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The Day the Music Died

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When I was in the eighth grade, I made a trade with God. It was the beginning of the year, and, while every other new eighth grader was full of energy and already planning their walk up the graduation aisle, I was moping and not looking forward to another school year. My class had always been particularly centered on athletes and sports, but, unfortunately, I had not been blessed in that area. Instead, I sat in the cafeteria with a small group of friends at lunch every day and had food thrown at the back of my head. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t very happy.

The only events I enjoyed doing were acting, drawing, and every other extra-curricular that wouldn’t get you an ‘A’ in gym class or the social world, quite frankly. When the other kids would play basketball outside and flirt with other classmates at recess, I stayed in and went to our school’s music room to play on the open piano. Or, when the other kids went to cheer on the soccer players after school, I went to choir practice. I enjoyed every single thing I did with the same passion that a regular middle school kid would enjoy baseball, but there was one activity that I enjoyed more than any other, and that was playing the piano.

Since kindergarten, I had enjoyed lessons with my music teacher and piano instructor at St. Thecla, Mrs. O’Neill. She was a kind woman who had a smile as golden as her hair and treated every student like her own child. With her, I was at full ease. After school once a week, I would walk down to the music room and we would sit, talk, and laugh together during my piano lesson. Her room was the third biggest room in the school with white walls and floors, stacks of chairs with burgundy seat cushions, torn from years of being sit upon by students of all ages, two metal cabinets filled with various instruments and hymnals, and two pianos at either end of the room. There, we would venture through various waltzes, minuets, and sonatas. She taught me the names of the greats like Chopin (my personal favorite), Mozart, Bach, Debussy, and Joplin along with each of their playing techniques. Every week, the 45 minute lesson seemed to fly by too quickly.

At home, I practiced rigorously. My mom had found a piano at a garage sale when I was seven years old, and it sat in our beige living room next to the laundry table. It was very different than playing with Mrs. O’Neill. The white walls of her classroom were in stark contrast to the mass of distracting colors in the dirty laundry, and the shiny cherry colored wood of the pianos in her room were not at all like the chipped, out of tune piano in my home, but, nevertheless, I practiced anyways.

Although the piano occupied my time after school, I still had eight hours of discontent five days a week. They affected me majorly, and I often came to piano lessons with a sour face and melancholy mood. Mrs. O’Neill helped me through it, but 45 minutes a week wasn’t enough to compensate for forty hours of gloom, and finally, one evening at home, I snapped.

Both my parents were gone and my siblings were playing outside. I had finished my homework early and was letting my emotions out through a sad, depressing piece by Beethoven. All of a sudden I stopped playing and put my hands in my lap. I told myself that nobody cared about the piano in the real world. This, at the time, seemed partially true. My classmates had always been focused on sports, and all you ever saw on T.V. was about sports. All you heard on the radio was about sports. All you saw in the paper was about sports! Being able to do a sport was evidently more important than being able to play an instrument. Everybody could go online and play the radio to hear music, but you had to have talent to play football. Athletics were a major part of society, and I was missing it! I would never be in the social crowd sitting on a piano bench and playing unpopular tunes, so I made a trade with God.

Bowing my head, I called to Him. I asked Him to make me like the other kids. I wanted to be skinny like them, pretty like them, and, most of all, athletic like them. Knowing this was a lot to just ask God to change all of a sudden, I offered to make a trade of something. Trying to think of something to trade, I sat on the dusty green piano bench and stared into the black and white keys on the piano. Suddenly, the music I could produce from them seemed menial and unimportant to the grandeur of an athlete, and I quietly agreed to trade my ability to play the piano for the chance to be a social “in.”

The school year passed unchanged, and my class found themselves walking up to graduation sooner than later. Every time I sat at the piano, I would silently remind God of the trade I made with Him, waiting for it to kick in, for I definitely didn’t want to be stuck in this social rut for another four years, and it finally came.

At first, I enjoyed it. High school had started, and I had joined the cross country team late into the season. Every day, I would meet the other runners outside on an ominous never-ending black track that seemed impossible to run, and pop music would be played over the coach’s iPod docking station while we stretched before we ran. The people were nice, and they taught me the words to the music playing because before I had only listened to classical. I didn’t really enjoy listening to it that much, but I soon found myself playing it while I did my homework instead of Scott Joplin or George Gershwin like I normally had before.

When I wasn’t at cross country, I was at play practice. We practiced in a room that was like an enlarged version of the music room at St. Thecla, all white with stacking chairs like before, but about twice its size. There were also two pianos in the room, like at my old school, too. Whenever I was in there, I felt a pang of remorse as I remembered the lessons I no longer had time to schedule with Mrs. O’Neill, but quickly shook it away. This was what I had wanted, to be liked by popular people and to be athletic, but it still didn’t stop me from watching jealously as a student played a beautiful white glossy baby grand piano in perfect tune, with no missing strings or broken foot pedals. This was a rarity that very few pianists ever got.

One afternoon, I was waiting for one of my parents to pick me up from school and I sat alone in the empty music room trying out the baby grand. I still remembered a few pieces from my last piano recital, and I tried to play them how I did then over the sparkling spotless keys. I could play the songs, but they were not the same as they were played last year. I kept missing notes, hitting the wrong keys, or even skipping entire lines of songs. The finer tunings of each piece eluded me, and I sat dumbfounded in the room, staring at my hands in wonder. I was surprised I couldn’t play the songs I had learned only a year ago. Then I remembered my trade with God and how I hadn’t practiced the piano since school started in late August.

Remaining stuck on the bench, I stared into the light reflecting off the polish on the piano bench and thought of the music I used to play with Mrs. O’Neill, swirling my fingers easily over the keys as if another force were pulling them along. But at that time, the track outside the school had seemed impossible to run, not easily conquered as it did now. Now, my fingers felt thick and clumsy. I had to struggle to get through even the easiest of pieces, but I was in a play with all the popular “in” kids.

I was confused. Social status was supposed to make everything better, but I didn’t like it. The popular kids who were supposed to lead the school and be role models for others were self-absorbed, egotistical, and focused mainly on minimizing others talents to enlarge theirs. God had taught me several important lessons that day. He taught me to love myself the way he created me, to use the gifts he gave me to the best of my ability, and to appreciate what I have while I have it. He took away something I thought I didn’t need and show me how much it really means to me and uncovered the monster behind the glorified mask of social status. Through these lessons, I realized the gravity of my mistake.

After arriving home, I ran to the piano and forced myself through every lesson and song I could remember, no matter how basic. Soon the lyrics of the pop music constantly playing in my head fell away for the one, two, three of a waltz and the ticking of a metronome. I felt empowered to once again have the music in myself and thanked God for being merciful enough to give it back after I foolishly traded it away. With His Grace, I quickly closed the door on the popular world and left the fake harmony in the play. I realized that the only harmonies that exist for me are the ones tucked away in sheets of music, sliding beautifully underneath the melodies.



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