My first-ever performance was “The Teddy Bear March” at the school talent show; I was in kindergarten. By the time I was 12, I was playing piano for youth group at church. At 13, I accompanied the junior high choir and show choir, and played for a stake (similar to a diocese in size) youth activity.
So by the time I was ready to graduate from high school, I had no doubt I’d be a professional musician. Until I realized I didn’t want to be a professional musician. And several years later, I landed on teaching and I’ve loved almost every minute of it.
But I haven’t given up the piano. Playing for the school musical every year forces me to stay up on my skills, and I play often at church. I hardly ever think that what I do at the piano or organ carries any significance whatsoever.
Occasionally, I am asked to provide the music at funerals.
I remember the first funeral I ever played–I was in Montreal serving a mission for my church, and a very old man with no family in town had passed away. But his granddaughter at one time was Mormon, so she called the local clergy and asked if anyone could play the organ at the funeral home for a short service for her grandfather.
So the local clergy called me, and my companion and I drove to a funeral home on the outskirts of Montreal where I provided a little bit of music for a grieving granddaughter. I thought nothing of it, as I didn’t know the man who had died, nor did I know his family. It was just something I did in the middle of that particular day. And in the years since, I’ve played at several other funerals–some for people I know, some people I don’t. It’s just something I do.
Out of every event I play, funerals make me the most nervous.
I want the music to be recognizable to as many faiths as possible. I want the music to be comforting. I spend time before the funeral thinking about appropriate song choices, what I should play as the family enters and exits the chapel, asking family and friends for guidance on any songs I should avoid.
I don’t want to make any mistakes, because at these funerals, I’m usually playing the organ and it’s hard to hide mistakes when playing the organ. And more than anything, I don’t want to cry while I’m playing, not only because crying means a quick trip to Mistake Boulevard, but also because my job as an organist is to be as invisible as possible. Someone who is sobbing at an organ is anything but invisible.
Last Tuesday morning I played the organ at a funeral, and I was more nervous than I’d ever been, because of the ripples I’d seen from this loss of life. This funeral was much more personal to me on many levels, and I worried about losing it while playing.
I don’t know how to explain it, other than to just say it bluntly: Tuesday, I felt prayers.
As I played through the prelude music and the congregational songs, I was fine. During the service, I was fine. I teared up a couple of times, but I did not weep.
Following the service and over the past week, people who attended the funeral complimented my playing, and often followed it up with “what a wonderful gift to the family.”
I have never in my life thought of anything I play as a gift. It’s been a service, or a calling, or an obligation, but never do I consider my musical offerings as gifts. Hearing people say that to me reminded me that sometimes, little things we do that we don’t even really think about are actually gifts to others.
I think of a student who is always so happy and strives to cheer anyone within earshot. A gift. I think of colleagues who can detect my breaking point with precision and either make me laugh or bring me a diet Coke. A gift. I think of my sisters who are so creative and talented and create beautiful artifacts to brighten people’s lives. Gifts.
We all could be a bit kinder to ourselves–and to each other–if we thought of something we do often (and often do without much forethought) as gifts.