When I was first starting school, I attended a Kokomo Christian School four doors down from our house. I wore brown leather tied-on shoes and skirts with matching sweaters and short brown hair with a metal Goodie barrette holding back one side.
In preschool, we played a lot. I liked the cardboard blocks that looked like bricks. They were roughly the size of shoe boxes, and we could stack them to actually build a house. I was so frustrated we could not put a roof on the house; the bricks fell down around my head. How unrealistic could a cardboard brick home get. But my friends would sit inside the three walls we made (because we ran out of bricks before the house was finished) and be the mom and the daughter and have nap time. Until the boys pushed over our walls, inducing us to chase them around the room until the patient Mrs. Brubaker told us to stop running and play quietly.
Mrs. Brubaker taught us to play the Farmer in the Dell. No one ever picked me to be The Wife, the most coveted position of Farmer in the Dell. I was usually The Cat or The Dog. One humiliating day, I was The Cheese Stands Alone. You cannot imagine the depth of my shame. That simple song held to power to cut through the complex social strata of the preschool and reveal the inner-most hopes, dreams, and temper tantrums of four-year-olds.
It was the power of song that bonded me and my friends Scott and Sharla together. It started with holding hands during song time, then humming over our lunches in the cafeteria, and ultimately holding our exclusive Music Club during recess. Scott played the violin, the lucky guy, and he was a boy, so he was obviously the leader. Sharla sang well and had naturally curly hair, so I was more than a little bit jealous of her. We sang and sang, then ran around the gymnasium, then sang some more. Usually we sang in rounds, because we were such talented singers we could do that. Sometimes one of us would present a brand-new song while the other two would listen in respectful awe. I was the best at making up songs. Even when I was at home and on weekends and holidays I would create new songs and practice them (it is so hard to remember the words to the song you make up yourself) so I could amaze and astound my friends in Music Club.
In the middle of my second grade year, my family moved from Indiana to Michigan, uprooting me from Music Club forever. I still remember the last meeting of the Music Club. We didn’t sing. We didn’t run. We just sat, cross-legged, and looked at one another and sighed. When recess was over, we hugged one last time. I cried on Scott’s shoulder and then on Sharla’s, and we each solemnly swore to never forget Music Club.
I never wrote a song I liked again.
So we moved to Michigan, and I started a new school. There was no boy named Scott and no girl named Sharla in my class. I learned what it meant to be an outsider, to feel as though one were observing the relationships and jokes and fun of others as it were through a window, taking little part in them yourself. But every afternoon, when I came home from school, I ran upstairs to my room and shut my door and opened my closet and said, “Hi, Scott! Hi, Sharla! How are you today?” And they would answer happy words while I sat just outside the opened closet door, chatting to them about school and Ramona books and my record player. They couldn’t sing for me any more, so I talked to them about the intellectual side of music. The names of songs I had heard, the words of a hymn I memorized, the reason the song on the Cabbage Patch Kids tape made my baby sister cry. Music became cerebral in the absence of the love and friendship it once offered.
I still loved music. Fiercely. The door shut tightly against the pain and loneliness and criticism and beatings, my room became a musical haven. Every single day, I ran to my room, shut the door, and turned on my record player or tape player or CD player. Immediately. The thrilling ring of a soprano, the lush, full orchestra, or the bright tones of the piano captured my mind and emotions, lifting me out of my own life to a higher, safer, happier existence. So with the music playing loudly, I would stroke my doll or read a novel or just stare out the window. It was Music Club for one.
When I was a teen, my father traveled a lot with his work. Since we were homeschooled, we could go with him a couple times a year. We traveled all over the country — New Jersey, Boston, Nashville, Atlanta, Orlando, Phoenix — and usually drove, the minivan playing tapes of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos or Patch the Pirate. What a repertoire.
We had to practice, even during vacation. We took our violins and music stands with us, but we couldn’t pack up the grand piano. So we begged the hotel to let us play the ballroom grand or we walked to music schools to use the practice studios. I have always been a shy practicer, so these times felt excruciating, like being publicly undressed. Music always felt private to me post-Music-Club, a diary of innermost thoughts or an intimate message between friends. I hated airing my work before strangers unprepared.
But I really enjoyed visiting churches and observing their worship music. Much of the time, we participated, playing piano and violin specials and my mother singing. Sometimes, if the church didn’t have a pianist, I would play from the hymnal while they sang. I knew that by the standards of my own regular church my hymnplaying ability was quite poor; I couldn’t play by ear or embellish freely in the style popular at the time.
But here in small, inner-city churches, it really was the spirit that counted. They just wanted help and were so excited to have music. They were excited just to hear music in church at all. I felt like we were giving a gift of value to God and to our fellow believers with simple hymns of praise. With nearly the intimacy and all the joy of Music Club, we opened our hearts together with strangers through song.
I found it quite moving, dear, that so many ministries didn’t have what we take for granted — a piano and a few who can play it, several members who enjoy singing, a few instrumentalists, hymnals for all. These are riches, though, blessings that not every church or every family feasts on as freely as you and I.
So if I seem over-eager to drag you out to a community concert or sign you up for a music ministry or thrust a piece of music into your hands, indulge me. And look around you at your eagerly awaiting friends. Music Club is alive and well in churches, in choirs, in orchestras, and in homes up and down our street. The melodies bind us to one another and to the life God has created us to live.