A Light in the Dark

I learned a new-to-me Christmas carol this year. Or maybe it’s a Hanukkah or Solstice carol. It’s pretty universal.

For the first time since Covid, I was back to narrating the annual Christmas recital for a music teacher friend. Every year she writes a story based on the various pieces her students will perform. I read the story — with a modicum of dramatic effect.

I was feeling the holiday spirit as I drove the thirty-miles up our snow-blanketed valley to her studio. Echoing one of my favorite carols, “In the Deep Midwinter,” there was “snow on snow on snow.” The hills and mountains shimmered with whiteness under thin ribbons of blue sky, like remnants of some extravagant gift-wrap.

It was nearly dark when I entered the studio with its two grand pianos nestled into each others’ curves. The audience waited with a hushed, almost reverent expectancy. As a long-ago music teacher I can tell you with authority, the primary element in any student recital is not music, but courage. Every student has practiced hard and long, conquering the challenge of memorization, playing the piece just once more before leaving home, praying to be spared public humiliation.

My friend teaches students of all ages, and I’ve always assumed that adult students must feel especially nervous. They have, after all, their dignity at stake. The first performer allayed that assumption. I don’t know her age but I’m pretty sure she — like me — will never see seventy again. In a brief post-recital chat she acknowledged she’d taken a fifty-five year hiatus from piano lessons. She nevertheless approached the Yamaha unflinchingly, methodically exchanged her bifocals or trifocals for her music-reading glasses (a ritual with which I’m VERY familiar), and played a simple Chopin waltz with adult authority.

When it was the youngest student’s turn, the tiny girl in a ruffled dress was gently nudged forward by her mother. The teacher escorted her to the piano with a whispered reminder, “Say it aloud.”

Starting from the lowest end of the keyboard, the child played a rhythmic counterpoint, two black keys with one hand, the white key between them with the other, while chanting: “D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.” Then up an octave: “D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.” Up and up, octave by octave, all seven of them, until she reached the clanging high notes at the top, and then … all the way back down. She ended to thunderous applause. I felt as if we’d scaled Everest and back. What a great way to teach navigation of the keyboard: look for the two black keys and D will always be in the middle. A surefire compass for beginners.

I drove home under a moonless night sky, way slower than the speed limit, peering into the darkness beyond my headlights, watching for deer who frequent this stretch of highway. I was willing my memory to replay Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” A young man had performed it admirably, melting my heart. But a persistent ear worm blocked it. I kept hearing, “D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.”

Of course. That’s what this time of year is all about. We stare directly into the darkness — the black keys — and we find the light. On that very Sunday, Christians were lighting the fourth candle on their Advent wreaths, Jews were lighting the first Menorah candle of Hanukkah, and tonight — winter solstice — people will repeat an ancient tradition, defying the darkest night of the year by lighting brilliant bonfires.

“D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.” Or as the writer of the Gospel of John said — a bit more poetically: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

(Image thanks to pixabay.com.)

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