Music has always been a great source of consolation for me, and a source of unparalleled joy.
It has surrounded and comforted me since I was in my mother’s womb as she practiced piano and sang.
Growing up, music was a big part of my home life, as Mom and Dad would play all sorts of records on our record player – Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, John Denver, The Everley Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Elvis, The Godspell Broadway Recording, The Shaft Soundrack, The Righteous Brothers, Ray Charles, The Supremes. We only listened to the classical station on the radio, and assuredly no popular stations, although my grandmother loved the big band station, and we’d listen to that when she was around, so I got to know Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and the crooners of the 1940s and 50s thanks to her.
Music played a large role in my faith life, as well: Mom and Dad belonged to prayer groups, and they both played guitar and sang with folk groups that played at Mass. “Be Like the Sun,” “Sing to the Mountain,” all sorts of St. Louis Jesuits songs, Rev. Carey Landry, and many more songs filled my internal jukebox. I would often sing with my parents, and sometimes I’d attempt to play tambourine, too, although my coordination skills at the time were slightly, ahem, lacking.
Vintage records, classic big band and jazz, folk music, trips to live classical and patriotic concerts in the park with my grandparents and special outings to musicals at the theater in the next big town north helped shape the soundtrack of my childhood.
Recognizing my interest and talent at an early age, my parents sacrificed a lot so I could begin piano lessons when I was 4 years old. By age 5, I had my own little record player, and went to bed listening to my Suzuki piano record, with Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and other classical pieces lulling me to sleep. Sadly, I was never self-disciplined enough to practice consistently, so quit lessons when I was in fifth grade or so, never really having learned to play with two hands very well (I was forever cursed as a “by ear” / Suzuki sort of gal).
Case in point: I remember once, I was probably in sixth grade, I was singing along to a Beatles tape on my walkman as I was cleaning my room. My Mom stopped by my door, looking in with nose wrinkled in distaste, saying, “Heather, that’s not how that song goes,” to which I responded, “Mah-ummm, I am singing the harmony.” Like, duh.
Sr. Andre, the principal and music teacher at my Catholic elementary school, invited me to play keyboard for school Mass beginning in 3rd or 4th grade. I credit her with teaching me how to play many guitar chords on the keyboard without notation.
Around fifth grade came my first exposure to band class. The public school down the road had a band program, and my parents thought I’d enjoy it, so twice a week some classmates and I would walk down to Fir Grove to play instruments with the public school kids. I wanted to play the saxophone, having fallen in love with it via the influence of my parents’ jazz albums and grandma’s big band radio station, but my mom disapproved; she thought it would be better for me to learn the clarinet first. Sadly, some orthodontia apparatus precluded me from jumping right to clarinet, so I started with the flute. An experienced family friend had to help me learn to play at first – I nearly passed out trying to get a single sound out of the thing!
From an early age, I learned that music provided me with several things in short order: an identity – oh, that’s Heather! She can sing/play an instrument/whatever. It provided me with a great sense of self-worth, since it was something that came easily to me, brought me personal satisfaction and joy, and also seemed to please others. Music also provided me with a desperately needed sense of belonging, as being in band or choir meant I’d be part of a smaller peer group from which I could hopefully find friends. I was a pretty awkward kid – brighter academically than many of my peers, yet unable to make lasting connections with classmates. Music was there for me when the birthday invitations didn’t arrive, or when the taunts on the playground became a little too hard to handle, or when things at home were upsetting and stressful.
When we moved away just before 6th grade, I joined choir at my new school pretty quickly to regain that sense of belonging, and was chosen to sing several solos and participate in the school-wide talent show (I sang “The Rainbow Connection” from A Muppet Movie and brought down the house). My musical identity was what made me feel accepted and acceptable – loved and lovable, and so I pursued it with enthusiasm and fervor.
I don’t remember being in band in sixth grade, but I do remember continuing in choir while in junior high school and joining band, as well, yet again providing an instant pool of beloved band geek friends from which I could choose.
One day, our band instructor told us that the school district had received some new instruments, and asked if any of the five bajillion flute players would be interested in switching instruments? I eyeballed the funky-looking bass clarinet with its sleek, long wooden body and goose-like neck with shiny silver bell and knew I’d found my instrument. I hardly ever regretted switching from flute, save for when the sweet piccolo lines in a John Philip Sousa piece came around. My instrument easily weighed at least 10 times what the flute players’ did, but it didn’t matter. I loved it. The bass clarinet was unique, like I fancied myself to be, and it was close enough to saxophone to make me happy and close enough to B-flat clarinet to make my mom happy.
Over the years, I dabbled with the bari sax, baritone, percussion, and B-flat clarinet, but I always returned to bass clarinet. I just couldn’t get over the rich tones it produced with the help of my breath and fingers. There was something about the frequency of sound that kept me practicing and learning and growing as an instrumentalist. I auditioned for and was accepted to many honor bands and clinics and received many awards, including an all-state solo award. It became a fun game to pick out bass clarinet lines in cartoon soundtracks, movie scores, and classical compositions. Incidentally, when I attended an Indigo Girls concert after high school and saw a bass clarinetist prominently featured, I almost lost my mind.
As I grew older, I knew that I always wanted music to remain part of my life, but I wasn’t sure what I would do with it. In high school, I focused on band, but picked up two choirs my senior year just for fun. My parents allowed me to join an Assembly of God youth group because they had better praise and worship music than my Catholic youth group, where hardly anyone sang (tsk, tsk). I loved every minute of it. I tried out for and was accepted to All-State Choir, although I declined as I was also accepted to All-State Band as first chair and thought that would be more beneficial at the time. My choir teacher was really amazing, and encouraged me to pursue my love of music, going so far as to recommend me for a scholarship in college.
How about you, dear reader? Is there a hobby or skill that God has given you that unexpectedly brought you great joy, or did in the past? Are you still doing it? If not, why not? What would happen if you decided to use a talent that God gave you to glorify Him today? What would that look like in your life?
Until tomorrow, God bless y’all!