The Very Beginning
“One note at a time, T. J.”
My tiny thumb rests on middle C. My pointer and middle fingers take over in turn, and then give ground again to my thumb, back and forth between the notes, hopping over the silent D.
“Doe: a deer, a female deer,” someone maybe sung along.
It was my fourth or fifth Thanksgiving. And I sat with my great grandfather John on the piano bench, my feet dangling far from the pedals I didn’t know how to use anyway. The tables set in the living room were cobbled together like a rickety game of dominoes where people would gather shortly to eat. My relatives were probably absorbed by other activities throughout my great grandfather’s house, but not me.
“One note at a time.”
I knew the song. I’d heard it a lot. But now I was coaxing the song from the keys of this massive instrument next to the fireplace in the living room. I don’t really remember whether I learned the whole song. I don’t really remember whether anyone encouraged me or made a big show of a tiny child’s accomplishment. I do remember what clicked in my head when I understood that mashing my miniature palms on the keyboard, mimicking what I thought I saw grownups doing with a piano, wasn’t working anymore.
And so I played a song, one note at a time.
Not too many years after that Thanksgiving, Great Granddad John died. And our family was gifted the same piano that helped me learn this important first lesson of music making. But soon, I learned that when I played two notes at the same time, things got a little more interesting. And over some years, more and more music mingled among my growing hands, the keys where they rested, and the hammers at work deep in the forge of the instrument.
At first, I learned the songs I heard on the radio and on tapes. “Lost in Your Eyes” by the hugely talented Debbie Gibson was one of the first. “Piano Man” by Billy Joel came not too long after. And through the turbulence of high school years, the growing pains of college, the times burgeoning on independence for a young life, I sat on the bench, keys in hand, unlocking the stories, melodies, harmonies, and songs that would help me make sense of what I was feeling.
I wonder sometimes if Great Granddad John listens when I play. I dare say he didn’t know what he started with his simple lesson. He probably just wanted me to stop making noise. But when I pick up something new to play today, and I plunk out the melody to get a sense of what I’m dealing with, I hear it: not the melody and not his ethereal voice reminding me to play one note at a time, no. I hear the fullness of how everything worth doing in this world has a beginning, how that beginning rests, waiting for the work of human hands, and how five words of kindness can change a life forever.
Happy Thanksgiving my beloveds.
Rev. T. J.