Song interpretation reflective of life and faith

I played piano at church on a Tuesday night at the end of November while other members of the congregation engaged in the draping of the greens. As my Christmas decorating at home is minimalist (Christmas tree, nativity set and stockings hung by the fireplace), I wasn’t a good candidate for decorating other places. Plus, I’ve less than zero interest in it.

As I went through a loose-leaf notebook of Christmas songs I’ve compiled over the years, I was struck by the vast mix of sacred and secular Christmas songs in my musician’s bag of tricks. Whether you’re commemorating Christ’s birth, commiserating snowfall or celebrating Santa, I’ve got you covered.

While I was playing for the merry sanctuary decorating team, one of the tinsel-stringers approached and commented I was finding notes he never knew existed in the church piano. I chose to take that as a compliment. Perhaps it was the blues rendition of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” or the strident “Silent Night” arrangement that triggered his remark. Listeners frequently tell me they’ve never heard songs played the way I play them. Good. I think. I try to keep things musically interesting.

I don’t necessarily set out to be different, but it happens regularly. As I’ve more deeply committed myself to authenticity and becoming the best version of myself, many unexpected results have emerged. While I would like to take credit for them, and often have in the past, the real credit goes to God for the unique perspective and talents with which He has gifted me. Now that I’ve quit burying them from dread of their differentness, they’re taking on new life.

For years, people from various denominations have tried to recruit me to be their church pianist. You know, to lead the congregation in song and/or accompany the choir. But I have always declined, save being willing to fill in to help out periodically. Playing rote notes from a denominational hymnal is not my thing. So I knew to say “no.” It fell under the category of “capable, but not called.”

Sure I could do it, but it’s not what I am supposed to be doing. No joy goes into it from me or flows out of it for others. One person’s joy is another’s drudgery. While I respect those who truly enjoy and excel at accompanying singers, for me, playing for the choir is like preaching to the choir. Not the best use of me. And certainly not His best for me. God has trained my sights on more difficult targets: those whose attention needs getting. Like He finally got mine.

The God I worship is not the cheerful God of sunshine and rainbows depicted in the Sunday School coloring books. Nor is He the perpetually upbeat “Jesus loves me, yes I know” that we sang about in youth because the Bible told us so. That’s not to take away from the awesomeness of my God, but an important reminder that he’s got some purposeful expectations of me. He teaches me not through predictable lessons toward earning a good works gold star on a wall chart, but with spontaneous twists, turns, hard work and hard knocks based on which baser behaviors I exhibit.

My piano playing reflects my colorful relationship with the Lord. It’s not unfailingly pleasant and upbeat. Tempos change. Volumes fluctuate. Fingerings challenge. Accidentals ambush. Syncopated notes don’t always fall where you would expect. Or would like. It’s randomly patterned to alternate between pats on the back and kicks in the seat, depending on what attention needs to be gotten. Comfort meets dissonance. Bittersweet beautiful without any sugarcoating.

Chords are regularly augmented or diminished, with little thought. No single note action determines outcome, and therefore can’t be taken out of context. The combination of intention and intensity, as well as the notes that come before and after another note determine the rightness, wrongness or righteousness of a measure or a life’s measure. Subtle makes a big difference. A song’s not over until it’s over. Endings change.

When I play, I surrender all and challenge listeners to bring their own all to the altar. Nothing more. And certainly not less. It’s how I bless.

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