Still Life with Keyboards

Words and music have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Just as I can’t remember being unable to read, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t delight in making music. We got a piano when I was in the first grade, and according to my mother, I was picking out tunes from the day it came into the house, even though I wasn’t allowed to start lessons until second grade. That was also the youngest age for joining the church choir, so that was the beginning of music as a formal, continuing part of my life.

I started writing somewhat later, but that early experiment didn’t turn out as well. Since I didn’t know how to construct a plot (I’m sometimes still not sure I do), I promptly wrote myself into a corner and couldn’t figure out how to escape it. I didn’t realize it was acceptable for a writer to back up and change the storyline. But at least I could read without these problems, and I did so…anything I could lay my hands on. That’s still true.

So I got a degree in piano, and continued to sing. I taught high school choir, and private piano. A decade or so after I got married, I added another keyboard to my life: the type attached to a computer. I took lessons in Basic and C, and started programming as a freelancer. After we moved to our current home, I stopped giving piano lessons; we lived too far out of town. But I still had the piano, and I still worked on my computer. After I got online, I started hanging out with writers, and it wasn’t long before writing came back into my life as well. I started trying to write seriously in 1989, and my first book came out in 1991. I was set!

That first book was followed by others, and by stories and articles. I loved writing. As my writing career developed, though, music’s role in my life diminished. Oh, I hadn’t lost interest in it! But, perhaps because of a lifetime spent on first piano and then computer keyboards, my wrists grew weaker. Carpal tunnel syndrome developed in the right one, and the left one fell prey to tendonitis. Periodically I would sit down and indulge myself in an hour or so of Chopin waltzes, Beethoven sonatas, or my beloved Bach inventions and fugues. But each such indulgence carried a steep price in pain and weakness, payable in subsequent days when I found myself unable to touch any sort of keyboard. Eventually I quit trying, and the piano sat untouched. I finally loaned it to a friend (who still has it) whose son was starting piano.

And the years kept passing. For a variety of reasons, which I may explore in later posts if there’s interest, my writing career spluttered to a halt due to a lack of the essential ingredient: I was no longer writing. It’s hard having a writing career if you don’t write. Depression was a large part of it, but there were physical components as well, including the CTS. In any case, my life turned barren with the turn of the millennium. I still had my marriage, thank heavens, and my now-grown children. But there was an emptiness.

Then a bit less than five years ago, a good friend invited me to church. Raised Episcopalian, she’d gone searching there for comfort after the death of a mutual friend. The people at this particular small church—Saint Raphael in the Valley—were warm and welcoming, and she thought I’d like them. She was right. She also pointed out that they had no organist, merely an “organist in a box.” Think ecclesiastical karaoke without the lyrics screen. Listening to it was painful. Trying to sing with it was worse.

And then my clever friend pointed out that hymns and such were surely easier to play than Beethoven sonatas. I did a bit of checking, and discovered that, for mechanical reasons, organs are easier on the wrist than piano. Rather hesitantly, I asked if I could try playing it. The good folks of St. Raphael’s were willing to let me play just for my own pleasure, with no requirement that I serve as their organist. But if I was willing to do so, they’d said they’d be delighted!

It was a few months before I felt ready to tackle playing in public. It had been so long! But that Christmas, I played some of the music. By the next, I was playing the whole service. And I began to teach myself the pedals, something I’d never tried before. Luckily, I’d known organ majors in college, so I had some inkling of the basics. By the third Christmas, I played with the pedals most of the time.

And the music continues to come back. I can no longer do octaves reliably with my right hand, and the pedals were new territory; this combination made me start working out some of my own arrangements. About a year ago, we started a (very) small choir: five people, with me singing alto. We’re doing four-part harmony!

And I’m composing. For the first time in over thirty years, I’m composing. I wrote an Agnus Dei that the congregation now sings each Sunday. I’m working on a Gloria. And I’ve almost got the harmonies down for a hymn based on a Gloria. It’s appropriate; having music back in my life was the first crack in the darkness, so I give thanks. Any time the congregation thanks me for being their organist, I thank them for giving me the chance to come back to life.

And now, with Book View Café, I’m getting back into the writing game. It’s been a long haul through the darkness, and I’m not completely out of the shadows. But life still is, and I’m glad.

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Kate Daniel’s latest story on Book View Cafe is “Homework.”

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Still Life with Keyboards — 1 Comment

  1. Kate — See if you can find a Pfrimmer Massage Therapist where you live. They have brought people back from Carpal Tunnel. Heck, I had a few techniques that could do it, when I was a full-time LMT. As long as the nerve is not permanently damaged, it can be reversed.

    — kek