Not Woebegone

Music has charms to soothe a savage beast. 

The words, written in verse centuries ago, are quoted frequently, even today. 

I don’t disagree. 

I’m remembering a weekend, some time ago, when I reveled in the harmonious, percussive notes of a skillfully played hammered dulcimer, listened in awe to the sweet, mellow tones of my favorite trumpet player, and wiped away tears at the conclusion of an amazing vocal duet rendition of an aria from an opera (you read that right, an opera). 

In between those numbers that weekend, I played and sang a bit myself, as well as heard several other artists who were skillfully adept at their craft. 

This savage beast’s heart was soothed.  For awhile.  But, for some reason, I hear something else in my head tonight.

Well, it’s been a busy week in Lake Wobegon. 

I can even hear the quiet, smooth tonality of Garrison Keillor’s baritone voice as I write this, although I’m not quite sure why those words come to mind.  

I suppose I may have been a little down in the mouth recently.  You know—the worries of life are starting to pile up here and there; the things I usually can control have gotten away from me a bit. 

Instead of a perpetual grin, the corners of the mouth are turned down somewhat, and it’s harder than usual to work up to a smile. 

Thus, the descriptive phrase down in the mouth seems to cover my attitude most appropriately.

Every time I ever heard Mr. Keillor utter the opening sentence to the story-telling session on his radio program, I was struck anew by the name of his fictitious town. 

He avers that the name comes from an old Native American word meaning the place where we waited all day in the rain for you.  It is not exactly the correct origin for the word it sounds like, woebegone, but it comes awfully close. 

The idea of waiting in the rain for someone who never arrives just about describes the depth of the feeling of being woebegone, a word that really comes from the Middle English meaning beset by woe.  Either way, an apt description for someone who is down in the mouth.

As I sat and listened that weekend to the jaw-droppingly beautiful tones that emanated from the young lady’s silver trumpet, my inner being was touched.  And then, as mother and daughter sang their operatic duet in a language I will never understand, I ached for more. 

But more of what

I know by experience that I soon tire of the same music, played or sung again and again.  A recording would not suffice, nor would simply attending recitals day after day to hear the artists ply their craft. 

I am convinced beauty on earth is given to remind us there is more.  Something more satisfying is to come. 

More.

What we have here, beautiful as it may be, is only a shadow of what is to be ours one day.

What we have here is only a shadow of what is to be ours one day. Click To Tweet

Many centuries ago, the writer of psalms understood that, even as he struggled with his own inner sadness.  He was woebegone, down in the mouth, but still, he wrote deep calls unto deep, and told of his Creator’s unspeakable love and glory, evidenced by the world around him. 

Like Job, the afflicted one, he outlined his troubles and then reiterated, for I will yet praise Him. (Psalm 42:7-11)

Some of us drown our sorrows with alcohol, some with work, some with denial.  I listen for hours to music, reveling in the intrinsic beauty of the chords, and the harmonies, and the melodies. 

For all, it is the same.  The time comes when reality must be faced. 

The music ends, the fat lady sings, if you will. 

We who believe have a promise that will still keep us on the path.  The knowledge, the certainty, that there is more is enough to give us strength and perseverance to go on through what lies ahead. 

Not around and not under.  Through.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going on. 

The oases along the way—the music, the fellowship, the joy—those only lend credence to the promise that we’re just nomads, travelers in this world, on our way to a better place.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m enjoying the soundtrack while I’m here.

Even waiting in the rain.

Not woebegone.

 

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?
(Psalm 42:1,2 ~ NIV ~ Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

(The Mourning Bride by William Congreve ~ English playwright and poet ~ 1670-1729)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

How Low Can You Go?

I knew she’d listen to every note I played.  I wished the professor had suggested she sit somewhere else.  Somewhere she’d hear other musicians and their mistakes.

Instead of mine.

The young high school junior was visiting her university-going sister on campus.  No doubt, it was an exciting time for her.  I still remember that age.

Wide-eyed and inexperienced, the world held exhilaration at every turn.  College years would be a chance to be out on your own—away from the careful direction of overprotective parents.  A campus visit ahead of time offered a stimulating preview of the freedom that was to come.

Her sister is a member of the little chamber orchestra they are kind enough to allow me to participate in at the small liberal arts university.  Since the visiting young lady is also a French horn player, the professor thought it would be nice for her to sit in the horn section.

On my right.  Where the bell of my horn points.

I just knew she would hear every mistake and bobble proceeding out of the wayward instrument.

Well.  There was nothing for it but to get through the hour.  I started my warm-up.

I like to start with long tones—mid-range notes lasting several seconds each, descending down a scale before coming back up to finish on the original note.  After a few moments of that, I play some arpeggios—open chords—mostly descending until I reach a point at least two octaves below the starting midrange note.

The low pitch I end on is quite low, somewhere in the vicinity of what a tuba player would call mid-range.  Since my warm-ups always include that note and those leading down to it in the scale, I like to think I have developed a rather nice tone in that range, a range most horn players never attempt.

I end my warm-up by playing the arpeggios on up to the original mid-range and then up another octave before sliding back down to finish on the original note with which I began.

I saw her turn her head to look at me as I finished my warm-up.  I thought perhaps she wanted to say something, but the professor was already talking, introducing the young lady to the whole group.

It wasn’t a relaxing rehearsal.  We played a piece I only remember reading once before, so many of the passages were unfamiliar.  I stumbled and muffed more notes than I care to count, acutely aware of the girl’s presence beside me through all of them.

She heard every note.  Every one.

At the end of the rehearsal, I said a few polite words to her.  I hoped her visit would be all she was hoping for.  She was also polite.  We talked for a few seconds and she asked one question.

“What kind of range do you have?”

Immediately, I jumped to the obvious conclusion.  I supposed she meant: how high can you play?

I jokingly mentioned the highest note I’m comfortable playing is a high G, but pointed to the young lady on the other side of me, suggesting that she was the one who played the high C’s when necessary.

The girl wasn’t quite satisfied, starting another question.  

“But, what’s the low. . .” 

Before she could complete the question, her sister called her over to discuss what was next in their day’s schedule.  She never got a chance to ask what was on her mind.

I went on about my day, not thinking again about the girl’s curiosity.

I’m thinking about it now.

She wanted to know about my low range, not my high range.  She had heard my warm-up and knowing that most horn players avoid those low registers, wondered about how low I could go.

I’m wondering the same thing tonight.

Do you know I don’t have a very good high range when I play my horn?  Most players with similar experience to mine are quite adept at playing the highest notes on the horn.  Even many young players have a high range much superior to mine.

I wish it weren’t so. 

I want to play the high notes.  But, I can’t.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now.

Why can I play the low notes (the ones most horn players eschew) with ease, but I can’t reach the high pitches?  What’s the problem?

As Mr. Tolkien puts it in his description of the scatter-brained innkeeper in his famous tale, even though he thinks less than he talks, and slower; yet he can see through a brick wall in time. . . 

I’m somewhat the same, thinking less than I talk (at times), but I believe I can see the answer to my problem.

You’ve probably already arrived at the solution, especially since it’s been explained at length up above. 

I’m good at the low notes because those are what I concentrate on every time—every single time—I pick up my horn to play.  My warm-up is a regimen I perform—without fail—before I look at a piece of music, before the conductor raises the baton for the first time, before even the first tuning note is sounded to be sure all the instruments are capable of playing the same pitch together.

I play low notes.  Every time, I play low notes.

I’m good at low notes.  Really.

But, I want to play high notes.

And, the Apostle said, the thing I want to do, I don’t do.  But, the thing I don’t want to do, that’s the very thing I do. (Romans 7:19

Of course, he’s talking about more important things than playing a horn, but then again, so am I. 

The thing I practice is the thing I will perform. Click To Tweet

The thing I practice is the thing I will perform.  It is true in all walks of life.

If I practice complaining, one would never anticipate that I would rest patiently and with confidence.

If I practice arrogance and pride, I will never perform with humility.

If I live continually in defeat and expectation of loss, I can have no expectation of joy or fulfillment.

When the time comes to play the brilliant high notes in a concert performance, if I have resigned myself to practicing only the low and middle registers during every rehearsal, I will never—ever—shape my lips to sound the right notes.

I read today the words of a friend who is, by all earthly wisdom, fighting a losing battle.  His battle is for his life.  I was shocked to read of his laughter and joy as he fights the battle.

But tonight, I understand.  He is practicing for the performance still to come.   In anticipation of what he calls a joyful death, he’s decided to practice joy now—today, and for the rest of his days, however many he has.  

I’ve been working on the low stuff for too long now.  I’ve gotten much too accomplished at it.

I want to play the high notes.  I want the folks who are doomed to sit and listen to me to hear the good stuff.

It’s time for a new warm-up routine.

Today’s as good a time to start as any.

 

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.
(Aristotle ~ Ancient Greek philosopher ~ 384 BC-322 BC)

 

Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.
(Philippians 4:9 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Intervals

I love playing the horn.  Really, I do.

If it sounds as if I’m trying to convince myself, perhaps I am.  Of all the endeavors I have undertaken in my life, playing the horn has been the most mercurial.

By that, I mean to say it has been the most enjoyable and the most frustrating.  I’ve had astounding successes and disastrous failures.  Most days, I love playing with other musicians.  Then again on others, I detest the very thought of it.

Mercurial.

Up.  Down.

Hot.  Cold.

I suppose my attitude toward the activity may be tethered to my commitment to preparation for it.  For some odd reason, when I don’t take the horn out of its protective case and play it between rehearsals, the rehearsals themselves are less than satisfactory.  Often, much less.

The lady is kind if nothing else.  She is.  Standing there on her podium, she has no intention of hurting anyone’s feelings.  All she’s after is music—correct notes, played at the right time, and at the volume indicated in the dynamic marking.

It’s not much to ask.

Still, it requires more than just attempting it in the instant of need. Sometimes, a lot more.

She was frustrated on the last occasion.  The violins may have been a few cents off pitch.  The timpani player might have played that roll too loudly.  The bass voices could have been dragging the beat a little.

None of those was the cause of her frustration.  This time, anyway.  No, it was something else.

The horns had blown their entrance.

Three notes.  That’s all it was.  Three.  Play a G in the middle octave, then a jump to the G in the higher octave, then a little slur down to the F#.  

Except, it didn’t happen.  The first note was nowhere near to a G, nor was the next even close to the octave interval required.  Perhaps, we shouldn’t even talk about the F#.

The exasperation was obvious as she motioned with her baton.  A big circle in the air.  That meant stop.  No.  It meant stop now!  

She needn’t have bothered on my account.  I wasn’t playing any more notes after that flub anyway. 

She looked back at the horn section, the frown on her lips replaced quickly with a smile.  If not one of confidence, it was at least one of hope.

You’re going to get that.  I’m sure you will.  Next time.

She didn’t insist we play it again in front of all the other musicians.  She didn’t berate us for our second-rate performance.  She extended mercy.

Mercy and grace.  

A second chance.

An interval in which to work on our interval, you might say.

A wise man would spend the time judiciously, these minutes—and hours—and days—in that interval of grace. 

I wonder if I fall into that category.  I suppose time will tell.

But if you know me, you know I wonder about other things, as well.  It’s impossible for me to consider that little ragtag group of musicians we like to call a chamber orchestra and not get a glimpse in my mind of this great, huge symphony in which all of us are participants.

Every single one of us plays a part.  The phrase fits the subject perfectly—not by my design—but because it is true that all of us understand we play, at least in some capacity, a part of the music of life.

Everyone plays a part in the great symphony of mankind. Our Conductor has high expectations. Click To Tweet

Even with the high expectations, we’ll all play a clinker at some point.  Our Conductor understands.

He does.

He once played in the symphony, too.  Is it too much to believe He’d be sympathetic with our weaknesses?  (Hebrews 4:15)

He hasn’t forgotten the music; hasn’t lost the rhythm of creation.  And, He knows how difficult it is to play those intervals sometimes.

Grace.  Mercy.

Intervals.

I wonder.  This might be one of those other intervals.

Maybe, we should use the time wisely. (Ephesians 5:15-16)

The Day is approaching—the day when the baton in our Conductor’s hand sweeps toward that down beat.

I’m not going to miss this interval.

 

 

In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory.  In practice, there is.
(Yogi Berra ~American baseball player/manager ~ 1925-2015)

 

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.
(Hebrews 4:15, 16 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.)

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Live Boldly

I’m not sure when it stopped mattering to me.  At some point in the last forty years, things changed drastically.

I don’t care what they think anymore.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?  Perhaps, a little explanation will aid in unravelling my boast.

It was during the last semester of the school year.  The beloved director of the student orchestra, which graciously allows me to participate—I think, just to have the part covered—had handed out a new music piece.

We sight-read the piece.  Sight-reading is the act of playing a piece of music through without having ever rehearsed—or even seen—it before.

I didn’t realize it was true of my playing, but it must have been.  After the rehearsal session was over, as we were putting away our instruments, one of the students mentioned that he had heard my solo line clearly.

I don’t know how you dare do that—play it loud enough for everyone else to hear.  And, on the first run-through, too!

I thought a minute before replying.

There’s no one here I’m afraid of.  Why not play it out? 

It hasn’t always been the case.  My old horn teacher hammered the thought into my head.  I’ve written the words before.

If you’re going to make a mistake, make it loud enough for me to hear!

The last time I wrote the phrase, someone responded with Martin Luther’s words, paraphrased a bit.

Sin boldly.

I cringe a little at the words.  I don’t want to encourage anyone to live a life of debauchery, claiming the grace of God as their get-out-of-jail-free card.  That’s not the way it works.

But, Mr. Luther knew and understood our lifelong tug of war with self and sin.  He affirmed the grace of God to be more than adequate to the task of cleansing us from all sin.

Still.  I will say it again.  Play it out!  Speak with authority! Belt out the tune!

I’ve not always followed that advice.  For many years, what I wanted was to be loud enough that everyone would hear the good and compliment me for it, but soft enough that not one listener could detect the rotten inconsistencies that were bound to turn up sooner or later.

What changed?

What changed was the realization that there was nobody—either in the ensemble or in the audience—I was afraid of.  There is nothing they can do to hurt me.

I’m just sorry it took me so many years to realize it.

All those wasted years spent sliding around wrong notes and playing out of tune—meekly and quietly—when I could have been making a difference.

Bold and certain of my sanction, I could have been a voice that made a difference, sounding with clarity and purpose.

Hmmm.  I think we’re not just talking about playing in the orchestra anymore, are we?

And the Teacher told His disciples that they had been practicing in the dark and behind closed doors at low volumes for long enough.  All that was about to change.

What you’ve been playing at the pianissimo level behind closed doors and in the dark will soon be played out in the town square at fortissimo.  You’re afraid of the wrong people!  Don’t fear them.  Fear God. (Luke 12:3,4)

I’ll admit, I’ve taken a little liberty with the context.  To my knowledge, that little band of men has no record of having played musical instruments, even though they did sing a time or two.

Still, the meaning is the same.  Very nearly.  

Don’t be afraid to be heard.  Be loud!  Be bold!

But, maybe you don’t play a musical instrument.  Perhaps you simply answer a telephone.  Or clean floors.  Or write code. Or sell flowers.

Whatever you do, you can do it with boldness.  You’re not doing it for anyone who has the power to harm you.

We perform for the One who has made it clear, unequivocally and emphatically that He will not allow us to be harmed.  Under His direction, we find safety.  (Psalm 46:1)

Does that imply that no one will laugh at us?  Is it a promise of physical protection, that we will lead charmed lives?

You know the answer.  Damage to the body is not damage to the soul.

He holds our souls in the palm of His hand.  It is the only safe place—the only one.

So, we speak boldly.  We act courageously.  We love audaciously.

Speak boldly. Act courageously. Love audaciously. Click To Tweet

There’s nothing to hurt us here.

There's nothing to hurt us here. We're held firmly in His grip. Click To Tweet

Held firmly in His grip, we live life out loud.

Fortissimo.

ff!

 

Live well.  Sing out, sing loud, and sing often.  And God bless the child that’s got a song.
(Nanci Griffith ~ American singer/songwriter)

 

The wicked run away when no one is chasing them,
    but the godly are as bold as lions.
(Proverbs 28:1 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation.  All rights reserved.)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

If It Ain’t Broke

The girls were visiting and the piano needed attention.  Funny how that happens.

Months—absolutely months— can go by without a word to me about making repairs to the old thing, but let the girls come to visit and it’s time to see to what ails it.

I’ve done this many times before.

The G below Middle C is acting up!  Not many songs in our repertoire can be played without that G.

She says the words and I know exactly what must be done.  Not that anyone else cares besides me, but the jack flange has come loose from the wippen and the hammer isn’t returning quickly enough to its original position to be ready for the next repetition of the note.

It just needs a little spot of glue.

Applied to exactly the right place.

It’s always the jack flange.  Always.

The old piano is a hundred and thirty-eight years old.  It, perhaps, has earned a rest from its labors by now.  Still, in between these little crises, beautiful music can be heard spilling from the exquisite burled walnut case of the ancient instrument.

But, the girls. . .

I get my tools and take the front off of the piano one more time.

Why, one might ask, do I continue to repair one jack flange at a time (or two, if I’ve waited long enough for a second one to let go, as was the case this time), instead of taking the plunge and re-gluing every single flange?  All eighty-eight of them.

Ah.  There’s the rub.

They’re not all loose.  Yet.

One would assume the glue, nearly one hundred forty-years old, made from the hide of dead animals, would have deteriorated to the point that every joint would pop loose at the slightest touch.

It would be a wrong assumption.

The glue, for the most part, still holds the entire contrivance together admirably.  For the most part.

To remove all the flanges would involve infinite patience and time-consuming labor.  There would certainly be broken parts if they were forced apart.  

The old adhesive, brittle though it may be, still holds tightly enough and yet, ready to pop loose at whatever precise moment the molecules in the mixture break down.

An attempt to repair the entire piano would be disastrous.  And, foolish.

The smart piano technician waits until a repair is necessary to effect the remedy.

Or, in the everyday vernacular, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’m not sure how smart I am, but I know gluing a loose flange is much easier than repairing a broken one.  Especially one I’ve broken myself.

I left all the tightly glued flanges alone and removed only the two troublemakers.  Applying a spot of glue to the point of contact between the jack and the wippen, I matched the two parts together in precisely the same position they have held for the last century and just over a third.

They may hold for another century or more.

Time will tell.

You know, I’ve wondered why our Creator, omniscient and omnipotent as He is, wouldn’t notice all the problems we weak folk are going to have before they happen and simply take care of them for us.

All of us.  All at once.

But, He doesn’t, does He?  He leaves those of us who will fail right in among those who will carry on.  And, we break and fail.  Again and again.

We break and fail. Again and again. Click To Tweet

He knows exactly what needs to be done—exactly which part needs repair.

Every time, His touch—His love—mends the hurts and restores the errant parts of the Body.  Often, the restored members are stronger than they once were.

And, while the individual parts are getting the attention they need, the rest of the Body continues to function around its brokenness, making music for a listening world.

Beautiful music.  From flawed, broken, and repaired pieces of the whole.

From flawed, broken, and restored people, He makes beautiful music. Click To Tweet

The music is sweeter for it.

He uses broken flanges.  And, hammers.  And, center pins.  And, back checks.  And, dampers.  And. . .well, you get the point.  Even if you don’t recognize any of the parts, you get the point.

When it’s broken, He fixes it. (Jeremiah 30:17)

We make beautiful music together, don’t we?  For all of our brokenness and distress, the music is heavenly.

It was when the girls sang, too.

Heavenly.

 

                              

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.
(Ernest Hemingway ~ American author ~ 1899-1961)

 

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are Godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.
(Galatians 6: 1,2 ~ NLT Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Jubal’s Tribe

Have you ever considered how music touches our souls?

The preacher sat toying with his coffee cup, now mostly empty.  When we first sat down an hour before, it had been filled to the rim with the hot, black elixir.  

We had talked of history and faith and friends, along with a sentence or two about the glory days of our youth.  As our time together inched toward its termination, the conversation turned toward the philosophical.

My guitar-playing friend was there, as well.  He, as was his habit, contributed to the direction of our discussion with a short narrative about a man and his wife of many years who had sung together at a recent music event the storyteller had headlined.

The thing is, the lady has Alzheimer’s.  She doesn’t know her husband anymore, nor is she able to comprehend even simple questions or enter into conversation.  But, she sang.  

She sang.

It’s not the first story told about music and how it is so deeply ingrained in our very being.  Many others have their own anecdotes, family lore which lightens the darkness of sad periods in their memories.  I have my own. too. 

The last time I visited with the red-headed lady who raised me—my mom—before she left this life, she didn’t know me.  Told me I was no good.  Ordered me out of her house.

But, when I sat beside her in church that morning and held my hymnal in front of her, she nearly pulled it out of my hand as she tugged at it.  And, she sang.

She sang.

Tears came to my eyes as I visited with my friends that morning, just a week or so ago.  The three of us sat on the sidewalk at the cafe, conversations abuzz all around and cars passing by on the busy downtown street; all I heard was my Mama’s voice singing praise to her Creator.

Why does music touch our souls?

How is it that the words and melodies are written indelibly on our hearts when all else has gone dark?

From the depths of our being, when neither voices nor photos, nor even faces can bring familiar, well-worn paths and fellow-travelers back to mind, the introductory notes of an old hymn—or even a folk song or ballad—stir the synapses of the mostly unresponsive brain to recall the words and tune faultlessly.

Even my father-in-law, in the last years of his life almost completely unresponsive, would sit beside his wife as she played the piano, and his once strong voice would ring out the tenor part as if he had no impediment whatsoever.

Why does music touch our souls?

I attempted to interject my thoughts on the effect music has on our emotions, the right sequence of notes drawing tears in appropriate places during the course of a movie, or even the use of certain types of music to inspire courage and fidelity on the battlefield.

The preacher dismissed that as simply emotions, not actually the heart.  I, not sure I agreed, ceded him the point, since it was clear that any argument would have been merely subjective, without any possibility of claiming definitive proof.

Perhaps that’s a discussion for another day.  I’m not fully convinced.  I’ll have to think on that awhile longer.  

For today though, the question still demands an answer.  Why does music touch the soul—or heart, if you prefer—and leave its mark stamped thereon?

Jabal had a brother, whose name was Jubal.  He was the father of all who play the harp and pipe. (Genesis 4:21)

Jubilation and jubilees had arrived.  Seven generations after Adam, the gift of music began to be ingrained in the human spirit.  The birds in the trees no longer had any advantage over humanity, save that they could fly.  

Henceforth, the human spirit would be moved, not only by words and emotions, but by music.  Notes and chords, strung together and played or sung, would make their way inexorably and irretrievably into the hearts of men.

For those of us who hold a worldview shaped by Scripture, music would have the purpose of drawing men to God and glorifying Him.  The Word is full of evidence.  Read Psalm 95:1, Ephesians 5:19, 2 Chronicles 5:13, to only begin.

Scripture’s pages are full of the act of making music.  Across the ages, hearts were drawn irresistibly to God in song.

What a gift!

The weekend after that coffee morning with my friends, I stood in the Sunday morning worship service where the Lovely Lady and I fellowship and, once again, the point was made as clear as a mountain spring to me.

Although, I am often privileged to be part of the worship team on-stage, on this day I stood in the midst of the main group on the floor level.  My mind, as is too often the case, was on the more practical issues of my life—work, finances (or the lack thereof), uncertainties of the future—rather than focused on worship.

There was nothing spectacular about the music.  Nothing.

And yet, as I stood and sang, as I had been taught to do early in life by that red-headed lady I spoke of earlier, the eyes of my soul were drawn irresistibly to higher things.  

The God of all the universe has come to live within us.  To walk with us.  To put eternity in our hearts.

My voice broke.  As the tears flowed, my voice fell silent.

My heart did not. 

I wonder if He hears the song in our hearts when our voices fail us.

I wonder if He hears the song in our hearts when our voices fail us. Click To Tweet

I wonder.

Music touches our souls because the God who is Love knew we would need to be reminded.  Often.

What a gift!  The gift that soothes, that inspires, that makes the heart to soar.

Jubilation!

 

 

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
(William Congreve ~ English playwright ~ 1670-1729)

 

 

Sing a new song to the Lord,
    for he has done wonderful deeds.
His right hand has won a mighty victory;
    his holy arm has shown his saving power!
The Lord has announced his victory
    and has revealed his righteousness to every nation!
He has remembered his promise to love and be faithful to Israel.
    The ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
Shout to the Lord, all the earth;

    break out in praise and sing for joy!
Sing your praise to the Lord with the harp,

    with the harp and melodious song,
with trumpets and the sound of the ram’s horn.

    Make a joyful symphony before the Lord, the King!
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!

    Let the earth and all living things join in.
(Psalm 98: 1-7 ~ NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Offerings

The young voices sing in tight harmony, the air surrounding us almost trembling with astonishment at the beauty of their song.  We in the pews are in agreement with the atmosphere; to a person it seems, holding our breaths, not wanting to miss a note or a chord.

The carol began as a common Christmas song—with familiar words and melody—but it has become much more than that.  The young artists, led by that genius with a stick in his hand, started with the simple familiar tune and turned it into a symphony, a masterpiece of beautiful music and brilliant poetry.

Quietly, scarcely louder than a whisper, the voices draw us upward until, with more volume than seems possible from those young throats and greater skill than seems imaginable from musicians so inexperienced, we are overcome with wonder and with awe.

We who sit in the hard seats and listen have been carried far beyond the restraints of our time and circumstances.  For a moment which seemed an eternity, our spirits soared with the melodies and harmonies that have drawn us into the very presence of the King of Christmas.

It has always been so for me.  This music has power—power to soothe the spirit—power to move the soul—power to draw the heart from its deepest, darkest hiding place and lay it open before the Creator of all the Universe.

I know it is not the same for all.  My life has been full of music from the day I was born, until now in my waning years.  Many have had different experiences and have also lived joyfully.  I freely admit it.

Still—music moves me.

Can I go a step further and tell you what else moves me?

Just as much as the music.

It may come as a shock to the reader.  It did to me.

You see, I sit in the beautiful cathedral and am moved to tears by nothing more than sound in the air—that and the Spirit of God—and somehow, it feels natural and right.

But just this week, in my place of business, I was also moved to tears. . .

The old man had been in before.  He had The Look.  You know, that look in his eyes—almost empty, but a little wild, a little confused, and perhaps even, dangerous.  He shuffled in, shoulders slumped, a defeated shell of a man, without hope.

He is homeless, or nearly so.  Drifting from one relative to another, living under the stars when the weather permits, he calls no place home, but any place he lies down his bedroom.

He had a guitar to sell.  I’ve told his story before.  Well, not his, but the same basic story anyway.  No money, no food, the urge to find funds has led him to my door.  The guitar would feed him for a few days anyway.

Or, so he thought.

I didn’t want his guitar.

It is damaged and worn now.  It was not much better when it was new.  If I had bought it, the guitar-shaped-object would have found a semi-permanent home in my back room, a room which is already packed full by too many cheap, broken guitar-shaped-objects.

I didn’t want the guitar.  I told him so.

The wild eyes turned angry for a few seconds, and I worried that things might get ugly.  Then, he shrugged his shoulders and looking dejected, turned to go.

I wasn’t done, though.  I know, after years of sleepless nights and remorse-filled days, that it was not my place to turn him away without help.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out a couple of bills which I laid on the counter for him.  Immediately, the angry eyes were back and he waved away my offer disgustedly.

He didn’t want my hand-out.  He wanted to sell his guitar.

Quickly, I explained my dilemma.  Motioning with my arms at the guitars leaning against the back wall and the cases stacked in the aisles, I told him that I can’t—just can’t—acquire another guitar to repair.  Without disparaging his instrument, I made it clear.  I simply don’t need his guitar.

Again, I held out the money and begged—yes—I begged him to take it.  I suggested he could still sell the guitar to someone else who needs it.  For a moment, his demeanor brightened, as he saw a way to get more than he expected when he first came through my door.

Then another idea came to him.

“I’ll accept your gift.  But, I’m not going to sell this guitar.”  The old guy proudly gestured with the instrument.  “I know this guy who’s staying down by the tracks.  He says he plays, but he doesn’t have a guitar to use.  I’ll give this one to him.”

He reached a gnarled hand across the counter, first to take the gift I offered, and then again to grip mine in that ancient symbol of equality and respect, a handshake.

I looked into his eyes.

That’s funny.

They were as clear as a bell.  No anger.  No confusion.  No defeat.

Did I say they were clear?  I meant to say that they were clear except for the tears that welled up in the corners of each one.  As he let go of the firm grip he had on my hand, there were tears in my own eyes, as well.

He headed for the door.  I’m pretty sure he was taller than when he came in.  At least, his head was held up and the slump he had when he arrived was gone.

As he stepped outside, I heard his voice,  “God bless you, friend.”

I can’t explain it, but I felt chills.  Something like I felt when I listened to those young folks singing last night.

Something like it.

The apostle said that when we walk in love, our God smells a sweet aroma, as He did when His Son came for us.

When we walk in love, our God smells a sweet aroma Click To Tweet

This Christmas, as I worship in the beauty and opulence of the cathedral, with its stained glass windows and high ceilings, and all of it trimmed in oak, I’m going to remember that somewhere, out there in the cold and dirty world, a man plays a guitar.

The music inside might be prettier and more skilled.

I don’t know.

Somehow, I think the Savior of the world—the One who came as a baby on that first Christmas—I think He might consider the sound of that guitar playing down by the railroad tracks just a little sweeter.

Just a little.

A sweet aroma.

 

 

A song will outlive all sermons in the memory.
(Henry Giles ~ American minister/author ~ 1809-1882)

 

And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
(Ephesians 5:2 ~ ESV)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Keeping the Beat

Rhythm.  It’s the building block of all music.

One might even contend it’s foundational for all of life.

Before we learn to sing a pitch, we learn simple rhythms.  We bang our cups on the arm of the high chair, later graduating to wooden spoons on Mama’s pots and pans.

The older we get, the more sophisticated the beat.  Sitting on a wooden structure, such as a stage, where our feet dangle against the side, we find ourselves bumping our heels against it, timidly at first—exploring the resonance and tonality, then boldly, with authority and style.

We find we like beating on things in rhythm, moving from there to rhythm1drumming with our fingers on desktops (to the great annoyance of our school teachers), then using other implements such as pencils and sticks (especially effective if dragged across the top of a picket or dog-eared privacy fence).

Each one of us has an innate sense of rhythm, waiting to be developed.

I’m not saying we’re all adept at keeping the beat with what goes on around us, just that rhythm itself is a part of our very being.  From our mother’s heartbeat inside the womb, and the muffled music we hear vaguely there, we are programmed from our conception to respond to rhythm.

It never stops throughout our lives.

Clocks ticking, hammers pounding, feet marching, swings moving to and fro, the beat goes on unstopped.  Oh, they are different rhythms, but it is indeed basic to our existence.

A friend pointed out the elemental aspect of rhythm the other day, as we bemoaned the lack of that same simplicity in the word we use to describe it.

Was there ever such a screwball word used to describe what one would expect to be a simple function?  We were actually arguing about whether the word rhythm has two syllables; he maintained it does; I say it does not, since there is no point at which the word can be hyphenated.

His response eventually was this, “Why is it that a word—rhythm—which represents a bodily property that must arrive naturally and by instinct, should be so unnatural and counter-instinctive in its construction?”

It is a good question, but as I thought about it, I began to realize he is not completely correct.  More accurately, he hasn’t included all the essential elements of the issue in his premise.

We do, indeed, arrive at our own rhythm “naturally and by instinct”, but it is heavily influenced by our environment and our education.  Both of these things vary greatly from person to person, so it stands to reason that the natural rhythm of life will also vary just as much from person to person.

Is this a little too esoteric a discussion for you folks? 

Let me try to bring it around to a point where you will be at least slightly interested.

I make no promises…

I am remembering a time when I was about thirteen years old.  I had missed a day or two of junior high school and coming back, realized suddenly in band class that I had missed more than just the hours of drudgery which school embodied to a young teenage boy.

Mr. Olson had some odd notes drawn on the blackboard and he pointed to them, saying (just as if we should all understand the statement), “Remember the triplets we talked about the other day?  You’ll see them in this piece we’re about to play.”

I looked at the notes, realizing they were shaped exactly like an eighth note, but instead of two of them hooked together, there were three.

Why, anyone knows you can only have two eighth notes in one beat!  What was this madness?  Three eighth notes tied together?  That would have to be a beat and a half!

And that is what I attempted to play as the whole band read the music together.  It didn’t work.  They played those three notes on their one beat, while I played them on my one and a half beats.

We didn’t finish up at the same time.  It wasn’t beautiful music.

After a little remedial instruction and an Aha! moment or two, I learned how the triplet worked, but it was awfully strange for me to know I was correct in my application of the rules of rhythm, only to be out of step with everyone around me.

I learned that when playing with others, a common understanding of the basics is pretty essential.

But, I don’t want you to believe it is imperative that all the instruments in a band must play the same rhythm. In fact, that would be incredibly dull.

Using the understanding we have of music theory, most instruments will often play very different rhythms throughout a piece.

Eighth note triplets (three to a beat) are frequently played against regular eighth notes (two to a beat), while other voices may play whole notes (four beats) or even dotted quarter notes (one and a half beats).

Each instrumentalist carefully counts and plays his or her notes at the precise point in the measure at which it is written.

The result is intricate and beautiful music, with melody and countermelody, along with rhythmic harmonies.  All the parts flow together, even though they play their assigned rhythm, seemingly at odds with the others.

Is the point of my prattling beginning to become slightly more clear?

Let me see if I can tie it up in a neat package for you then.

Throughout our lives, we live in concert with other players. Some, we will share a common rhythm with, having learned basically the same lessons and arrived at the same conclusions.

Others, who will come alongside us at times during our lives, have a different idea of the rhythm of life.

There will be those with whom we may not be able to blend, but it is essential we make the attempt.  We may soon find the contrast of their triplets against our duple eighth notes enriches the music in a spectacular way.

The driving oomp of the tubas on the downbeats, when combined with the uplifting pahs of the horns on the upbeats will inexplicably help to add purpose and determination to the steps in the march of life.

Will we make beautiful music with everyone?  Probably not. 

I have known a few folks with whom I could find no common meter, the skewed pattern of our differences causing confusion and dissension.  With these few, we have had to agree to disagree and go our separate ways, since the resulting cacophony is worse than any potential benefit.

But we try. 

And, we don’t disrespect these folks because of our differences. Like the confusing word we started out with, there are some who hear a different beat in their heads and they follow it. (Was that one syllable or two?)

It’s fair to speculate that the Conductor of this great symphony will sort things out in the end, bringing it all to a resounding and beautiful conclusion.

Until then, I’ll keep working on my skills, attempting to come in on the correct beat, and counting the rests as accurately as I can.

I see some more of those triplets coming up soon and I want to be ready for them.  Maybe you’ll count along with me on your half notes.

Rhythm.

Time to find the beat.

The rhythm of life continues.  Really.

Or, if you prefer the Sonny and Cher version, “And the beat goes on.”

 

 

 

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
(Romans 12:18 ~ NASB)

 

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
(Henry David Thoreau~American essayist~1817-1862)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016 All Rights Reserved.

Tools of the Trade

He had watched the sun come up from his vantage point on the western bank of the rolling river, the Mighty Mississippi, while listening to the dulcet tones of the old trumpet player.

With tears still in his eyes, he turned away to wander back into Jackson Square, just as the city of New Orleans was waking.  The restaurants were busy, the coffee shops crowded, but he hadn’t come to eat.

For two hours or more, he wandered the streets, finding exactly what he was seeking.  He had forced himself out of bed while it was still dark just so he could listen to the street musicians.

And listen, he did.

neworleansbuskerNo slouch of a guitar player himself, he was anxious to sample the varied fare this aged city had to offer.  There was no disappointment in the search.

At first.

From street corners and even in the alleys, the city is full of people with their talents on display.  Many do it for the love of their craft, others simply to have enough to fill their stomachs.

The seeker stopped for a few moments at one corner to listen to the two women playing classical music, a departure from the normal street fare in this city of jazz and blues.  Speaking for a moment with another man standing nearby, he learned that both were music professors in nearby universities.

He even dropped a dollar or two in the open violin case and moved on.  Most of the musicians he listened to were not as well educated, but he avers that all were just as talented.

Except one.

The street-worn fellow had a good quality guitar sitting on his lap.  The ancient Guild six-string might have seen better days, but it was a fine instrument.

Still, he never played a single chord.

Our friend wondered why this was so and walked a bit nearer to the bench the aging man was occupying.  It did seem to him that the fellow was old, but he really is not sure.  Living on the streets will age a person long before his time.  He might have been as young as thirty or as old as sixty.  It was hard to tell.

As he drew near, though, the tourist saw the problem.  While there should have been six, the old acoustic guitar had only three metal strings stretched out along the length of the fingerboard.  Even those were old and corroded.

The other street musicians had played for whatever money the passersby would toss in their hats or cases, but this fellow had a different tack.   

“Say, could you give me the money to buy a set of strings?”

Our friend almost fell for the scam.  After all, what was five or six dollars?  Give the old guy enough to buy a set of strings so he could earn a living–how could that go wrong?

Then he had an idea.

“I saw a music store up the block a ways.  How about you and I go and we’ll get a set put on your guitar?  I’ll pay whatever it costs.”

The old guy wasn’t amused.  That was the last thing he wanted.   

“No.  I’ll just take the money for the strings.”  

The tourist talked with him for just a minute more.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out what the money would be used for.  There was never to be a new set of strings on the guitar.  It would never play a song on that street corner–ever.

The fellow with the guitar knew how to make money with his guitar, he just couldn’t play it.

The superbly crafted instrument, with the potential for making sweet music lifting the spirit to the heavens, or bringing tears to the eyes of hardened men who listened, was nothing but a prop for an act.  If it had strings on it, he couldn’t make a dime with it.

He wasn’t a musician at all, just a man with a scam—a fraud—to be perpetrated on any unsuspecting tourist who came by.

Our friend moved on, disappointed.
                             

I listen to the story and my mind wanders.

I remember the fellow to whom I gave a ride one day, not long ago.  I drove him twenty miles out of my way and handed him all the cash I had in my pocket.  He told me he would use it to purchase a bus ticket to make it home to his wife and kids, who were hundreds of miles away.

Two days later, as he wandered past my music store, it was a shock to realize that I had been played.

Then there was that other fellow I loaned money to, just until he got paid from his new job.  The job was a lie.  So was the payback.

The stories, just like the street musician with his guitar, are merely the tools of the trade, designed to achieve a purpose, but never to become reality.

Just as quickly, my mind shifts gears again, and I wonder how many folks I have conned, in much the same way—people who have poured resources into my life, with the promise that changes would be made, never to see or hear a result.

How am I any different from the old fellow down in the French Quarter, with his beautiful guitar which never will make music?

Still, I show up time after time, with habits which need to be broken, sins which need to be repented of, steps which never seem to be taken.   

And, no music is ever heard.

How about it?  Got a few broken strings yourself?

Have there been promises made of changes to come, with nary a hint of actual rehabilitation?  Do you come and sit on the same street corner every day, or perhaps every week, with the same broken strings; always with the promise to show up with a playable instrument the next time?

I’m guessing that if we look deep inside, we’ll all find the broken promises, the scams, the assurances which we don’t seem to ever quite fulfill.  Like the man on the street corner, we have figured out how to make the system work for us, always thinking that we’ll make it right–someday.

Personally, I’m wondering if it’s about time for a new set of strings to be taken down from the wall.

There will be a good bit of grime to be cleaned away before they can be installed, but the basic instrument was made well.  I’m confident that when the job is done, there will be some excellent music heard.

It’s just the process of cleaning and stretching, then cutting and tuning that I’m not real sure of.

It all sounds a bit painful.

Ah well, I know the Maker of the music, the Master Luthier.

I’m thinking the final result will be worth it all.

His work never fails to produce gorgeous music.  Maybe it’s time to put my hat down on the street.

Why don’t you come too?

We might make some great music together!

 

 

 

Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter,
Feelings lie buried that grace can restore;
Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness,
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.
(from Rescue The Perishing ~ Fannie Crosby ~ American hymn writer ~ 1820-1915)

During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.
(George Orwell ~ English novelist ~ 1903-1950)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

 

Resonance

We’re on the same wavelength, aren’t we?

The man in front of me is a friend—a long-time friend.  I always enjoy seeing his face as the front door of the music store opens.  We share a love of music and the tools from which the music comes.  I’ve watched his children grow, as he has mine.

Today, we talked about politics—a dangerous minefield in which to venture, if ever there was one.  But, somehow his ire rose at the same time mine did; his anger was assuaged by the very same solutions I found to be comforting.

As if we were two strings vibrating on a musical instrument, we hit the same frequencies necessary to bring out the next tone in the chords of amity.  

We were on the same wavelength.

It often happens.  You’ve seen it.  A conversation begins, and you’re drawn to a complete stranger immediately.  It’s hard to explain—perhaps their vocal inflection—maybe the manner in which they consider each word before speaking—whatever it is, you’ve made a connection.

In the music world, we call it a sympathetic vibration.

It’s not always good.

Today, a young man brought in his banjo, exasperated because it wouldn’t stop ringing.  Banjos do that normally too, you know—ring.  It is what makes them sound like a banjo.

The problem is this one had a ring that wasn’t supposed to be there.  Usually, when a musician tells me there’s a ring in his fretted instrument, I suspect a high fret which the strings bump against, causing an unwanted rattle of sorts, albeit a musical one.  It wouldn’t be that simple this time.

I listened to his complaint and then took the beautiful instrument out of the case, striking the strings he spoke of.  Sure enough, they had a strange overtone.

As I explored the strings a bit, I noticed a problem I could identify immediately.  There actually was a string which buzzed on a fret all the time because of a string guide which sat too high.  I could fix that easily, but I was more concerned with the other issue.

I explained to the young man (quite expertly, mind you) what the problem was.

There’s a sympathetic vibration in the instrument.  Something else is vibrating when that string is plucked.  It’s what all resonant materials want to do—vibrate with tones that are at the same wavelength.

This expert searched fruitlessly for nearly a quarter hour to find the source of the vibration.  I finally gave up, suggesting a couple of general cures which might work.  Might.

He had a question before he went.  

Could you fix that one buzzing string for me? You know, the string guide thing?

A simple repair.  It was done in three minutes.

I plucked the other strings one last time.  I don’t know why I did it. I suppose hope springs eternal.

There was no more vibration.  None.  The strange ringing sound was completely gone.  Really.

I stopped to think for a moment.  Suddenly, it came to me!

The string which had been vibrating on the fret was at exactly the same frequency as the two other strings which were ringing.  Exactly the same frequency.  I had removed its capacity to buzz with my repair, so the rest of the problem disappeared.

I hope you’re not tired of my musical interpretations yet.  You see, all the world resonates with music.  Our Creator made it so.  

Sympathetic vibrations are all around us.  The four-wheel-drive monster truck that roars down the street in front of your house and rattles the windows, as well as vibrating the wall, demonstrates it.  High-pitched sounds that break glass work on the same principle.

I want to tell you that my dogs, who howl loudly at the sound of an approaching ambulance or fire engine, exhibit the principle, but I think that might be something of a stretch.

Things which are alike, tend to exhibit the same characteristics as those similar objects around them.

Humans are not immune.  We see it in every direction.  As in the realm of music, it’s not always a beneficial thing.  

Politicians vibrate with anger and name-calling, and their disciples soon resonate with the message of negativity and hatred.  

Pastors embrace a radical belief and soon their adherents echo the tenets without consideration of the merits or demerits of the belief.  

The bully on the playground selects a new victim and, within hours, the unfortunate soul is under attack from all sides.  

All is not ugliness in the realm of resonance, however.  

A properly tuned and maintained instrument, played well, resonates with sympathetic vibrations.  The overtones complement the original melodies and chords, causing the listener to marvel at the beauty emanating from a single instrument wielded by a lone talent.  

Master luthiers carve and shape, adding bracing here, sanding the surface there—all to increase the acceptance of good overtones and mute the presence of undesirable ones.  

The whole instrument resonates beautifully with sympathetic vibrations.

I wonder if we have lost the true meaning of being sympathetic.  We think sympathy is sadness, and the words that express our concern for that sadness.  We believe that sympathy is an emotion to be dealt out at moments of great need and sorrow.

Did you know that sympathy is simply the state of being like-minded?  It’s sharing what those around us experience—not as an onlooker, but as a participant.

The Apostle Paul begged for his readers to be sympathetic—like-minded.  He wanted them to resonate with each other. (Philippians 2:1-2

It is what folks in fellowship with each other do, almost automatically.

Our Creator, the Master Luthier of all luthiers, has made the whole of His creation to move in resonance with Him.  

It is only as we change the tunings and introduce faults into the instrument that the overtones become louder than the fundamental notes.  When the overtones are all that is heard, it is nothing more than mere vibration, a ringing in the ears of all listening.

Perhaps I need make no more application to the principle here.

It is likely these words have fallen on sympathetic ears, isn’t it?

What a beautiful thing it is, when His people live in harmony with each other.

Resonance. 

 

I think when I was pretty young I got really into the tone of my instrument and I remember just playing one note for an hour to just kind of feel the resonance of the violin.
(Andrew Bird ~ American musician)

Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
(2 Corinthians 13:11 ~ NASB)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.