When my youngest turned three in February this past year, I decided I would finally make time for a long-held dream of enrolling myself in violin lessons. I’ve never regarded myself as musically gifted, but the process of learning a new skill after the age of forty has been an even more humbling experience than I expected. And despite my tendencies toward tone-deafness and my challenges with rhythm, I hold onto hope of one day making beautiful music.
So, leaving for several weeks of travel earlier this summer, I made sure to pack my violin and Level One Suzuki book. Just for fun, I also tucked a copy of my favorite hymn, “O God Beyond All Praising” into my backpack. When I returned, I proudly told my teacher that instead of the assigned Bach minuet, I’d been practicing this hymn, set to a portion of the music from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. “Well, let’s hear it,” he replied, pleased, I speculated, to have a break from the curriculum pieces he hears ad nauseam.
I made it about halfway through the piece before he interrupted, reminding me to use better bow distribution and to slow down however much I needed in order to hit the right notes. Clearly, I had been hitting some wrong ones. “Actually, let’s first go over the C major scale,” he kindly suggested. Even the notes I thought I had succeeded in striking had been grating to his practiced ear.
We ended up spending the whole of that lesson on the scale and the first line of the hymn, which I then dutifully practiced. Hoping to progress beyond the first line, I was bemused during the next lesson to find that my teacher wanted me to attend to an even smaller portion: the first three notes. I worked on a slur and on making a smoother transfer of the bow from one string to another. The text corresponding to those three notes is “O-O God.” As I played them over and over, the simple address to my God resounded in my mind.
How fitting, I thought. This is the story of my whole prayer life—and often my story of motherhood, too. How often have I made grand resolutions to begin a new habit of prayer and penance? How often have I made new and improved chore charts and resolved to keep a tidy home? How often have I made a much too ambitious to-do list for the day, wrongly assuming my young children would cooperate throughout all the activities and errands? And how often have I ended up doing it all poorly, without an attentive ear to the beauty and patience each step requires, only to come back to “O God” and nothing else?
As the fall schedule of school and sports routines begin to fill up the calendar and the appealing post-COVID world begins looking like an unending landscape of opportunity and action, I’m trying to remember the lesson I most recently learned—to slow down and play the most essential notes well, regularly and attentively addressing God before launching headlong into my goals, for both myself and my children. What should be the first three notes for my family? What are the essential elements we must focus on in order to truly offer our lives as a sacrifice of praise? Are we practicing them? With diligence?
I am happy to report that during the next lesson, my teacher listened as I played through the whole piece without interruption. I finally played what amounted to a complete sentence in the text. A little offering to God, I thought.
“Good, good!” my teacher exclaimed.
Then, “But let’s put down the violin and clap the rhythm.”
I smiled, and happily—and humbly—complied.