“St. Flavian”

A hymn is comprised of two elements, the text and the tune.  Most people know hymns by their texts and are not even aware that a separate tune name exists.  So, for example, if I asked you to sing the tune “Antioch,” you would look at me like I was crazy when, in fact, you have sung “Joy to the World” your entire life.

The tune “St. Flavian” is two lines long and, according to the hymnal I have here, was composed in 1562.  A variety of texts have appeared with it over the centuries, but it is the tune which I shall never forget.  By the way, it moves step-wise and is innocuous.

My first job playing the organ in a church for pay began in September of 1967 when I was a sophomore in high school.  That church paid me $90 a month, and raised my pay $5 after one year.  One Sunday morning the closing hymn was “St. Flavian.”  The pastor was standing in the altar area and, I thought, had finished whatever he was saying.  I began to play “St. Flavian.”  It turned out that he had not finished speaking so my playing became walking music for him to repair to the lectern.  Remember, the tune is short.  He said whatever he had to say there, I played the hymn again, and the congregation sang.  After church the pastor walked up to me and said almost angrily, “If you cannot learn to play the hymns at the right time, I will find another organist.”

That pastor has long since gone to his reward, and I am sure somewhere along the way he wondered how he would be remembered. Perhaps he mused that he would be thought back upon for his erudition and wisdom.  I will forever remember him for his harshness toward a 16 year old boy that day.

I would like to be remembered for having introduced an abundance of fine music to those in the church choirs around me.  When I began at my church in Libertyville, Illinois on Dec. 1st, 1991, three file cabinet drawers constituted the entire choral library.  Today almost 200 “Gamble’s” boxes and ten drawers constitute the library. Anyone who desires to do so is most welcome to ponder o’er the index of pieces I have assembled.

If there is one major work whose presentation towers above everything else I have done at my church, it is “Noye’s Fludde” by Benjamin Britten.  (I first learned of the piece at St. Mark’s Church, Shreveport, Louisiana.)  It is actually a small opera, and people throughout our church got involved in its production.  We had set builders and painters, sound people, make-up artists, actors, singers, a small orchestra, and even a “Voice of God,” as called for in the script.  Our “Voice” was a radio personality with a sonorous voice that one could well imagine sounding like God.  Teenagers who played Noye’s sons and their wives are adults today.  When they return to church, their part in “Noye’s Fludde” inevitably comes up in conversation.

The show was actually stolen, however, by our costume lady.  Children walked into our ark two-by-two wearing head pieces of the animals made by that lady.  Never mind that she works in the costume department of a regional theater.  She knew what she was doing, and captured the essence of the show.  In the past year or so a teenager, not from my church, walked up to me and told me she was an animal in my “Noye’s Fludde” production and remembered it fondly.

Wikipedia says that the man St. Flavian was a bishop of Constantinople in the 5th century.  Perhaps the Orthodox celebrates him with some fanfare.  When I see his name,  I think of another man who was so rude to me 50 years ago.  He was certainly no saint, and would not have rated a place in Noah’s ark.

A Ravinia Experience

Some readers may not know that Ravinia is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony.  It is a park in Highland Park, a northern suburb of Chicago.  Concerts both classical and pop are given there from early June until mid-September, with a residency of the symphony in the middle.  Come to think of it, concerts are now given year round at Ravinia, but it is mostly known for its summer fare.

Long ago have I lost track of how many times I have been to Ravinia, but suffice to say that “a lot” would apply.  And in mentioning some people hereafter, I am not even beginning to do justice to the fine array of talented musicians I have seen at Ravinia over the years.  I must also add that the customarily fine weather in the Chicago area in the summer makes a place like Ravinia possible.  Anyone trying to have a “Ravinia” experience in Texas would suffocate from the heat.

There are three venues at Ravinia in which concerts are given.  The idea is to sit in one of those venues, or sit on the expansive lawn and enjoy a picnic of some sort, either before or while listening to the music.  Some people bring all sorts of cutlery, candles, tables, chairs, wine, and food, and have a feast.  Others consider eating on the lawn for peasants.  Either way, Ravinia hosts thousands of people of all sorts throughout the summer.

One performance venue is a huge pavilion which seats several hundred people.  Just last summer I saw and heard Chris Thile, the Punch Brothers, and “I’m With Her” give an amazing concert of bluegrass music for 2 and 1/2 hours with no intermission.  Several years ago I also heard almost all of the Mahler symphonies in the pavilion and was thrilled.  A couple of summers ago I saw Maestro Krzystof Urbanski conduct the Chicago Symphony and was delighted.  He is the young Polish conductor who leads orchestras all over the world, and who is, among other positions, the conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony.  After seeing Maestro Urbanski at Ravinia, I drove to Indianapolis to watch him conduct the Mahler 5th Symphony, and have since become a donor to that symphonic organization.

Another Ravinia venue is the Martin Theater, the oldest building on the campus.  Sitting on the second row from the stage I witnessed a concert by Bryn Terfel and thought I had died and gone to heaven. I have also heard Kiri Te Kanawa and Nicole Cabell there.  The first times I saw Leif Ove Andsnes and Ingrid Fliter play solo programs was also in the Martin Theater.  I have followed the careers of both since and heard them multiple times.

The newest venue at Ravinia is Bennett Gordon Hall.  It is a pleasant facility with fine acoustics, and practice rooms in addition to the performance space.  Some amazing concerts are given there for the unbelievable price of $10.  I first heard Calmus, an a cappella vocal group from Leipzig, in Bennett Gordon Hall.  I heard Alison Balsom play the trumpet there and two wonderful pianists, one from Great Britain and the other from Russia, whose names I  do not remember.

There is, however, someone whose name I remember all too well, but will not share because I do not want to give him any publicity.

I was in the Martin Theater with a woman who was not musical. There was a pianist playing who clearly held himself in high esteem, giving a program of works from his home country.  The audience thought he was outstanding and cheered him after every piece.  At intermission I told the woman I was with that the guy was just banging on the piano.  And then I said, “Do you see that man across the aisle?  His name is John von Rhein and he will crucify this guy in the morning.  (John von Rhein is the classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune.)  Suffice it to say that the next morning Mr. von Rhein did not disappoint me.  At the end of his tepid review, he said of the performer, “He thinks he is the next Horowitz, but not quite yet.”  A year or so later I ran into John von Rhein at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and reminded him of that review. His response was, “And they keep having him back to Ravinia anyway.”

It matters not to me what people think of my playing because the vast majority cannot tell the difference between good and very good anyway.  It matters a great deal to me, however, what people think of my writing.  Reading what someone has written is a very personal experience.  And the odds are that if a writer is doing his or her very best, then he may be getting through to his readers.  (Faulkner and James Joyce are surely great, but beyond almost everybody all the same.)  The average writer like myself is just hoping to reach his audience in some intelligible fashion.

I could name several fine writers who reach all sorts of people, but the name that comes readily to mind is Wendell Berry.  Wendell’s writing is authentic, often reflecting his Kentucky roots.  I had the profound pleasure of sitting in the living room of Wendell’s home in Kentucky while he talked about his relatives with a lady whose grandmother was a sister to Wendell’s grandmother.  Listening to them banter back and forth was like reading one of his short stories.

I have seen people on the lawn actually reading at Ravinia during a concert.  I can only do one thing at a time.  So I go to Ravinia, listen to the music, then go home, and finish the evening with a good book.  John von Rhein was taking notes while that guy was banging on the piano.  Of course, one hears noise; one listens to music.

 

 

 

S-N-O-W

Every single time I see or even think about snow, I am reminded of an experience I had one Thanksgiving Eve. I had attended a service at St. Lawrence Episcopal Church in Libertyville and was filing out of the building like everyone else.  It was snowing.  There was a woman walking next to me with her son of about 5 years of age.  I said to the woman, “Snow is a four-letter word.”  The little boy replied, “S-N-O-W.”

Innocence is such a beautiful thing.  That child took my statement literally, and created a memory that may last for as long as I live.

Something I saw in Krakow, Poland was equally as charming.  A girl of about 5 was feeding the pigeons on the big square in the middle of the city, and getting excited about seeing the birds go after the seeds she was dropping.  Oblivious to the danger of horse-drawn carriages passing by,  the child held her hands up, waiting anxiously for her mother to keep handing her seeds so the birds would keep coming her way.  The glee on her face was palpable.

Believe it or not, at age 66 I still feel relatively oblivious to many of the ways of the world, and have little desire to be enlightened.  I have had disappointments such as divorce, the death of loved ones, and job loss, but basically have had a pleasant existence.  When I compare my life to what I have read in the relatively recent trilogy by Greg Isles, I feel fortunate indeed.  In those fascinating and entertaining tomes, people are murdered, buildings are burned, and lives are destroyed by all sorts of random and not-so-random acts.  Reading the Chicago newspapers is not exactly inspirational either.

My sister, God love her, worries about me here near Chicago. I do not go into the city very often, but when I do, I take the train and feel perfectly safe walking to wherever I want to go, usually to a concert or a restaurant.  There are always people around, and all are pretty much looking out for themselves.  There are beggars on the street, but they are ultimately harmless.  I live in a suburb almost to Wisconsin that is quite placid, except for commuter traffic.  I even live in the corner of neighborhood so nobody is simply driving by at all.

I look to live another 25 years or so, playing the piano, studying German, and doing all the other things to keep my life interesting and my brain active.  But even when I plan as much I do, there is often something delightfully unexpected around the corner.

Here’s hoping that whatever comes my way is a whole lot of F-U-N.

Languages

There are no people whom I respect more than those who are fluent in more than one language.  Traveling in Europe I have seen many such persons, but I am still impressed no matter how many of them cross my path.  I am a monolingual American, trying daily to learn German, the language of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  And until I become fluent in German, I will consider my accomplishments wanting.

A great irony of my life is that I grew up around literally thousands of bilingual people to whom I gave no thought at all in that regard.  My hometown of Harlingen is some 20+ miles from Mexico and even in our day, the population was more than half Mexican-American.  (That percentage is surely much higher today.)  The one high school back then was on the north side of town where the majority of the Anglo population lived, and many of the relatively poor Mexican-Americans walked to school.  From the beginning of their lives they spoke both Spanish and English, totally naturally as it were, and in hindsight my respect for that ability now regards them as having been rich.  I go to a health club today in a suburb north of Chicago that many Mexican-Americans frequent.  Just this week I stopped man whom I deduced had spoken both English and Spanish.  When I expressed my admiration, he seemed to regard his ability as something with which he was simply born.

Here in Chicago there is a large Polish population, and one Sunday afternoon I attended a church service entirely Polish because the German teacher at a local high school was having her baby baptized.  (It was probably the only time I have attended a church service where I had absolutely no clue what was going on.)  The teacher spoke Polish, English, and German, and was working on her Spanish.

This past summer I asked a woman of not 25 years of age working at the front desk of  the hotel where I was staying in Gstaad, Switzerland how many languages she spoke, and said, “6.”   Her father is Brazilian and her mother is Swiss so she came by her six languages somewhat naturally.  In Lucerne I encountered another delightful lady working at the hotel where I was staying who apologized to me because she “only” spoke English, French, and German.

And then there is Sol Gabetta.  I will write effusively about Sol Gabetta in another context later, but suffice it to say that she is a world-class cellist, born in Argentina, now living in Argentina, who speaks six languages.  I know because I asked her how many languages she spoke when I went to hear her and got to meet her when she played in Houston with the Houston Symphony.  She is all over youtube playing the cello, but if you look long enough, one can see and hear her speaking five of her six languages.  By nothing but chance a lady behind me in line to get Sol Gabetta’s autograph took two pictures of us together.  Those pictures are among my most valued treasures.

These days I am connecting via Skype two mornings per week with a German tutor who lives in Iceland.  A friend told me about a website called italki.com and via that website, one can hook up with a tutor of almost any language.  My tutor, Julia, a native German born in 1988, speaks German, English, Swedish, and Finnish fluently.  She also is somewhat fluent in French.  Julia is studying Icelandic and will eventually have that tongue added to her quiver of languages.  She is eventually planning to move to a group of islands somewhere near Scotland to learn a language distinctive to that area. Julia and I were talking, in German, about all sorts of things when the name of Daniel Barenboim came up.  Julia googled his name and found that he speaks as many or more languages than she does.  My boundless respect for him as a pianist and a conductor suddenly was increased exponentially from another aspect.

The cutest experience I had in Germany this past summer occurred one Sunday afternoon when I was in the backyard of the pastor of the church where I had played that morning. A neighborhood child named Josey walked into the yard carrying a stuffed animal whose name she told me was “Simba.”  With much seriousness she proceeded to tell me the story of “The Lion King.”  It was a German lesson worth my entire trip.

I am fully aware that people all over the world are blessed with a variety of tremendous gifts.  And I would give them their due, if I had the opportunity to do so.  But probably because I did not learn another language when I was Josey’s age, I am so very moved by the subject of languages today.  Now in my 60s I look forward to the day when I can tell Josey in her native language about the life of child in Texas way back then.

 

 

Books

There are billions of books so even broaching the subject seems about as fruitful as trying to fend off a typhoon with a feather.  However, if my own writing persuades a single person to read one of the authors mentioned hereafter, then all will not have been in vain.

A book can be a companion on a cold winter night, a friend at a lonely airport, or a consolation when one is blue.  It can get one thinking or put one to sleep.  It can be many things, but only if one has the wherewithal to give it the opportunity.  Thanks to the example of both my parents, I have experienced the power of reading.  So, give yourself the feeling of a good book, particularly if you do not have it already.

Mike Connelly, John Sanford, and C. J. Box write “page turners,” i.e. books that are quick, easy reads, that are perfect for anyone who might need an impetus to get reading for pleasure for the first time or all over again.  One learns about police and everything related to them in Los Angeles in the books of Mike Connelly.  John Sanford, particularly in his “prey” books, writes about a detective working mostly in Minnesota.  (They are “prey” books because the word “prey” appears in every title of this series.)  C. J. Box has captured the flavor of Wyoming as he recounts the exploits of his chief protagonist, Joe Pickett.  Joe is a game warden who is a pain in the neck to his superiors and to some hunters simply because he does his job. He has a wife and three daughters, whose lives are also chronicled in these “Joe Pickett” novels. My sympathy goes to any other writer from Wyoming because C. J. Box has captured the market of that state’s reading public already.  Every other state should be so fortunate as to have a writer laureate like C. J. Box.

Fore more serious readers two minor American classics are “The Plum Thicket” by Janice Holt Giles, and “Montana 1948” by Larry Watson.  “The Plum Thicket,” set in Arkansas in the early 20th century, has the same feel as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and has the most unforgettable ending of any book I have ever read. “Montana 1948” is set in the northeastern corner of Montana and tells a story when the lives of the white people and the native Americans intersect.  Longer books than either of these are “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner, which I have read five times, and “Jayber Crow” by Wendell Berry.  Wendell Berry is a modern Thoreau and “Jayber Crow” is billed as the memoir of the town barber.  In truth, it is much more than that.  Of American authors, I must also mention Pat Conroy with his “Prince of Tides” and “South of Broad.”  “Prince of Tides” is an easy read and is fine book with  to start reading Pat Conroy.  Finally, Ken Follett more than deserves mention.  From his “Eye of the Needle” to his latest book, “Column of Fire,” Ken Follett never fails to create a marvelous story.

And speaking of storytellers, the entire country of Ireland grieved the day Maeve Binchy died.  In novel after novel she captured the life of 20th century Ireland in a very entertaining way.  “Scarlet Feather” is my favorite of hers, telling of two young caterers.  And speaking of Europeans, there is, of course, the marvelous Stieg Larsson trilogy, beginning with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” His protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, is the most distinctive heroine in any novel to come my way.

Of the “classics” I have read both “Huckleberry Finn” and “Vanity Fair” twice. The former is every bit as good as advertised, and the latter has the most elegant writing I have ever encountered.  I have not read either “War and Peace” or “Don Quixote.”

Of non-fiction I hold “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin to be a very great piece of writing.  It tells the story of the men comprising Lincoln’s cabinet and is incredible in its majesty.  Probably because I am from Texas, I have read all of Robert Caro’s books on LBJ.  I have read Christoph Wolff’s biography of Bach three times, and read “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson. (Surely everyone living in the Chicago area has read “The Devil in the White City.” or at least heard of it.) I also have read “Cadillac Desert” by Marc Reisner and the two one-volume histories of Mexico and Texas by T. R. Fehrenbach.  “Cadillac Desert” discusses dam building in the western United States.

In recent months the two books that linger most vividly on my mind are “The Island at the Center of the World” by Russell Shorto, and “The Prague Sonata” by Bradford Morrow.  If you have not lived with both of them, put the rest of your existence on hold right now, go get them, and begin a new chapter in your own life.

“The Island at the Center of the World” by Russell Shorto is about the Dutch settlement of Manhattan.  Even if you think you know American history, you don’t know anything until you have read this book.  You learn something new on almost every one of these several hundred pages, and, frankly, you wonder how you lived prior to picking it up. Here is a tidbit from the book that you may not know:  Wall Street is named after a wall the Dutch built to keep out the English.  I could go on and on with nuggets like that, but suffice it to say that when you have finished “The Island at the Center of the World,” you are just sick that New York City is not called New Amsterdam today. I will credit my sister with introducing me to that mighty tome.

“The Prague Sonata” is a mystery that one does not have to be musical to enjoy, although if you know a bit of music history, your appreciation of the story might be enhanced.  Basically it is about a piano sonata whose three movements are separated from each other because of the Nazi invasion of Prague.  The story is about the effort to put them back together and then to discover who the composer is.

I must not forget to mention a collection of essays by Barry Lopez entitled “Crossing Open Ground”   Its “Children in the Woods” is a most sensitive piece of prose.  And speaking of children, my favorite book for children is “The Runaway Bunny.”

There is a memorial in Berlin that is very easily missed because it is a hole in the ground in the middle of a large plaza.  The hole is covered by a piece of see-through material, which one can walk over, and in the daytime the sunlight reflects off the material so that looking into the hole is impossible.  At night, however, one can look into the space just fine as its lights reveal an area occupied by empty bookshelves. The empty shelves represent all the books by supposedly Jewish authors burned by Hitler on the night of May 10, 1933 over the very spot where the memorial is located.

Readers burn with desire for the written word and like nothing better than to share the feeling of a good book because they have gotten out of themselves and explored the world in their very hands. Many people could go back through what I have just written and substituted their own favorite works; their selections could all be different from my choices, and be every bit as valid.

Emily Dickinson got it right when she wrote:  “There is no frigate like a book.”

 

 

 

 

My Poulenc Moment

On Nov. 27, 2017, one of the great experiences of my life occurred when I gave a solo piano program of some of the music of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).  He is known primarily for his beautiful “Gloria” that ranks as one of the great choral works of the 20th century.  His piano music is fine also, but is overshadowed, like the piano music of every other French composer of the 20th century, by the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

My personality is not suited to giving a solo concert.  (I am an accompanist.)  But I kept finding pieces of Poulenc that I liked, and they rather demanded that I put them together as a program.  So I practiced and memorized about 45 minutes worth of the music for about 18 months and the culmination of my efforts was realized this past November.  Of course, it helped that the music was lovely and appealing to a wide variety of people.  So, I remained motivated, even after practicing day after day for so long.

Very little gives me as much pleasure as playing substantial pieces from memory.  There is just something deeply satisfying about knowing them so well that you do not have to be buried in a score.  This memory work enabled me to walk into a hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland this past summer and play on a lovely Steinway grand for over an hour.  Every few minutes guests or staff members would walk out of curiosity into the room where the piano was located. These people were speaking Italian, German, French, English, and Spanish, and it was a delight to be reminded of what an international language music is.  I kept my mouth shut, not letting them know that they were listening to an American play French music on a German-made piano.

But playing in Gstaad or Lucerne or Wittenberg, where a man put 8 euros on the piano as a tip at the Best Western Hotel, could not compare to playing the program at my church in Libertyville.  I was pumped up, the audience was attentive and pulling for me, and a sense of anticipation prevailed.  And things actually went very respectably.  I had a memory slip or two, but was able to skip to a point of reference and keep the music flowing.  It was really a whole lot of fun.

Giving the program at all was motivated by the gift to me of Miss Perry’s piano, a 1923 mid-sized Steinway grand.  She told me she wanted me to have it if I would arrange for shipping, and would meet the mover at her door and in Illinois.  So I did, and think of her every time I sit down at her piano to play.  I refer to it as “Miss Perry’s piano” because I grew up taking lessons on it. The great irony of her gift is that she loved the organ, much more than the piano.  And now because of her piano I spend much more time at the piano than with the instrument she loved.  It has occurred to me to give another concert on the 100th anniversary of her piano in 2023.  Then maybe I will join the rest of the world and give a program on the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s death in 2027.

Before my concert I had never heard any piano music of Francis Poulenc on even a student recital.  (There are performances of it on youtube, but I had never heard any of it in person.)  Perhaps that few people play Poulenc contributed to the attractiveness of my program. Afterwards, at a reception, a friend took several pictures of audience members  enjoying some French wine, and put the pictures in a collage that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

There are wonderful happenings everywhere that all of us miss. Rather than despair, however, we can simply try to live life to the fullest.  I will not list all I doing right now, but suffice it to say that I am keeping my mind active and trying to diminish my ignorance a little bit every day.

May everyone have their own memorable moments.

 

Request for Another Miracle

This will not be my customary blog, as if I can be said to have established a pattern after only five entries.  I am looking for someone.  And if something as random my “Miracle in Paris” story can happen, then just maybe the readers of this blog can help me.

In Europe, if one is dining alone in a restaurant, the waiter is free to seat a total stranger or strangers at one’s table. In July of 2017 two women were seated with me at an outdoor restaurant in Wittenberg, and now I am looking for them for the simple reason that one was such a vivacious and obviously intelligent person.  (None of us had business cards on us to exchange.)  One was an American and the other was a German, and they told me they were a married couple.  They are in their 40s and live on a lake south of Munich.

The American was the lively one and her name was something like “Annette.” She grew up near Cleveland, and went to hear the Cleveland Orchestra often as a child.  Her parents, however, live today in Richmond, Virginia, and they visit her, but separately.  The mother only wants to attend concerts and the father only wants to visit WW II sights.  So they visit their daughter one at a time.  Also, Annette, perhaps with her partner, owns a marketing firm in Munich.  In addition, she told me that she has a friend who is looking for a pianist to play in a piano trio, i.e. piano, violin, and cello.  Yes, time has passed so they may no longer need a pianist, but still making the connection might be fun and useful.

I have been asked if I would like to move Germany.  The answer is “Yes,” but there is a problem:  The government is involved in church music appointments, and it is not about to give an American a church job, even in a village.  The little church in which I have played for three summers has no musician at all.  But the government still will not appoint me.  (The congregation would appoint me in a heartbeat.)

By the way, that church is not pretty, and the organ is old and nothing special.  I play there because the pastor is a true man of God.  A spirit of sincerity emanates from his countenance as he preaches, even when I don’t understand half of what he is saying.  The congregation loves him and knows it is blessed to have him.  (The Holy Cross Choir and friends will meet him on our choir tour in June of 2019.)  I asked him this past summer how much longer he planned to stay at the little church and he told me 5 or 6 more years.  (He has been there about 5 so far.)  In other words, he is  not driven by ambition, but by doing God’s work.

I do not think that ambition is behind my desire to move to Germany.  I hope something as simple as a bent for a new experience is my motivation in that regard. It just seems to me that the more people I meet over there, the greater number of potentially helpful connections I will have.  Annette had to have started somewhere, and ended up with a partner and a business.  I would settle for a woman of interest to visit in Germany and a playing gig in the summer.

So, if any of you know of someone in Richmond, Munich or anywhere else, who might know the ladies I met at the restaurant in Wittenberg, please let me know. As Miss Perry used to say, “The Lord moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.”

On Travel

My twin sister and I worshiped the ground our father walked on.  He loved us from the split second we were born, and we were at his side in the hospital when he died at age 76.  One of his more distinct qualities was that he would go anywhere in the world–as long as it was between Austin and Dallas.  He could tell a fine story about many a rock, tree, or road within that framework, but outside of that area, he had absolutely no interest.  Come nightfall, Daddy thought everybody should be at home.  To put it another way, he had no interest whatsoever in travel.  So when I announced in the summer of 2004 that I was going to Germany in the summer of 2005, he declared that he would not contribute one dime to the trip.  He died in November of 2004 and paid for the entire experience.

I have long since lost track of the number of times I have been to Germany since 2005.  I have been elsewhere in Europe, Austria, Italy, Ireland, Lichtenstein, France, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Slovakia, but keep returning to the land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  The city I have visited most often is Leipzig.

The wonderful quality of Leipzig is that its area of interest for me is a rectangle of land that one can walk across in ten minutes, if one is in a hurry.  On the west side of that rectangle, facing west, is the Thomaskirche, where Johann Sebastian Bach was in charge of the music, along with three other churches, for 27 years. As of 1949, he is buried in the chancel of the Thomaskirche.  On the east side of the rectangle of land is the concert hall that is home to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and the opera house.  On the south side of this rectangle is a music store, and on its north side is a Marriott hotel.  The Leipzig train station is across the street from the north side of this rectangle.  There is a wonderful pedway across the entirety of the area, complete with fountains and gelato stands and other enticements.  There is no reason to be in a hurry.

My goal in studying German is to be able to attend the annual BACHFEST in Leipzig and understand the language around the music being played.  Toward that end I work on duolingo.com every day, have three private lessons weekly, and watch German television and movies on my computer for free.   Recently an American acquaintance, who I am most envious to say lives in Wiesbaden, gave me a little book of “Weihnachts Geschichten fur Kinder,” or “Christmas Stories for Children.”   Just today I finished translating the first story in the book, which was good for me to do, even if the story ended very, very sadly.

Daddy was stationed in Wiesbaden after World War II, and hated it–for the simple fact that it was not Texas.  He embodied all that it meant to be a Texan, and is buried almost exactly between Austin and Dallas.  He is right at home.

Home for me seems to be wherever fine music is found. The last time I went to Europe with a group of people, for example, I found a concert in literally every place we went on every single day.  I heard three concerts in Krakow and on one of them a string ensemble played a marvelous arrangement of “Over the Rainbow.”  My American ears were enchanted.

Travel seems to enchant me.  On my bucket list are Belgium, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, Spain, England, and a return trip to Prague.   When I meet Daddy in the next life, I hope he has forgiven me for going north of Dallas.

 

 

 

 

Follow Your Calling

Several years ago a man named John Slawson posted an ad in a little musical magazine, now defunct, looking for a piano player for a pit band he was conducting for a production of “Cabaret.”  I was intrigued by the ad because my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Slawson and she played the piano.  Suffice it to say that John hired me and I played the show for him.  And he looks just like my grandmother.

My sister tells me that two Slawson brothers got off of a boat just after the Mayflower; one of them died, and the other became the progenitor of a long line of musical Slawsons that are doubtless spread throughout the United States. I would be tickled if, because of this blog, we had a gathering of this musical clan.

I do not play the piano or organ because I like to do so, or even love to do so, as people often say.  I play because I was born musical, and can do nothing else.  It is not an easy way to make money because one has to more or less cobble a living together from various jobs.  And much travel is required, if only locally.  But one does it anyway.

My father was born in 1928 in relatively rural Texas in extremely strained circumstances financially.  His father abandoned his wife and four children so my father never had the chance to develop any musical gene he might have inherited through music lessons, for example.  However, he once told me that his mother dragged him around to revivals in area Baptist churches for which she was playing the piano.  So somewhere along the way, my grandmother learned to play.  Our parents wanted my sister and me to play and, by the grace of God, Miss Perry was the best known piano teacher in town.  The rest is history, as the saying goes.

I would like to think that everyone was born with a gift for something and has the opportunity to develop and use that treasure.  An amazing woman comes to mind whom I once dated who was and is a tremendous writer.  Her father was a writer/editor and she had the opportunity to utilize her gift.  She and I wrote letters back in the day before e-mail and such, and her missives were wonderful, fluid prose.

I once heard of a man who got some degree in a field that was the choosing of his parents.  He took that piece of paper and threw it against a wall in great bitterness. My practical parents wanted to be a C.P.A. or a lawyer or something where I could make more money than I do now.  But they paid for my musical education anyway.  And for that I am profoundly grateful.

In church parlance it is often said that one should follow one’s calling.  To put it another way, I would simply say that one should do what one was born to do.  There are certainly downsides to being born musical, for example, but playing also has its vast rewards.  I will sit down at the piano this afternoon for a couple of hours, and be a better person than I was earlier in the day.  My fondest wish is that everyone has the chance to pursue his or her God-given way of life.

The Paragraph

In October of our senior year in high school my sister and I moved from the town in which we were born to a new town because our father was transferred by his work.  However, we were not sad about leaving at that seemingly inopportune time, but we did not know why we were not sad.  Through a most innocuous situation, I discovered what was going on.

In addition to playing the organ in a church, I got a job in the new town as an usher in a movie theater.  It was rather boring, but I made was making a little money and not just sitting around home.  The job entailed working maybe three nights a week and on Saturday.

One Thursday morning during spring break  I decided to visit my grandmother who lived about 50 miles away.  That afternoon the manager of the theater telephoned our house and talked to my mother.  He told her that he wanted all of the ushers to come in that night to do some clean-up work around the theater.  She explained that I had gone to visit my grandmother.

When I went into work the next night, the manager was most gracious.  However, in the process of telling me that it was OK that I was not at the theater the previous night, he conveyed to me that he did not think I would not have enjoyed being around the other guys anyway because I was different than they were.

Before I went into work the next day I was sitting in my bedroom and the tears were welling up from deep inside me.  For I realized that I was just as different from the kids  in the new town as I had been from those in the old town.  And the pain was intense.  My mother witnessed my tears and did not know what to say.  So I wrote Miss Perry a letter and she wrote back the following paragraph which I have read a thousand times:

“What you wrote about ‘not communicating’ made a big lump in my throat.  I don’t ‘worry’ about you because I know you are solid enough in every way to find your own comfortable path in life, but there are times when I grieve for you and with you. Maybe I should have told you that the move wouldn’t solve the problem, but I doubted that it would because people are mostly just people anywhere on this big earth.  I do know that next year you’ll be going into a specialized field and be thrown with students doing the same, so I feel sharing a common interest will be refreshing, and friendships easier.  For you, I’m sure there will always be this loneliness because you’re not likely to meet and know very many people with as many superior qualities as God gave you.  I have to wonder if, being a creative person, God didn’t intend you to walk apart from the common herd.  You can’t write or play as you do and spend your time and energy as do most teenagers.  I wish you didn’t have to pay this price, but eventually (and even now occasionally) you’ll come to accept yourself and see that there are innate and vast rewards for such a dedicated of life. Take all of this for what it’s worth.  I speak from experience because I went through all of this–and I’ve spent 25 years seeing all of this in J.  So take heart, even if you can’t find any local yocal who has your tastes and your many interests, the world has never had a more urgent need of Randys!”

Miss Perry was obviously a fine writer so that in this letter her prose climaxed with my own name!! I have thought countless times of how fortunate I was to have had her for a sounding board for much of my life.  But I have also thought of the millions of people of all ages who have not been so blessed as to have had someone like her with whom to talk or write.

So that is why I am writing this blog–to share some of her wisdom, if only second-hand, and to let people know that there is indeed hope out there for those of you feeling all alone.  I have still had my problems along the way, but Miss Perry’s words, in that letter and elsewhere, have provided a context, a point of reference for my experiences.

Life is not a movie, but with the right perspective we can meet whatever challenges come our way, and do a second “take” whenever the road before us offers an unexpected turn.