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Musical Gifts? How Music is Learned

There once was a girl who lived on a farm. The privileges she loved  on that farm included shoveling manure, stacking hay bales, and  regularly mistaking her fingernail as the nail head. Blood, blisters, calluses, cuts; her hands were no dainty figures. Now a fourth generation American long removed from the life of the Netherlands, America’s country music became a part of her along with squealing hogs and folksy etiquette. 

That girl, however, was thankful for the many blessings of being where God placed her, country things included. She was blessed with parents who loved God and brought her to church, who loved her with their lives, and who taught her to be grateful. Other qualities, she would absorb from the surrounding community and its traditions: daily laboring with joy until the job gets done, paying the bills on time, and straight talk so others never wondered what she meant.  

At the same time, since all men are a mixture of pluses and negatives, striving was needed in some areas: of higher education, and in good, godly, and skillful culture of the higher arts. There remained opportunity for advancement, of things in creation of breath-taking beauty beyond the simple life; things made by God and entirely discoverable by our girl.  

I tell you now, that girl went to college for piano performance. Of all things! How did that come about?  Did she get the “gift?”  

No child plays the piano from birth. This may seem extreme, but this is the idea implied with the words gift and talent. Though these words  are often  used as a compliment and necessary tribute to the work of God in a child’s life, they lose sight of the fact that advancement in the arts comes from much education and hard work. Such language severely limits young people who respond to challenges with “I don’t have the talent for that, or “I wish I had that gift,” leaving room only for excuses and disappointment.  This can often arise from language parents use when falsely  searching their own DNA and capabilities for answers to their child’s future: “Neither my wife nor I have musical talent, so there’s no point sending our child to piano lessons,” I’ve heard some say; and yet others , “We knew after the first few lessons that our son didn’t have the gift for music.” How can anyone but God predict a child’s future?   Many leave music lessons to the child’s fleeting desires, presuming that the gift will take them to the goal. This we deny as false. 

 

To gain the truth concerning music and how it is learned, let us remember the Lord our maker. Didn’t he say, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?…When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God [angels] shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4a, 7). Music, as God’s possession, was built into the creation, given even to all of the angels! Then God created man: a very special creature. Created in his own image (Gen. 1:26), we (his elect) are esteemed by God himself as “his workmanship” (Eph. 2:10), “a peculiar people” (Deut. 26:18), “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9), created with “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) “unto all good works” (Eph. 2:10). How special we are! 

I make this point because I fear that the ethereal nature of music leaves many of us with the notion that we must possess a mysterious trait to understand what appears  intangible. But music is not intangible. Music is a part of all human life, embedded in the image of God (though the reprobate use it not to the glory of the Creator). You see, as this beautiful creation, we all possess the ability to “contemplate the invisible things of God” (Belgic Confession, Article 2), which include the orderly laws of creation found not only in mathematics and science, but also in music. 

Think of it as a language. Biologically speaking, music and language are cultivated by the same systems of the brain, both of them requiring the processing of strict sets of rules and ongoing memorization. Do we say that each one of us has the gift for the English language? Of course not; it takes years of immersion from the moment you were born, before you were able to speak in coherent sentences, plus another decade or more of formal education in grammar, spelling, English, literature, and writing, before you become fluent in all aspects of the language. That’s a lot of work! Likewise, fluency in music requires long-term exposure, education (just as much, if not more, than what is necessary to become dynamically fluent in any language), and lots of hard work. 

Ask any builder, physicist, or engineer, and they will tell you that it took toil through education to get where they are; none of them came out of the womb building houses, designing space shuttles, or defining spaghettification. So, too, playing an instrument and understanding music is an acquired skill that is not in a child at birth. 

What does this mean, then? Excluding war, famine or bankruptcy, anyone can learn how to play an instrument musically, and be highly successful for a life full of God’s beauty! No superhuman capabilities required. Wow! But we must not turn merely to feelings to learn, forgetting the higher laws to be a law unto ourselves. Rather, continual exposure to educated music proven by the ages (that is, classical), a proper instrument kept serviced and beautiful sounding for inspiration, ongoing quality education by teachers educated in the laws of music and the instrument, and practice by the hour every single day, is necessary. Our Lord is worthy! 

This is what that girl in our story discovered, too, after a bit more education. And now, after exposure, education, and toil directed by her Lord, she is finally gaining a glimpse of the extraordinary beauty of her creator. 

(Though she still appreciates the smell of manure…And hogs? They’re delicious.) 

Young people, you are precious to God. Every single one of you is worthy and capable of discovering the beauty he has planted in creation. Parents, so are your little children, and you are put in a very important role concerning their future; but you cannot predict it. And though quality exposure, instruments,  education,  and toil in the arts won’t save you that nickel, and may look a whole lot different than life back in the days, when we ask the Lord what a thing such as music is to him, and receive an answer, we can be confident in letting go of old ideas  to remain fastened to his unchanging laws.