Thursday, 23 September 2021

T To Your Health

Relaxing in Grace

by Charles Rix, PhD


My favorite verses are Ecclesiastes 7:16, “Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself?” and 2 Corinthians 12:9, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (NIV).

As a young pianist, I learned Franz Liszt’s Paganini Étude “La Campanella” before I knew the meaning of the word “fear.” The mental and physical gymnastics of the piece were intoxicating to play and the sensation of performing the piece was somewhat akin to bungee jumping off a bridge. As a developing classical pianist, the drive to conquer the “dare-devil” pyrotechnics of the Chopin Études, the Schumann, Ravel, or Prokofiev Toccatas or daring to attempt the dangers of the Brahms Paganini Études kept me occupied for hours on end. I sought any opportunity to practice so I could perform these brain-bending pieces as perfectly as possible.

It was once said that a basketball player making ninety percent of his or her shots would be considered a very good player, while a concert pianist achieving only ninety percent accuracy in a performance would be considered a dismal failure. I did not want to fail, and I practiced to be sure that when I walked out on stage I would avoid disaster and succeed. There was no performance by a visiting pianist, no available recording, and no master class by a resident artist at a local university that I did not press into the service of my musical and technical development.

However, as I got older and began to juggle demands on my time and energy between practice, performance, “income-producing work,” ministry, and raising a family, the thrill of slaying the dragons of the piano literature turned to trepidation. Without adequate opportunity to fully work out the technical and musical aspects of the pieces I enjoyed, I no longer felt as secure or as confident to simply walk out on stage and toss off one of these knuckle-breakers as if it were child’s play. Sitting down to give a full-length recital, salt and peppered with these piano dazzlers, was accompanied by shaking knees, trembling, and a lot of second-guessing. Would I be able to actually execute the leaps on the last two pages of the Prokofiev Seventh

Sonata without cracking the top notes? Would my repeated note technique work as quickly as it should in the Ravel Toccata or Liszt’s La Campanella? Would my memory hold up in the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto? Without staying close to these pieces that were once second nature, revisiting them only occasionally felt like seeing friends who had moved away. It took a while to remember how I used to “converse” with them.

Yikes.

In my youth, I did not have these questions, or these doubts, or this . . . fear. I’ve always threatened to write a book entitled, “Everything I Know about Life, I Learned at the Piano.” In many ways, work at the piano has been one of my greatest teachers. Almost every emotion and life experience is scored and experienced through working on the vast array of pieces in the piano repertoire. Now, in these difficult passages—of which there are no end—fear, doubt, and insecurities, became like uninvited guests loitering around the piano bench. They taunted and teased me as I battled my way through finger tangling passages to get the phrasing right. Fighting the fear of not being able to play the piece, bucking doubt I had the ability to succeed, and resisting the insecurities that I wasn’t as good as the next pianist were the ingredients for many hours of practice—unproductive practice that is—that left me exhausted, discouraged, and not wanting to play for anyone.

A very good friend of mine had literally ruined his right hand trying to slay the difficulties of Liszt’s Dante Sonata only to give up the piano entirely for a career in computer programing. For years, he refused to touch the piano. A tale too often told. But I kept practicing because I was not going to be that person.

But thankfully I discovered another way from a very wise teacher I engaged while I was working on my graduate degree. I was introduced to this new way during a lesson on Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau,” my favorite piece of piano music but with an ending that is like walking the high wire with no safety net below.

Terrifying.

This very wise teacher taught me how to “relax into music,” so I could walk this high wire and not fall. Ravel, a brilliant French impressionistic composer, but not a very good pianist, wrote some of the most exquisite music for the piano but that required the most awkward hand positions. During this first lesson on the “Jeux d’eau,” my teacher listened for a while even while noticing the tension in my arms and hands. He asked why I had such difficulty playing some of the passages. I responded with a long explanation of all the things I had tried for years to execute without success. I had read every book, sought help from every pianist I met, and practiced for hours, only to remain frustrated and defeated. He stopped me in my anxious explanations and asked me to just relax. He carefully placed my hands in one particularly difficult position. Then, he instructed me to just sit at the piano until I accepted the feeling of awkwardness.

I remember sitting there in silence for some time. He requested me to play the passage and not think about the hand position, but listen to the music. For the first time, I understood it was precisely the unusual feeling in the hand that was integral to the production of this beautiful music. From this “aha” moment, I learned my technical problems were largely musical problems. Accepting the physical sensation made it possible to hear the music and allow the music to come forth and carry me through the piece.

Learning to “relax in the music” freed my hands to do what they needed to do to play the piece. No longer did the discomfort dominate my thinking. Rather, the music became uppermost in my mind. The difficulties of the piece remained, but my hands simply glided through them with much greater ease.

A piano lesson, yes, but also a spiritual lesson, and a life lesson. How often I have tried to “conquer” the difficulties in my life, “be good,” and “get it right,” only to become discouraged when things did not go perfectly. How long I have sought to be “overwise,” only to feel dehumanized, demoralized, or even destroyed, when my “goodness,” “righteousness,” or “wisdom” either didn’t measure up to what was needed, or simply did not work in a particular difficult situation.

How many difficult passages in my own life I have tried to “fix.” For me, trusting the sufficiency of God’s grace begins with recognizing that I cannot fix what is not “fixable” and to receive God’s ability and peace to meet the challenges of the situation, through either fighting them, or “trying harder,” only to realize in the end what the writer of Ecclesiastes knew all along, “What is crooked cannot be made straight.”

How many times I have nearly destroyed myself trying to be “overrighteous” when what I really needed to do was to accept the difficulty, and listen to the music of God, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

There have been so many instances in my life—more than I care to count—when I have run up against situations that were not “fixable.”

The untimely deaths of my sister and my wife from cancer, ministry situations where dealing with difficult congregants was simply over my head, financial reversals resulting from the economy, and friends that turned out to be “not friends” are only a few examples.

Yet dealing with each of these situations is like learning to execute a difficult passage of piano music. Moving through difficulty requires not fighting the situation with anxiety but rather relaxing into the music of the situation, God’s sufficient grace.

For me, trusting the sufficiency of God’s grace begins with recognizing that I cannot fix what is not “fixable” and to receive God’s ability and peace to meet the challenges of the situation. I cannot straighten that which is crooked. Like many passages at the piano that will forever remain wickedly difficult, life will continue to dole out situations for which there is no satisfactory solution. But the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and the encouragement of the Lord through the apostle Paul cohere with life lessons at the piano. I could destroy myself by trying to be “too good,” trying to be “too wise,” and trying too hard to “get it right.” Rather, if I accept the feeling of awkwardness of what comes my way and relax in God’s sufficient ability to carry me through these moments of “impossibility,” I will be able to play the life God has granted.


This article is a chapter from the recently released  book Our Favorite Verses (Healthy Life Press: Golden, CO, 2014). To order go to www.Amazon.com or www.healthylifepress.com. The article is copyrighted © 2014 by Healthy Life Press. It may not be copied or disseminated in any form, in part or in whole, without written consent of the publisher.


Charles Rix, PhD, teaches at Oklahoma Christian University. Before that he taught at New Brunswick Theological Seminary and served as the pulpit minister of the Monmouth Church of Christ in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. Prior to entering ministry Charles worked in various financial positions with ExxonMobil Corporation both domestically and overseas. He holds graduate degrees in business, theology, and philosophy, and completed his PhD in Hebrew Bible from Drew University. Charles is also a concert pianist and has given master classes and benefit recitals around the globe. As an artist, student, and teacher of Old Testament, Charles researches ways in which the Scripture speaks to the issue of human suffering. He is published in a series of essays exploring connections between the Bible, the Shoah, and the artwork of post-Holocaust painter Samuel Bak. Charles and his late wife Jenny (Alley) Rix have two children, Nathan Rix and Abby Rix Degge, both of whom hold graduate degrees and work in the disciplines of public and social policy and practice.

 

Columnist: Dr. David B. Biebel

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Dr. Biebel has authored or co-authored twenty books, including one bestseller: If God Is So Good, Why Do I Hurt So Bad? and the Gold Medallion winner, New Light on Depression. His recent releases include Making God Visible and Away in a Manger: The Christmas Story from a Nativity Scene Lamb's Point of View.


His goal is to help people attain and retain optimal physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational health (personal wholeness) so they can love the Lord with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves. He founded Healthy Life Press (www.healthylifepress.com) to help new authors with something to contribute in this arena to get their works into print.

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        To Purchase these or any other of Dr. Biebel's titles click HERE

 

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