I faked my way through orchestra class for an entire school year.
In the summer of 1977, we moved from Alaska to Arizona and I discovered, when I started 4th grade, that if I took orchestra I didn’t have to go to P.E. – an ideal arrangement for a young boy not yet acclimated to the scorching Phoenix heat.
My parents got me a violin and I dutifully lugged it to school every day. I didn’t know a thing about playing it and was too shy to raise my hand and say anything so I sat in the back and mimicked the other kids, moving my bow up and down along with the others, but hovering a millimeter or so above the strings so that I wouldn’t make an unpleasant sound and draw attention to myself. I don’t know how, but I got away with this for nearly a year. I was finally caught when I had to audition for a seat in the 5th-grade orchestra and couldn’t even play the scales.
I never learned how to play the violin because I avoided the uncomfortable, fumbling early stages and thought silence was better than making unpleasant noises.
Today my son Benjamin plays viola and my son Nicholas plays the cello. They have excellent music teachers: Christopher Burns at Narrows View Intermediate School and Matthew Grenzner at Curtis Junior High. Both boys pushed through the early days of lessons and now play well – evening practice sounds smooth, confident and pleasant. Last month they realized they both knew the same song and played an impromptu duet. It was beautiful. It was graceful.
I’m learning more about music through their experiences. A few weeks ago, Ben and I had a great conversation about the difference between minor and major keys. He explained to me how songs in a minor key tend to sound dark, sad, or ominous, like Darth Vader’s “Bum Bum Bum bumpa Dum” theme in Star Wars, which is in G Minor. Songs in a major key tend to sound happier, livelier, and more joyful – “Jingle Bells”, for example, is typically played in G Major. The difference between the two tones requires only a slight adjustment of the fingers for the musician.
Just a minor shift to change the tone.
Last July I attended a YMCA conference in California, where I witnessed a powerful presentation from Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The three main points of his presentation have echoed in my head for months: be proximate, change the narrative, and don’t give up hope.
Proximate is being present in the location, the moment, and in our attentiveness to our self and the needs and voices of others. It’s accepting the experience for what it is, pleasant or otherwise. If I had been proximate in 4th grade I would have said: “I want to learn how to play the violin so I’m going spend time with this instrument, and I understand that I will make unpleasant sounds as I learn”. Today I am proximate when I am honest with myself and when I intentionally spend time listening to others.
I’m keenly aware, too, of the power of changing the narrative. Just as a musician can switch from a dark, ominous minor key to a bright, cheerful major key with the slightest change of finger placement, we, too, can shift our thoughts and conversations from ones of anger, fear or disgust to ones of love, compassion and empathy by making small changes to the words and phrases we choose to use. It sounds difficult to do in this highly-charged time of divisiveness, but I discovered this past year that if I set aside words like “liberal”, “Republican”, “immigrant”, “bigot”, “trans”, or other labels and just use the word “beloved” for people, my thoughts and conversations change immediately. When one of my sons is frustrated with their homework, I encourage them to tack on the word “yet” to any task they say they can’t do, and it changes their perspective. We can change the stories in our heads and hearts with just a single word.
I am hopeful. This past year I have learned so much about myself and so many other people by being proximate. It’s not always easy or pleasant, but it is enriching. I’ve learned how powerfully a few simple words can change a story. I’ve learned that both techniques can open up a world of grace and beauty.