, you will be sitting at your desk with your two monitors, analyzing inventory turns while Pandora plays in the background. And within four notes of a Chopin nocturne, you will be transported to an era you had all but forgotten.

You will look at your coworker, eyes wide. This, um, this piece, you will whisper, I played this for a recital…a lifetime ago. This. is. Chopin. You will be thinking: own this nocturne

Your thumb and finger will reach out to the volume knob of the speakers, intending to increase the volume, barely perceptibly. Then you will throw off tacit office etiquette and crank it up. Mercifully, no one is on the phone.

You will mumble, Please excuse my humming. But you will think I am one with this, how could I not hum it?  Your index finger will conduct the pianist playing through your computer.

Your hand will return to the mouse, and you will pretend to get back to the business at hand. You will abandon pretense, incapable of any action but soaking up the fragile beauty. Your coworker, younger by four decades, will pause and then stop what she is doing. She will listen to the delicate melody in G minor.

As the final notes linger in the air you will recognize that at this great distance from the discipline of daily practice, playing Chopin is beyond you. But you will make a note to find the music when you get home.

And you will remember the time when you practiced Opus 37, No. 1 until it was woven into the double helix of your DNA, when you could play this flawlessly, when your playing was capable of breaking even your own heart.

Awake Thou Wintry Earth

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Chives growing in my garden, February 12, 2016

Awake, Thou Wintry Earth is almost a life anthem. I came to Thomas Blackburn’s poem by way of Bach’s Cantata 129. When I heard it, I came to understand in a new way that spring is an annual demonstration of resurrection. Listening to this still gives me shivers. Singing it means I end up whispering to tell that dead is dead over a voice that is breaking.

I took a walk around my backyard this morning and was delighted to hear garlic and chives laughing at winter, death, decay.

Awake thou wintry earth,
fling off, fling off thy sadness;
ye vernal flowers laugh forth,
laugh forth your ancient gladness.
A new and lovely tale
through-out the land is spread;
it floats o’er hill and dale
to tell that death is dead.

Here is a joyful organ. 1 1/2 minutes that will lift your day high. Sing along! It’s pretty loud; turn your sound down. Or don’t. The organ is a dominating instrument and its volume is glorious!

Margaret and Music

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By Jim Harper

So, as you all— I am Jim, by the way, the middle brother —as you all probably know, music is very important in the Harper family.

When we were growing up, we were each either assigned or picked an instrument to play… some of us went further with this than others. (laughter) And I always sort of thought of it in my mind as the Bach Family Orchestra. I sort of thought that maybe Dad had so many kids to fill the gaps in the orchestra. But, that never panned out.

So, Margaret played the cello. That was her division, her instrument. And she also played the piano, just like Carol and Dorothy. But she also loved to sing.

She got together with Judy Petke and Rosalyn Hines at Bair Lake Bible Camp — we spent most of our summers at Bair Lake Bible Camp — and they formed a trio: The Bair Lake Lovelies. And they had wonderful harmonies.  And I think they even sang out here, in Lombard, under a different name: The Lombard Lovelies.

But I came across this quote by Garrison Keillor, who I think Margaret enjoyed listening to, from a piece he wrote, Singing with the Lutherans. And I presume by that, he meant Singing with Sanctified Brethren, because that’s who he grew up singing with.

“Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”

So, when we turned off life-support for Margaret, we sang her into heaven. She lasted two songs, and her heart stopped.

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Here is my playlist for the prelude with some choice lyrics. One of my favorite piano quotes is from my sister Dorothy: Play the words.

Sweet, Sweet Spirit  — Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived when we shall leave this place.

King Jesus — For He opens doors for me, doors I’m not able to see, That’s why I say King Jesus will roll my burdens away.

He’s Able — I know my Lord is able to carry me through.

Softly and Tenderly — You who are weary, come home.

There Is a Fountain — Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die.

I Will Sing of My Redeemer — How the victory He giveth over sin and death and hell.

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say — I came to Jesus as I was, so weary, worn, and sad. I found in Him a resting place and He has made me glad.

Wayfaring Stranger — I’m only going over Jordan; I’m only going over home.

Come Thou Fount — Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.

Abide with Me — Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

My God Is Real — [written by Mahalia!!] His love for me is just like pure gold, My God is real, for I can feel Him in my soul.

Come, Ye Disconsolate — Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Precious Lord, Take My Hand — At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Blessed Assurance — Angels, descending, bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love.