Building Foundations: Children, Music and the Spiritual Life

After decades of musical dormancy, I picked up piano lessons again.  I can still remember sitting at the piano as a child.  My young spine was straight, my two feet were flat on the floor, and my fingers were curved just like the piano lesson books said they should be.  But the lessons themselves were a blur.  I memorized notes, and all kinds of signs and symbols with odd sounding names like pianissimo, forte, allegro, and so on.  I forced myself through various motions and musical exercises.  But I never felt much music sinking in.  After many years of lessons, and very little practice, I abandoned the piano my parents had bought just for me.

Once our own children began piano lessons, they took flight.  We were homeschooling at the time, and at least one of our daughters zipped quickly through all six levels of piano, playing several hours a day.  She moved onto classical music in just a few years.  Oh, I thought smugly, she'll never be like me.  She'll play her whole life.  The music brought joy to my heart and life to our home.  I loved it.

Then disaster struck.  The piano playing dwindled and came to a complete stop.  The music didn't though.  There was a switch to other instruments which has included the clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone, violin and bells.  But I missed the piano playing terribly.  Not only that — we had invested a lot of money in a beautiful new piano.  But now it sat — sad, lonely and silent. 

Something about this sorry state of affairs made me mad.  We can't waste the money spent on that piano, I told myself.  And that is what drove me back to our children's former teacher for lessons of my own.  This teacher is a kind Catholic woman.  She gives lessons in her home which is graced by a fancy array of hand-made crocheted and quilted items and adorable trinkets that must take days to dust.  This home is always toasty warm, even on the coldest snowy winter days, and the piano room welcomes you with love, just like this particular teacher does.   If the children weren't going to play the piano, well then, by jove, I would!

 With trepidation I began to learn… again.  "Oh, I remember that!"  I exclaimed with glee.  I was giddy (and relieved) by the fact that both my mind and my memory were still intact.  My teacher was thrilled with my ongoing rapid progress.  She kept repeating the same thing.  "You can skip ahead because you've learned this before.  It's just a matter of recalling it… it's much harder for adults who have never had the foundation that you have had."  She explained to me how children can memorize lots of information but adults understand it more.  I had always played music with my head.  I was at last beginning to play with my heart.  I was beginning finally to understand what I had memorized so long ago.

And that's often how it is in the spiritual life.  It is why we give our children a foundation in the traditions of the Catholic faith when they are young.  Will it all sink in?  Probably not.  Might they stray?  It's possible.  As they grow into adulthood, children embark on their own journey with the Lord.  The journey of our children is as unique as they are themselves.  It comes fully equipped with its unique set of hills, mountains, deserts, valleys, twists, turns and crosses.  Through it all we parents pray that they will "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions they were taught" (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

If we wrap our children in solid Catholic teachings and traditions when they are young, then what was instilled in their youthful brains will hopefully come to life in their adult hearts.  That is why we teach children about the Sacraments, the Family Rosary, the Saints, Sacred Silence, Sacred Music, Sacred Art, Eucharistic Adoration, Benediction, Latin prayers, Stations of the Cross and Novenas.  It's why we immerse children in Sacred Scripture and sound and solid Catechesis.  It's why we teach them, above all else, to follow Rome and the successor of Peter.  Depriving children of solid Catholic teachings and sacred traditions is to rob them of an awareness of the richness of their Catholic heritage to which they have every right.

As I wrestled one day with a particular piano piece, one of my more musically gifted children decidedly diagnosed the problem.  "You're 'tone-deaf' mom."   I glumly reported this dismal diagnosis to my piano teacher.  She laughed long and hard, and then explained: If you were tone-deaf then you wouldn't even want to play the piano.  You wouldn't hear a difference in the notes you were playing.  She explained perseverance.  There are many gifted people who never practice.  They don't go anywhere in music.  But if you persevere and keep practicing, you can become accomplished through sheer determination. 

That rings true in the spiritual life as well.  Maybe I'm not so spiritually gifted.  Maybe I'm a wretched sinner.  It doesn't matter.  Independent of my sins, if I persevere, I can run the race God has set before me, and win that race for His glory.  Some of us think we are beyond God's mercy.  We think God is not speaking to us or we cannot hear His voice.  But not one of us is tone-deaf in spiritual matters.  "My sheep hear my voice," says the Lord (John 11:27).  Some of us just need more practice, patience and persistence when it comes to listening.  The problem isn't that God isn't speaking to us.  The problem is we don't set aside sufficient silent time to listen to His voice.

Once I started playing piano again, our children suddenly started playing again, too.  Sometimes children can't help but imitate their parents.  It's why we must persevere in faith — so that in God's good time the children will know how to persevere as well.

The negativity our children initially had toward my playing has mellowed.  They are still my biggest critics but they are also at times my staunchest supporters.  As I struggled one day with a particular piece, I could feel the eyes of one of our children upon me.  I temporarily stopped playing to check on a casserole that was cooking in the kitchen.  Not understanding my reason for stopping, this child panicked:

"No… Uh…Don't stop… you can't quit now mom. You caaaaaaaan't just give up!"  She jumped up, grabbed both my arms, looked me in the eyes and said, "What are you doing?"

"Um… checking on the casserole?"

Sometimes when I am playing they just come and sit on the couch by the piano, kick up their feet, and in between songs we chat. 

Unlike my early days, I'm zipping through my piano books, practicing an hour a day, and having a grand time of it.  More than that, I'm not playing so much with my head as with my heart.  I am thankful to my parents who in my youth gave me my musical and Catholic foundations.  When I was young I was not given much choice but to study the faith, and play the piano.  But now I want to do both.  God calls us as parents to root our children in Roman Catholic truths.  If it looks like nothing is sinking in, we should remember that this doesn't mean that nothing is.  Roots go deep, and flowers need time to blossom. "Train up a boy in the way he should go and even when he is old, he will not swerve from it" — Proverbs 22:6.

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  • Guest

    This is a great article.

  • Guest

    Thank you, Mary Anne, for this article. I have a friend whose husband has gone through RCIA, but he cannot accept the divinity of Christ. It can be so difficult for an adult to understand the beautiful truth that Jesus is God. That must be one of the reasons that He said, "Let the children come to me."

    Thank you also for inspiring me. As you can see from my user name, I too moved from piano to another instrument. My piano teacher had drilled chord theory into me, and the move to guitar was a natural one for a child of the sixties.

    But for years now, I've been talking about taking piano lessons again. You have motivated me and the time is right. I will begin looking for a teacher post haste!

  • Guest

    Super article…those same foundations you describe also bore fruit in my own life.  It's a great consolation to a father to know that God will do the work, all I have to do is my best.

    God bless you,

    Mickey

  • Guest

    please go to prayer requests to pray for a 3 year old homeschooled child who drowned and hasn't yet been recovered (over 2 days).

     

    So I'm not off topic, we've provided music lessons for all the kids,even when money was tight!  They play for the Glory of God.  I know JOhn Paul II cries tears off joy when he hears a child play Chopin!

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