Years after he'd given up his musical career, the gift of a piano put him back on track.
- Posted on Aug 27, 2019
For more than 10 years, I kept a painful secret. I told no one—not even my wife, Ronda. The secret was my love of music. Not just listening. Playing. Making a living with my instrument. Closing my eyes and becoming one with a piece of music.
I’d done all of that once. After learning classical piano and trumpet as a child, I thought I’d found my calling, playing around the world in the U.S. Army Band.
It was a dream come true. Until I was abruptly discharged during the post–Cold War drawdown of forces. The loss of my job came right as my second marriage was falling apart.
I loved music and felt betrayed by all that happened. I’d grown up in a military family. What would I do now? Crushed, I vowed never to play again. I returned my Army-issued trumpet and began a financial planning career.
I didn’t even tell Ronda about my musical past when we met and married years later. I kept things vague: “I was in the Army nine years. Served in the first Iraq War. Honorable discharge from my last post in Fairbanks.”
A few years after marrying, Ronda and I were visiting my parents in Texas when my mom asked, “Play something for me, Brian.” She still had the piano I’d played as a kid.
The request threw me. Mom had never taken an interest in my music. She and Dad didn’t play and disliked classical and jazz. They certainly didn’t approve of music as a career. They were relieved when I’d put down the trumpet and found a “real” job. Mom hung on to the piano because she thought it made the house look respectable. I probably could have let her comment slide.
For some reason, I sat down at the keyboard. My fingers hovered over the keys, as if ready to play. A strange sensation came over me. I closed my eyes. Years of memory and longing gathered in my hands.
Why was this part of me so hard to forget? The family joked when I was growing up that my parents liked only two kinds of music: country and western. Nothing in my upbringing would have pointed toward a musical career. Piano lessons came from Mom’s notions of respectability.
I was transported the first time I heard a classical music record that had been given to my dad by a military friend. Dad didn’t want it, so I took it. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was so romantic and dramatic. My joy was magnified when my teacher told me I could learn to play like that someday.
Our church denomination was conservative and frowned on instrumental music in worship. The more proficient I became playing Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Bach, the more I wondered if God approved.
My parents sure weren’t enthusiastic, especially after my dad, a career military officer, was transferred to Okinawa, Japan. Unable to take our piano, I focused on trumpet and joined my high school band.
We returned to the United States, and I graduated high school and enrolled at Abilene Christian University. Mom and Dad insisted I major in music teaching, not performance. With $18,000 in mounting student loans, I perked up when a friend mentioned I could find work playing trumpet in the military.
A recruiter told me that not only could I start playing straight out of basic training but the Army would pay off my student loans and I’d get to travel all over the world.
I left college without graduating and enlisted. It was just as the recruiter promised. I played for soldiers at bases, entertained officers at clubs and inspired crowds at ceremonial occasions.
My most solemn duty was playing taps at funerals. That’s a trumpeter’s job, and I never took it for granted.
The work truly was all over the world. My bandmates and I traveled constantly. I burned through two impulsive marriages and began to feel burned out myself as I neared a decade of service.
It was the relentless schedule, not the music, that ground me down. My job performance began to slip. I got a couple negative annual reviews.
Bad timing. In the mid-1990s, the military was drawing down. Guys with low job ratings were the first to go. Less than two years after arriving at an assignment in Fairbanks, I was discharged.
Suddenly jobless and alone on the frozen rim of the continent, I was shocked to discover that, in a way, my parents were right: There was little paid work for musicians in Fairbanks.
For a while, I drove a taxi and did odd jobs. Finally I admitted my musical dream was dead. Maybe God really hadn’t approved of the whole thing. It all felt so raw, so painful. I just wanted to forget. Never again would I let music break my heart.
By the time I started dating Ronda, it almost felt as if my life as a musician had never happened.
Which is why it made no sense that I responded to my mom’s casual request by sitting down at the piano.
The score above the keyboard was the second movement from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. A beautiful piece of music, one I’d always loved. Could I play it now? Did I want to?
I lowered my fingers. The notes were clunky at first. I kept having to look at the score. Faster than I anticipated, the old feeling came back. My eyes closed. My fingers danced across the keys.
Lost in the music, I didn’t notice Ronda standing at the doorway. I looked up. She gave me what I call the dreaded spousal stare, then turned away, shaking her head.
Flustered, I kept playing.
Ronda didn’t mention it the rest of the trip, and I was too self-conscious to bring it up. Still, I kept catching her giving me “the stare.”
“Why do you keep looking at me like that?” I blurted one morning back home in Alaska.
“You play piano!” she exclaimed. “How come you never told me?”
I mumbled something back about my playing days being a long time ago.
“We don’t even have a piano in the house,” she interrupted. “That’s just not right!” Before I could reply, she got up and left the room. I sat there cupping my coffee, wondering whether she was mad.
Ronda said nothing more, though she continued to give me strange looks. They evolved from expressions of incomprehension to something closer to that of a parent keeping a secret before a birthday.
“I ordered a piano,” Ronda announced one day.
“You what?!” I sputtered.
“It’ll take a couple months to get here though,” she said. That was Ronda. Efficient, good-hearted and no-nonsense.
“Where’d you get the money?”
“Coin jar,” she said. For the past year, I’d noticed her wrapping coins from our large coin jar. She’d amassed $900.
The piano arrived just before Christmas. It was a Yamaha electric with weighted keys and settings for various keyboard instruments.
It was an unbelievably generous gift. It also scared the heck out of me. The piano at my parents’ house was far away. I’d played it, then left.
This piano was here in my house, challenging me. I couldn’t walk away. If I played, I had to live with the results. What if that burst of inspiration at my parents’ house had been a fluke? What if the old skill never came back?
I started tentatively at first, playing the keyboard a bit each day. I also told Ronda more about my musical past. What this instrument meant to me.
“I wish you’d told me earlier,” she said. “When they discharged you, it was military bureaucracy, not a judgment from God. There’s no reason you shouldn’t play as much as you want. Music is part of you.”
I worked up to practicing an hour a day. Unable to resist, I bought a cheap trumpet online and dug out my old scores and handbooks.
Within a couple months, I was playing trumpet and piano as if I’d never stopped. Ronda even unearthed a clarinet she’d played in high school, and we would play together. Our house filled with music.
An old Army buddy of mine, another trumpeter, called me up. “Heard you’re playing again. About time. Listen, how would you feel about filling in for me at a rehearsal tonight? It’s a community jazz orchestra. Big band stuff. You’ll love it.”
Before I could say yes or no, my buddy said, “Great. The rehearsal’s at seven. I’ll tell the guys to expect you.”
When I arrived at the rehearsal, I was handed the lead trumpet book. In a big band, the lead trumpeter sets the style. It’s a huge responsibility.
To my immense relief, every piece we played was one I knew from years ago. It all came back. I was asked to join the band at the end of the rehearsal.
It’s been more than a decade since I sat at my parents’ piano and stunned Ronda with the Beethoven sonata. I wonder sometimes what prompted my mom to ask me to play that day.
But maybe I know. A few years ago, I quit financial planning and earned a degree in music performance. I play in the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra, the University of Alaska, Fairbanks Wind Symphony and at churches and other venues around town.
I like to think it was God saying, “Play something for me, Brian.” That day and every day.
I’m so glad I listened. I’m so glad I get to do what makes me me.
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