I was stumped. I had started the phrase on the piano three times, assuming each time that my memory would get jogged and let me finish the piece, but every time, I got to one chord and nothing else would come. Many of you know exactly how I felt. You’ve been there yourself. Just when you need it the most, the brain just shuts down, leaving you in the lurch. Just in case you wordies out there have ever wondered where the term “in the lurch” comes from, it describes a position in the game of cribbage where you have moved less than halfway around the board before your opponent finishes the game. It usually characterizes a desperate and embarrassing place. And, that’s where I was this particular evening.
I was about 15 years old, having taken a number of years of piano lessons. I wasn’t fond of the lessons, but loved playing the piano, so I sat down to the piano at home whenever I could. The lady who scheduled special music at the church in which I grew up found out about my “talent” and tricked me into agreeing to play a song one Sunday evening.
I had grown up in this little church, a pretty brick building with hardwood floors and the hardest wooden pews you ever sat in. At some point in my childhood, they bought pads for the seats, floral tapestry covered affairs that promised comfort, but didn’t deliver. The old building wasn’t air conditioned; almost no churches or schools were in those days. (I remember when simply posting the words “air conditioned” on a sign outside a restaurant made the establishment a four-star destination.) The little church was cooled by the old original paddle-bladed ceiling fans and big single-glazed windows which could be opened either from the bottom or top, depending on the amount of air that was needed. We would sit in our pews and watch the ushers as they moved around the room with long wooden poles which were notched on the end to adjust the fans. The old ceiling units had been installed in a day before wall switches and could only be regulated by rotary switches on the center of the motors, which were about fifteen feet off the floor. Well, maybe not that high, but it seemed like that to me growing up. Frequently, the usher would get the speed too high and would have to return to the fan to adjust the switch again, as the prim and proper lady situated under the wind machine smoothed her hair back into place and frowned at the unfortunate man.
I suppose I was about 12 when the air conditioners were installed. Two huge compressor units were set outside the building at the stage end, and two upright boxes about four feet by four feet wide and eight feet tall were installed in each corner of the building, right up on the stage. The cold air was blown at high speed out of the top section of these and the return air was in the bottom. Talk about a maelstrom! I’m only partially speaking about the commotion that ensued every time the unit roared to life. While the turbulence created by that much air blowing from one location was significant, it was nothing compared to the reaction of the good people there. There was not just a little turmoil surrounding the installation of the air conditioners, emanating from the folks in the church. It wasn’t natural, wasn’t a good use of God’s money, was too cold, too noisy, too ugly. Honestly though, from my point of view, I didn’t have anything to complain about when it came to the air conditioning. At least, not until the night in question.
It was a hot evening, but the units hadn’t started blowing cold air when I sat down at the piano to start my special. I placed the book on the music rack of the old grand piano, nervously adjusted the bench and began. I was playing a lovely transcription by Ted Smith of “Oh Worship The King”, a four page song which I had worked on for weeks. The first page flew by like a charm. This was going to be a breeze (probably not a good choice of words)! The first page of my solo completed, I flipped to the next one. After about two lines, the trouble started. The thermostat triggered the big unit in the corner over my left shoulder into chaotic, gusty life! I recalled momentarily, that one of the ladies who normally played the piano had requested that the airflow be directed downward a bit, so she could benefit from the cooler air. That’s all the time I had for that thought, because the airflow caught the edge of my page and blew it right back to where I had just been playing. I nonchalantly reached up and slapped the page back over, never missing a beat. I knew this song! Even with the page flipped over, the music continued unabated. But the monster behind me had other ideas. Whiff! The page was back over again! I slapped it once more, but to no avail. Immediately it was back to page one. By this time, I was on to page three, my practice time paying off for once. I had this song down in my memory, so I didn’t even try to flip the page over again. Playing from memory, I persevered onto the last page of music, the notes flowing from my fingers like liquid. I was invincible! No vexatious machine was going to ruin my performance! Van Cliburn couldn’t have been more confident at that piano!
“Pride precedes a disaster, and an arrogant attitude precedes a fall.” The old Proverb was just waiting to kick in and boy, did it kick in with a vengeance! Two lines from the end of the song, my mind went blank and my fingers stumbled to a stop. Disaster! But I knew what to do, so I went back to the beginning of that phrase and started confidently, knowing that it would come. It didn’t. All I got was the lurch. You remember where that is? Yeah, well, score one for the monster in the corner and zero for the wanna-be concert pianist. Finally, frustrated and embarrassed beyond belief, I reached up and slapped the pages back over long enough to read the notes and I finished the song.
One of my young friends played the offertory at our church last week. She missed a chord. I was so proud of her. She kept going. She finished the song with finesse and confidence. When I complimented her later, she said, “But, I messed up.” And I could tell her, “I know how it feels, but you finished. No one will remember the wrong chord. They will remember how well you played the whole piece.” I knew whereof I spoke. A few weeks after the disaster I’ve described above, they asked me to play again. I was terrified. It took all the courage I could muster, but I told them I would. And, I did. And the next time they asked me, I played again, and the next time. I doubt that anyone who was there that night remembers my nightmare performance. But what if I had never played in public again? How do you suppose they would remember me?
I think, of all the things I like most in life, second chances rank right up there. The chance to do something well that you were horrible at the first time. The chance to help someone you ignored earlier. The chance to redeem yourself. I’m a great believer in redemption. I’m not a golfer, but I really like the idea of a “mulligan”. You get to take the shot again, since you muffed the first one so badly.
“Overs” aren’t always an option, but when they are, take them! You messed up big the first time, you can’t do much worse with a second chance. And, I’m guessing you’ll actually do a lot better.
“Swallow your pride occasionally. It’s not fattening.”
(Frank Tyger~Editorial cartoonist and humorist)