Saturday, July 19, 2008

Why I Own a Banjo

After I graduated from college, many people asked me what I had majored in. When I told them I had a degree in literature, their next question was, "Well, what are you planning to do with that?" Much to my parents' chagrin, I did not tell them that I was planning to go to law school (which was true, but still a year away). Instead I said, "Work in a music store." They would laugh, having confirmed their belief that I had a useless degree.

Part of the reason I highlighted the music store plan was because I felt the need to lower everyone's expectations. I also really wanted to separate my literature degree from my law school plans. I did not major in literature with any intention of going to law school; I chose that major because I love literature. It wasn't until I was a senior in college and realized that I could probably do more good in the world as a lawyer than a literature professor that I decided to give law school a try.

Taking a year off and working in a music store was one of the best decisions I ever made. I worked at Tupper & Reed music on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, along with other college graduates who had majored in humanities or music and were trying to figure out what to do next. Imagine the characters in High Fidelity, only younger, dirtier, and more frequently high.

I learned some interesting lessons between tuning violins and writing inventory orders. First, I discovered that I had a natural gift for selling pianos (particularly grand pianos). This was especially strange because although I have played the violin since I was five, I couldn't name a single note on the piano keyboard, much less play anything. I also learned that most people who walk into a music store regret they stopped playing an instrument at some point in their life.

I think my recognition of this longing to return to an instrument was my secret to selling so many pianos. Customers wanted music in their lives, especially music that they or their children played. Unlike other instruments, you can't really tuck a piano into a corner or under a bed. Having a piano in your home shows that you are committed to playing music.

When business was slow, we would teach each other how to play instruments. Between us, we had experts on trumpet, flute, percussion, voice, violin, guitar, bass, trombone, embira, and piano. Most employees played more than one instrument and several supplemented their income by teaching students. We also got a really good discount, so we spent a large portion of our paychecks on new instruments that we were trying to learn (hence the banjo).

I recently heard a music teacher bemoaning the fact that parents put their children in music lessons just so that they will be well-rounded. I was thinking about this later and realized that I think that is fine. It doesn't matter why parents want their children to play, the important thing is that they are exposed to music and have a chance to decide whether they want to pursue it. Although I will never be a professional violinist, I am so grateful for all the friends I have made over the years by playing in orchestras. And I feel blessed to have been a part of beautiful music.

In reading through the Bible, I have made it to Solomon. Before re-reading these chapters, I remembered that Solomon was wise, but this passage took me by surprise:

"God gave Solomon wisdomthe deepest of understanding and the largest of hearts . . . He created 3,000 proverbs; his songs added up to 1,005. He knew all about plants, from the huge cedar that grows in Lebanon to the tiny hyssop that grows in the cracks of a wall. He understood everything about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. Sent by kings from all over the earth who had heard of his reputation, people came from far and near to listen to the wisdom of Solomon." (I Kings 4:29-34).

Here is the wisest king of Israel, and he demonstrates his wisdom is writing poems, singing songs, and learning about plants and animals. I believe this is true wisdom and I hope we have not completely lost sight of it.

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