“Now, were we working on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” last?” Music teacher Sara Burke sat down in a chair next to the piano bench on which her student, Matt Ramsey, sat, at her home in Cardinal City.
“Uh-huh,” Matt mumbled.
“Well, let’s hear it,” she said brightly.
The piece was full of mistakes. Matt couldn’t grasp the rhythm or seem to hit the right notes without struggling for each one a few times. Thus, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” sounded as sweet and joyful as the howling of a wolf in the desert. It was not pleasant. Mrs. Burke sighed. Again she would admonish Matt to practice and play with confidence. She did every week, so it was nothing new.
“Matt, what do you think of when you hear this song?”
“I dunno. Joy, I guess,” he muttered.
“Did it sound very joyful?”
Matt hung his head. “No.”
“Matt, why can’t you play this with any confidence? We’ve been working on it for over a month. I know you know this piece, if you’ve been practicing as well as you say you have been. If you know a song, you have to have faith that your fingers will find the right notes. You can’t be straining like that. Why don’t you relax and just let your knowledge of it carry you through playing?”
‘I can’t… play – with other people around. I get – n-nervous.”
“But, Matt, you know me. I’m your teacher!”
“Doesn – Doesn’t matter.” He sniffled.
So the lesson went. Matt would play a piece poorly and feel whatever miniscule amount of confidence that he had disappear. Thirty minutes went by and all of Mrs. Burke’s encouraging and admonishment was of no effect. When Matt went home that day, he was no more confident than a snail facing a cheetah in the 100-yard dash.
Mrs. Burke sighed again. “I have to find a way to get for Matt to get some confidence in himself,” she said to herself after he had left.
The next week was a special event for Mrs. Burke and her piano students. “Today I want you to choose a recital piece, Matt!”
Matt looked at her strangely. “A… recital piece?”
Mrs. Burke paused. Then she said, “Matt, we’ve been through this countless times before. Sooner or later you’ll have to play in front of people. If you don’t learn it now, you’ll never know how.”
“But I can’t play with an audience. I just can’t!”
Mrs. Burke studied Matt. He was a young boy of thirteen years, an introvert to the extreme, but nonetheless very polite, studious, and talented in many respects, including piano-playing. “Matt,” she inquired, how do you play this piece when you’re alone?” she said, referring to “Ode to Joy”, and placing it upon the music rack.
“A lot better than when people are around. I can’t even play with my parents in the house.”
“When do you practice?”
“When they’re both at work.”
“Well, you need to practice this when you can. If it’s your recital piece, that is.”
“Mrs. Burke, I can’t do a recital piece!”
“Matt, we’re not going to argue about this. You’re going to play something at the recital. I won’t have one of my students not participating while the rest are giving this their best efforts. Matt, it’s not that difficult. Just allow the piece to flow through you. Focus on the music and what it means to you instead of the people who are hearing you. If you don’t make mistakes, they won’t laugh at you.”
“I – I’ll give it a try.”
“That’s good enough for me.”
After a much more productive lesson, Mrs. Burke addressed Matt. “Matt, you’re my last student today. Would you like a cup of tea before you leave?”
Matt obliged. He and Mrs. Burke had a conversation over the beverage at the kitchen table. “Matt, I want you to succeed as a pianist. I want you to do your best. And I know you know these songs. Today you did a lot better at your playing. You just have to focus on what the composer intended to be said through what he wrote, not on your audience.”
“I understand,” Matt replied. “I’ll try to do that. It’s just difficult for me because I’m not around a lot of people very often.”
“Well, you’ll have to work through that. You’re a tough boy; you can handle a lot. Personally, I like to think of the worst possible scenario, such as you messing up and everyone making fun of you, and then going through that in my mind and logically realizing why that won’t happen. If you do that, you’ll recognize that there’s not much for you to fear.”
“’The only thing we have to fear is… fear itself!’” Matt intoned, mimicking Franklin Roosevelt.
Mrs. Burke chuckled. “Franklin Roosevelt probably had more to fear than he realized.” She paused. “Matt, I have problems with something, too. I’ve always found it very hard to be alone for an extended period of time. I’m constantly afraid something will happen that I can’t control. I get so nervous some afternoons when Frank’s at work that I don’t even think to do my worst-case scenario exercise. But I know better than to hide in fear of the unknown. I try to confront my fears.”
“Mrs. Burke, I don’t know how you can be afraid of being alone! It’s great to have all that privacy, no one to expect anything of you, no one to have to try to talk to. I enjoy my time alone the most! Although I can see how it would be hard to be away from your husband.”
“Well, that’s the difference between us; you enjoy being by yourself, I enjoy being with other people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either type of personality; it’s simply when we are reluctant to get out of our comfort zones and aren’t relying on the Lord to give us strength that we slip into the pitfall of fear. I guess I hadn’t brought that up yet. You need to pray about this, Matt. If there’s one person with whom you feel comfortable talking, it should be God.”
“Yes, that makes sense. Well, thank you very much for the tea. I enjoyed talking with you. I’ll try to put everything you said into practice, but, for now, I need to get home.” He moved toward the door. “I’ll see you next week!”
“See ya. Thanks again!”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was not long before the day of the recital arrived. The Cardinal City Center for the Performing Arts, located right next to City Hall, and used for recitals, plays, and concerts, hosted the event. Though Cardinal City was not a large town, many people attended. The residents of Cardinal City have always possessed a deep appreciation for music, so the center was ‘packed’, as Matt put it. “Packed,” he said, “with people who are all going to laugh at me if I goof up.”
“But you won’t mess up if you just focus on the music, Matt!” Mrs. Burke laughed as she prepared for the recital, impending then in a half-hour. They had gone through this discussion numerous times in the weeks preceding the recital. Matt’s performance had steadily progressed during that time. Simultaneously, Mrs. Burke had felt a greater confidence while alone at home. Matt had been helping her.
“Just think about something else. Occupy yourself with something useful and profitable,” he had said.” She was grateful for his advice. Here I am, trying to build up his confidence, and my confidence is growing, she thought.
Soon the recital had begun, and Matt’s piece came quickly; perhaps too quickly for his comfort. He had indeed chosen “Ode to Joy”, a wise choice due to its expressive nature. He did not find it difficult anymore to let Beethoven’s nuances and wishes flow through him and onto the keys. When it was his turn, he simply shut out the mass of humanity watching his every move and concentrated on the music. It was a grand performance. From the first chord to the last, every note breathed of the joy and exuberance that its author had intended.
The applause was thunderous. Matt had turned a simple tune into a masterpiece simply by letting its significance express itself in a way. He no longer strained to perfect every chord or time each note’s duration exactly. The perfection of his playing seemed effortless, but much hard work had gone into it.
Mrs. Burke had observed with admiration. She was proud of him for his determination and his willingness to participate. During the time of refreshments following the recital, Mrs. Burke sat and talked with Matt. “Matt, I’m very proud of you. You did a fantastic job.”
“I’m glad you talked me into it,” Matt grinned. “I was reluctant at first, but I enjoyed it. I guess being in front of people isn’t so bad if you really have a feel what you’re doing.”
“And I’ve learned that being alone isn’t difficult if you can be occupied and not focused on the dangers.”
“I guess we’ve both learned a lot, haven’t we?”
“Next time, I’ll have to give you something longer than ‘Ode to Joy’!” Mrs. Burke grinned.
Thus, they had both influenced each other; Matt would never be nervous again with a piece he felt and knew, and Mrs. Burke’s afternoons alone became much brighter and more productive. In trying to help each other, each had found the other helping him or herself. Two lives had been improved, and likely changed forever, by merely the persistence of a teacher, and the determination of a student.