Note by Note

He can still pick out a tune, and does sometimes — movie themes, mostly. Okay. “Star Wars,” mostly.

But Katie plays, and plays well.

Strangely enough, my little girl, perched on the piano bench, with perfect posture and her feet dangling in the air, has a particular affinity for modern pieces filled with dissonance, strange rhythms and sudden shifts in dynamics. I don’t know why she likes them, except for the possibility that they give her permission to leave behind all those supposedly “girl friendly” pieces in the books, full of pianissimo and legato, and just let loose and bang. Something we all appreciate in our own lives, you might agree.

So she progresses, sometimes with startling speed, though I worry sometimes that her teacher might be pushing her a little too hard, always having her play a bit beyond the point where she’s totally comfortable. But then I suppose that’s what teachers — at least the good ones — do.

But lately, I have noticed an odd thing about Katie’s relationship with her music. It goes something like this.

Her teacher gives her a difficult piece that takes several weeks to learn, hands separately, measure by measure. At the beginning, it looks hopeless to both of us, but by the end of the month, there she is, trilling through her Mozart (Leopold still, not Amadeus yet) in a way that amazes us both and prompts one more wearisome lecture by mom about the value of hard work.

Time passes. The piece isn’t yet absolutely flawless, so we can’t let it go yet. Or perhaps it’s been decided that it will be one of those played in May for the music competition or the recital. So she has to keep on it, going through it at least once a practice, committing more and more of it to memory as the days go by.

Then one day, disaster strikes. She can’t play it. At all. Measures that were nothing to her before collapse into a maze of tangled fingers, wet with tears of frustration. She stares into the air blankly, unable to remember the bridge in a piece she’s been playing from memory for two weeks.

And so it must be taken apart and relearned. It doesn’t take as long this time, but it has to be done, and practically from the ground up. The first learning got all the notes right, but it only penetrated so far. It was superficial, by rote, almost robotic. The second time, she has to understand what she’s playing, see how it’s all connected and learn it anew — from the inside.

I think faith is like that.

As children we learn something of faith. Related to us by those we trust, it is simple. We hear the stories and seemingly without effort, it sinks in. Ask a young child about God, about heaven, about angels. She will answer you in the most matter-of-fact tone, the same way she would tell you what she ate for lunch.

Then comes the day when it all falls apart.

That same child, older now, perhaps a teenager, opens her eyes, sees the world, and her voice no longer has room for answers, only questions. How could God let these things happen? Where is God, exactly? God loves me? Really?

The cycle repeats itself endlessly during the thinking Christian’s life. The piece we learned make sense for a while. It flows from our fingers with ease and we play it with confidence. Then something falters within and we realize that there are some words we have spoken, but never really thought through, never really been forced to confront in all their implications and shades, never really lived.

We realize that while we talked about God, we never put Him at the center of our lives, not really. We chattered endlessly to God, but hardly ever listened. It had all worked for a while, it had gotten us to a certain point, but now, at a different place in our lives, we see how inadequate it was.

So bit by bit, measure by measure, we have to relearn faith.

But this time — from the inside.

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