Tuesday, January 4, 2011

If you want to earn a real living, get a real instrument.

In Robert Rodriguez’s movie, El Mariachi, the unnamed hero (El Mariachi) goes from bar to bar looking for employment. He wants to play guitar and sing like his father and grandfather did. But the world has changed and nobody wants to listen to a lone Mariachi anymore.
In one joint, the proprietor tells him, “Why should I hire you, I already employ a whole band.” The camera cuts to an electronic keyboard in the corner.

After the keyboard is put through its paces, El Mariachi is told “If you want to earn a real living, get a real instrument.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since that movie was made. Electronics are sounding more and more acceptable and less and less cheesy. So why bother to learn an instrument? Those of us who use Sibelius or Finale to arrange and compose know that it offers flawless playback. I can plug my computer into my midi capable electric piano and hear full-toned perfection from any score I choose.

To make matters worse, the LDS church provides pre-loaded organs to areas that have no musicians. The hymns are selected from the internal memory of the organ and the congregation sings along. Is this really the direction music is taking?

Do not misunderstand me. I am not criticizing the LDS church. I am criticizing a world-wide lack of can-do spirit. I know why I am an organist. I am an organist because of a long-ranged plan my mother set in motion. She took her calling as stake music director seriously. In addition to organizing quarterly trainings in conducting and keyboard skills for musicians and would be musicians, she also set aside time to train her daughters. I remember after one particular lesson she told me, “I bet if you practice you’d be ready to play in church when you are thirteen.” I practiced, and at thirteen I was called and set apart as the organist for our ward. (Special shout out here to my three sisters who also play the organ)
That is not an amazing story. I’d had eight years of piano lessons by then. Let me tell you a couple of amazing stories. When my friend Mary was a teen, her father was made branch president. They lived in a rural area in Minnesota and he had no one to call as branch organist. He turned to her one day and said, if I pay for you to take piano lessons, will you be ready to play in church in a year. She’s been playing organ ever since (and yes, she uses the pedals).  
I was approached by a woman a few years back. She had a calling in the Young Women’s organization. The young women’s leaders are encouraged to work on personal progress along with the young women. Sis. Bell told me as part of her personal progress she wanted to learn to play the organ. Could she play prelude for me one week. She subbed for me on Easter Sunday. Later she was called as the ward choir accompanist. I love the opportunity to sing in the ward choir, and Sis. Bell was the heart of the choir. She was full of ideas and passion. A choir member complimented her abilities, and asked her how long she had been playing. I was knocked off my feet when she answered, “3 years.”
As a grown woman with a husband and children, she decided she wanted to learn to play. And after three years she was ready to play in church!
                Musicianship is not about perfection, it is about the quest for perfection and harmony. It is about the “true grit” needed to face our fears and our imperfections. It is about opening up to the spirit, to our fellow men, and to ourselves. I don’t believe the world has places that contain no musicians. I believe there are just pre-musicians – those who have not yet found the time or the guts.
                My final note. With God, all things are possible. It is not a vanity to pray before you perform, nor is it wrong to ask the Lord’s blessing as you practice. Musical callings in the church are wonderful. Not only are you pushed into learning and improving, you are blessed with learning and improving.


  1. Nice post, but a lot of those beautiful pianos in South America sat idle. When Abby was in Vina del Mar, they had a Disc Clavinova that could be played or could be operated with a disc. It is always good to have a back-up plan, no?
    But, on that note...Barbara Aquilar, the baby named after me on my mission grew up to play the piano beautifully because she had such a deep desire in her heart. I liked the video:)

  2. I miss Sis. Bell... and the choir...

    and although the loaded organs are a sad commentary on the state of music - I can think of a little branch I went to when in Mexico (20 years ago) where that would have been SO nice.

    my in-laws taught a few young adults to play when they lived in Cambodia - 18 months later one was ready to take over as pianist (no organ there) but certainly not on a Sis Bell level!

  3. I am so inspired by a grown woman learning to play the piano in three years! I played Christmas songs for a friend's work party last month. Her boss asked me how long I'd been playing. That seemed like a funny question to ask a woman of my age. I answered, "About an hour and a half." Now that I know about Sister Bell I realize it may have not been a dumb question!