Music Lesson

I studied chemistry in college and biochemistry in graduate school, and I became a professional scientist. I love science, and although retired, I still work at it (just without a lab). But science was not my first love or my first choice as a profession. That was music.

I went to the High School of Music and Art in New York City, where I played the flute. Not very well, unfortunately, and I soon understood that my love of music was not going to translate into a performing career. But I still always love listening to music (and I occasionally play a little guitar or recorder for myself).

During my first week at my high school, I noticed an odd sight in the cafeteria. A short, stubby, not very attractive guy was sitting eating his lunch surrounded by four or five beautiful girls. As he sat there, other girls came by and talked to him and smiled. Sometimes guys would approach him and wave or nod. This kid would nod back, but he didn’t appear to say much.

I noticed the same thing with the same kid a few more times, and I finally asked a friend who had been in the school for a year already why that ugly kid was so popular. He looked over at who I had indicated then stared at me. “Are you kidding? Don’t you know who that is?” I didn’t. “That’s Jerry G.” I was still at a loss, and I confessed I had no idea who Jerry G was, or why that was an answer to my question. My friend told me to show up at one of the after-school jam sessions that some of the better student musicians held on Fridays.

When I did, I saw a bunch of mostly seniors and juniors with a variety of instruments, and there was Jerry holding a trumpet. He was sitting on a chair a bit apart from the small group of brass players who were jamming together on a jazz piece. But then they stopped, and Jerry stood up. Five seconds after he started playing, I felt like I had been knocked out of my seat and pulled up to the ceiling and then dropped down again. I had never heard anyone before (nor since) play the trumpet that way. Clear, powerful, brilliant. When his solo was over, and I could breathe again, I understood everything. Jerry didn’t need to be good looking, clever or funny. He didn’t need anything other than what he had – an enormous talent.

Jerry did not become a famous trumpeter – I never heard anything about him after we graduated. But whatever transpired in his life, I know that his talent must have been there for him whenever he needed it.

I might mention another person I met at Music and Art, a beautiful shy quiet girl, with an amazing voice. I remember a party at which I heard her sing, and I fell in love (not a rare occurrence for me). We spoke a few times, and I had the sense that she was a kind soul, but was way above my level in both music and spirit. Her name was Laura Nigro, and we pronounced her last name as Nygro rather than Neegro. When she became a famous song writer/singer she changed it to Laura Nyro. If you dont know who she is, listen to her on YouTube, and you will understand my gratitude at having known her, if only briefly.

At that time, I also had a friend who was a first-class drummer, and who had spent some time taking lessons at Julliard. He invited me to go with him to hear a recital of Julliard students, and I went. I was disappointed when we entered the hall, since the program specified that the day’s recital was going to feature string players, and I was always bored by violinists (being a wind chauvinist).

I sat through a number of very good and very boring performances by a wide variety of students from all over the world, who played extremely well, but still, it was always the violin. I was slumping in my seat, almost asleep, when my friend nudged me. “This could be interesting,” he said. I looked up and saw a student about my age struggling across the stage on a pair of crutches. “Wait,” I said. “How can he possibly play? He needs to hold his crutches.” The kid got to the front of the stage, sort of half sat on a tall stool, and brought up his violin, which he had been carrying under one arm. And he began to play. I sat up straight. It was the second time in two years I had heard a young genius play music. Again, the musician was flawless, and the music was powerful and sublime. I was transported. My friend commented that maybe he was compensating for being a cripple, which was a word people used back then. We agreed that it was an astonishing performance. I remember looking at the program to see who this kid was, but it was a foreign name that I couldn’t remember the next day.

If you know much about modern music, you will have already guessed the truth. Yes, I was one of the first people in this country to hear a performance by Itzak Perlman, generally considered to be the greatest living violinist, and some think the greatest ever.

So why have I told these 2 stories about music in this blog about science and faith? Because I found these experiences uplifting. God has endowed all of us with gifts, and first appearances (being funny looking or disabled) are useless in discerning the endowments of another human being. I have in my career met numerous similar examples of shining talents in science, housed in broken or unattractive receptacles. We all have seen this for all kinds of talents, including preaching the word of God, or writing amazing sermons. And what about those of us who are simply mediocre at most things, with no outstanding abilities like Jerry or Perlman? I maintain this is impossible, and that all human beings have been endowed by the Creator with many gifts, even if they are not at all outwardly apparent and cannot be seen in any kind of  performance. Even me.

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