Retreating

In the midst of last-minute preparations before show-time,
I found myself pulling away into a quiet place,
expecting to be alone.

I had the best seat in the house, just a few seats to the right of the center of the front row, facing the stage. I could easily see everything from here. The problem was, I was here to do a job.

The dream, once it started to take shape, took on a life of its own faster than even I could have imagined. A couple of years earlier, I had met Mary, liked her, and talked to her about joining her group. But the time was not right, and, as far as I could tell, Mary soon forgot about our meeting. Busy with other things, I put it out of my mind as well.

Then I asked some people at church to pray for me. There was something I needed to get back to, if I could only get over the hurdles. In the first place, my fingers were rough and sore. There were several cuts that were slow to heal, and I was not in a hurry to do anything that might aggravate those painful cuts.

The second hurdle, which was actually greater than the first, was lack of focused commitment. I could do something if I really set my mind to it. Big if.

Enter the prayer team, a collection of several groups at our church that met regularly to pray over all the prayer requests submitted each week. Each prayer request was prayed over thoroughly by at least three groups, and sometimes more. With this in mind, it certainly wouldn’t hurt anything to turn in this latest request: “My two harps have been calling me. But I have been ignoring them because of cuts on my fingertips, and distractions in my schedule. Would you please pray for me?”

They did. Once they began praying over my harp practices, the Wednesday morning group invited me to bring my small 22-string harp, Gabriella, to one of the prayer meetings when I was ready. It was time to get serious.

Every morning, between loads of laundry and other household chores, not to mention finding time to help my son, Damien, with his school work, I would set my timer for 30 minutes and open the book, Teach Yourself to Play the Folk Harp by Sylvia Woods. Although I had been beginning to play the harp for over 15 years, I had never managed to make myself finish this book, instead choosing to play by ear whatever melodies were singing in my head when I was doing my boring exercises.

In my childhood, a series of well-meaning piano teachers had moved me progressively through a series of books, always making a point to let me know that the good piano student never—I mean, NEVER!—goes beyond the written note. If he does, well, without any warning whatsoever, the world as we know it will come to a sudden and immediate end. Irrevocably. Going beyond what was written was not only verboten. It was extremely dangerous.

Yet, in college, as I was listening to a friend’s husband play the theme from Chariots of Fire on the piano, he leaned toward his wife and me, to say confidentially, “You know, ladies, I added that last part in myself.” Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Nothing bad happened. And my friend and her husband kept on living happily ever after. I stashed that memory for future reference. Could it be that my former teachers had all been wrong?

Years later, at a church dinner, while listening to Jack Smithson play beautiful music on his classical guitar, we were shaken from our musical reverie when the music stopped suddenly. “You know,” Jack told us, “That song just went plumb out of my head. I’ll have to play you something else.” No one stood up and started screaming at Jack, or throwing rotten tomatoes, or anything else. In a word, nothing bad happened. This was another important memory upon which to meditate.

Now, armed with my do-it-yourself harp book (Sylvia Woods is an excellent teacher, even from a distance) and years of piano and voice training, I was both the teacher and the student. FREEDOM! I could do exactly as I pleased. If I wanted to practice daily for five months and let all my crochet or writing projects go hang for the time being, so be it. If I wanted to practice only some of the songs, and none of the exercises, that was fine, too. If I wanted to take a year sabbatical from harp practice, I could. And sometimes did, especially when too many strings broke, and I didn’t have the proper replacements.

But such freedom hadn’t exactly taken me where I wanted to go. I would have to begin at the beginning. Again.

Breathing slowly, I told myself over and over that I had all the time in the world. Plenty of time to do the prescribed exercises and work my way diligently through each song, in order, in each lesson until I had learned it to my satisfaction. This meant no painful pauses, and no buzzed strings. When things got too difficult, I would slow the songs down, instead of passing over them, as I had frequently done in the past.

My skills began to return, along with some of the songs I had learned years earlier. Yet, when I played for the first time for the prayer team, I sat stiffly, almost frozen with fear, barely able to make my fingers move painfully through a few short songs. However, the group seemed to enjoy the music, and invited me to come again.

A few weeks later, one of the ladies, Allyson, asked if she could forward my phone number to Mary for consideration for the theater group. “We would love to have a harp in the theater!” she told me.

When Mary called me a few days later, I was overjoyed. “They want me to play during one of their productions. And they’ll even let me develop my own music!” I crowed to my husband. A meeting with Mary, her husband, and another member of the troupe, and I was in.

I began with my little harp, since the larger one, being harder to transport, never left the house. At one of the practice sessions at the Baptist church, I met other members of the group, all of which were eager to learn about the harp.

But, having no music, and no idea what they wanted from me, I had trouble knowing what to play. Helpfully, Mary’s husband, Jason, brought me a copy of the script. “You’ll just want to play between the acts, while the curtains are closed, and the backstage people are moving things around,” he told me.

Meticulously, I began penciling in ideas for melodies that might be useful, while Mary questioned me about what music I would be using. “We’ll have to get permission for anything you play from your books,” she informed me.

“What about the music I just play as I hear it in my head?” I asked her.

“If you play it by ear, we don’t need permission for that.”

That was good news. What was not good news was my performance at the final practice before my first show. While the actors and backstage people were busily reading their lines, singing, or moving things around, in the darkened seat at the front of the auditorium where I tried to juggle both the small harp and my script on my lap, I could hardly see to read my notes. My playing was both late and clumsy. I could feel my spirits falling as the threat of inevitable, lasting defeat loomed ahead on the horizon before me. Could I even do this?

Mary’s husband, Jason, walked over and sat down next to me. “Just play the pauses, Gwennon, and don’t worry so much,” he was saying. “You’ll do just fine.”

But I could tell that some of the other cast members were clearly unimpressed. I would need to increase my practice times in the week remaining before the show. “Please pray for me!” I told all my friends, when speaking of my upcoming musical debut.

To my relief, everything went well. Seated at the front of the auditorium, I was able to watch the play while everyone else involved in the production saw only small parts (except, of course, for the sound and lighting technicians at the back). An added bonus was that the night before the first production, I dreamed of a melody that I could use for the show. The next morning, I practiced and perfected it, and at show-time it worked out beautifully. It was a joyful time.

A few months later, I was invited to return for the Old Testament production of “Esther”. “We think the harp will add a lot to this production,” Jason told me. I began making plans to move out my large harp, and the company made plans to help me get it there on time.
Playing for the theater company, although still a bit stressful for me, was starting to become easier. New melodies, just suited for this production, had been coming into my head, and they were sounding good. Plus, I loved wearing my long dresses and sitting in the best seat in the house, watching the action, then playing when the curtains were drawn.

But, there were still times of quiet panic, times when fear came crowding in, when I would be convinced that regardless of my many hours of practice and prayer, this was going to be harder than I thought. Maybe not a total loss. But I would definitely need God to hold my hand and put the notes into my head and hands if anything special was to happen tonight.
All around me, friends and acquaintances from the theater troupe were hurrying from place to place, checking lights, sounds, costumes – in a word, anything that might need a last minute adjustment. But for me, nothing more could be done. My microphone had been attached, tested, adjusted, then tested and adjusted some more. “Hold my hand, Lord!” I prayed in my head. “Please help me to bring you glory tonight!”

Our time for prayers and praise before the show was soon to begin, but had not started yet. I breathed deeply, then pulled Sebastien, my 30-string harp into my right shoulder, resting my head affectionately against the smooth wood before beginning to play anything. Unfinished songs that I would not yet be able to play for the audience were calling me softly now. The music I had prepared for the show – “Searching for Lambs” (for which Sylvia Woods had given us her gracious permission to use in these productions), “Are You Sleeping,” “I Am Not Afraid,” “Amazing Grace,” and several others – had been thoroughly practiced already for several weeks and I needed to give them a rest.

Maybe, if I could just play softly enough, for these few quiet minutes, I could explore the new songs calling me, and everyone else in the theater would be either too busy or too distracted to hear them. I didn’t want to be selfish. But these were songs that were imperfect. More than imperfect: not even close to finished. In fact, barely even started. Still, they kept calling. I could feel my heart and fingers reaching out for them. For the moment, I wanted to simply enjoy their beauty and let myself go on a little musical side trip.

I watched my fingers start to meander through the white, blue, and red nylon strings, not quite confidently, but joyfully exploring, tasting the sounds of new melodies, weaving this harmony for them, no maybe something different. A major chord here, a minor one there. I couldn’t quite close my eyes because I had not learned to play completely by feel. But I was definitely starting to relax.

The sound of muted footsteps sounded slightly behind me and to my left. I turned just enough to see my friend Darla, the back-stage manager, slipping into a chair. Darla was a fearless, capable woman who had been with the troupe for several years already. What was she doing creeping up on me like this and listening to my forbidden songs, these imposters that needed to be seriously dressed up before being shown to the world?

I was about to abandon the strings and push the harp forward, as Darla smiled at me, cheerfully sighing, “It’s always so peaceful here!” I could hardly believe my ears. The little musical snippets that had sounded so imperfect to my critical ears actually sounded peaceful to hers. Suddenly, I heard harp music coming from the speakers around the auditorium. Was that really me?

Others came over to join us. I looked away, hearing the echoes of songs waiting to find a voice through my fingers. Was an angel whispering melodies for me to play? I really couldn’t say. But when prayer and praise time began, I had another reason to praise God for the gift of song and beautiful instruments. It was going to be a good night, I thought.

And it was.

by Gwennon
January 2013

I want to give special thanks to Sylvia Woods, who graciously gave me permission to publish this story.

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