Many wise men of antiquity and beyond have warned against introspection, and for good reason. The modern man is weaned on introspection and sustains his post-post modern fervor with it. English departments have introspected so much they can no longer see far enough to read the books in front of them. The trouble is, the man of the Ironic age is specting his intro for the sake of justifying what he finds there. There is, however, such a thing as proper introspection. Proper introspection is objectively critical and mindful of the filth one may find when searching one’s own brain. Also, proper introspection does not last too long before it runs back outside, grasping for clean air. I hope in the following essay—if we ever get there—to introspect critically, succinctly, and properly.
The other day, Sam Snow asked me the to show him where to find a piano on the campus of our University. Now, if Sam Snow, esteemed secretary for Brandon M. Schneeberger, asks one a question one does not simply “humph” and walk away, or worse yet, ask “why?” No! One complies, so we set our course in a southerly direction and, after a pleasant amble (an activity of which Sam Snow is eminently fond) found ourselves spelunking in the musty basement hallways of McCain Auditorium. As we wound through the maze of music rooms, smelling faintly of slide-grease and the old velvet of instrument cases, I heard the familiar mixed sounds of clarinets, ensembles, and singers floating from the tiny rooms. After a bear of a search and a couple brawls with swarthy tuba players, we found a door marked, “Practice Rooms.” I deposited Mr. Snow into his own room and was about to leave the building when an old temptation struck me. I was faced with one of most alluring of sights I know: a newly tuned piano in an empty practice room. Like my thirteen-year-old self, my sixteen-year-old self, and my twenty-year-old self I could not resist, so I did not resist. I sat down and played the piano again.
Not to say I have not played for the last few years, but I have not played like that. I secreted myself away and really tried to remember. I was not playing to impress a living room full of family or to lead a church congregation in song. I was playing honestly, without show, and I found that ‘honest’ does not sound very pretty. My fingers are not as limber or precise as they used to be. Although I can find the keys I used to play, I cannot find them as rhythmically or as confidently as once did. Out of habit I began by pounding out the songs I always play when I sit down at a piano—my pianistic tropes: "The Old Rugged Cross," "Reverie" by Debussy (I only remember the first page and a half now), and a song or two I have written. When I had finished these I just sat there racking my brain to think of something else to play more interesting than a chord-vamp in the key of D. It upset me that I could not recall even one of the hundreds of songs I have played since I began at age four with Middle C and “Mississippi Hotdog.” After a few moments of uncertainty I reverted to the only thing I could think to play at the moment: the basic elements of piano playing, the scales. I worked my way up and down from C, stumbling terribly in A but performing surprisingly well in B. Of course, I avoided the "sharp" and "flat" scales (though I felt the old shame that in all my years of lessons and practice I had never really learned those dreaded black-key runs). As my fingers moved along, up an down, the confined room began to grow muggy and hot like former practice rooms I had occupied when I warmed up for piano contests or worked out new ditties for my college band. Many of those practice rooms had “fan” switches to circulate air. This one did not, but I played on, enjoying the charged, humid air.
I have often wondered why God gave me musical talent. I have spent most of my life squandering it with musical slight of hand and short-cuts that allow me side-step technical excellence while producing passable music. Most of my failures come back to scales. I never would practice them enough to make them automatic. The fingering of multi-octave runs would overwhelm me when I practiced and I would quit, thinking, “I’ll move on to more substantial things—real songs.” It was my neglect of the scales and the “grammar” of the piano that held me back in the end. I remember lying on my back directly under the soundboard of our baby-grand piano with my eyes closed listening to my eldest sister Ellen play Debussy’s “Clair De Lune,” filled with the emotion of the song, dreaming of playing it the way she did. But I never did. I never mastered the scales. Honestly, I can hardly read the bass clef notes (and never really could). Most of the piano theory I internalized during my formal lessons has been packed away in some inaccessible corner of my brain far from the light of my conscience. In short, when you hear me play the piano you are hearing an instrumental illusionist perform a trick with no real substance to it. It is only recently I stopped fooling me.
Hearing and watching myself play so haltingly and imperfectly was like gazing at a Roman ruin I encountered once while in Schwäbisch Hall Germany; it was just sitting there pathetically, jutting out of the grass in a city park, next to a public restroom. Its beauty was still there, but it had a tragic feel, as if the glory had faded and would not come back without some grand restoration requiring more resources and time than anyone was willing to sacrifice. In the same way, my dilapidated piano skill reminded me of a certain truth I forget on a daily basis: I have not yet reached a state of being. I am, outside of those unchanging promises gifted to me at the moment of my salvation, becoming. I am becoming less skilled at the piano, becoming more blind in my left eye, becoming a skeptic of televisions and the programs they broadcast, becoming more emotional about Sunday sermons than Sunday music, becoming a fierce creature of habit (upset if my car-clock is even four minutes past my accustomed home-departure time of 5:50 AM), becoming more appreciative of the New Earth, becoming more joyful as the LORD opens my eyes to the world as he sees it and the world as he will remake it. My piano playing that day in the practice room was a shadow, and a reminder that someday I will cease to merely become and will be what God forms me.
The happy ending of this little episode has not yet happened, for I have not yet lived it. Someday, if the LORD wills, I will practice the scales. I will practice them until I cannot forget them, and then I will practice them a few times more. I will learn the bass clef; and I will play “Clair De Lune” like my sister played it. I will honor God with the talent he gave me instead of fooling it away on chord charts and cute rhythmic three note patterns. If this does not occur on this Earth it will certainly occur in the next—though then my piano will be on my sailboat.
R. Eric Tippin
In My Office At Kansas State University
March 3, 2014
Image: "Saxon Sydney-Turner at the Piano"
Oil on Canvas - 1908