My Sister’s Piano

Author of “The Classical Moment”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay appears in the author’s book The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures, published by St. Augustine’s Press in 2014. We reproduce it here with the generous permission of the publisher.

My sister Norma Jean has a Baldwin Grand Piano. She acquired it when she and her husband were living in Phoenix in about 1982. It has since moved to Texas, Wisconsin, Oregon, and twice in Southern California. For ten years before Phoenix, she had a console-type piano. Before that, ever since I can remember, she had an upright piano that belonged to our mother. My mother died in 1937, when Jeannie was about six years old.

And Fran, my mother’s next older sister – my mother had thirteen siblings – told Jeannie that when she was younger, my mother was the only one in the large family who could play the piano. Her parents used to love to hear her play, which she did at family occasions like Christmas and family reunions. This would have been in the big farmhouse outside of Pocahontas, in Iowa.

I can vaguely remember this upright piano. My mother had taken it with her when she married our father. I was old enough to recall her playing in the house on Main Street in Knoxville, also in Iowa, not long before she died. While I am something of a klutz with regard to music, I was given piano lessons while my mother was still alive. I often have wondered, had she lived, whether I would have learned to play. But my sister Jeannie as she grew up inherited the piano. We all knew it was hers. She learned to play. One of our Schall cousins recalled Jeannie playing when she was quite young. She became better and better as the years went by. She minored in music in college at San Jose State.

When, some five years after my mother’s death, my father remarried a lovely widow with two daughters my own age, I recall often that Jeannie would play in the big front room in the Washington Street house in Knoxville. She, with our new stepsister, Jeanne Louise, would sing together at Christmas and indeed often. I can still hear them laughing and singing together. Christmas to me means, in terms of memory, Jeannie playing the songs of that season on that piano that had belonged to our mother. Sounds somehow can make things more real than sight. I recall my father sometimes singing, but never realized till now when I think about it that what he sang was probably from the piano that mother played.

When our family moved to San Jose in California in 1945, the piano was boxed and shipped with the other household goods. In a way, that piano still gives me nightmares. When the truck arrived, it backed into the narrow driveway of the McKendrie Street house. My father, brothers, some neighbors, and the truck driver came to the point of unloading the heavy paino. They used a sort of steel track on which to slide the boxed piano down to the ground from the truck. I was stationed next to the house with some bushes alongside.

As the piano came down, it began to tip off the railings in my direction. I could not hold it up. Fortunately, it fell against the bushes and house, thereby saving Schall, at an early age, from being smashed by his sister’s piano. It taught me a first principle: “You can never be too careful unloading pianos.” If I close my eyes, I can still see the piano tipping over my way. Every human life, I suppose, includes a near-miss or two. We call it luck or providence, no that luck does not fall under providence in a sound philosophy.

After Ordination and my early Roman time, I have been in my sister and brother-in-law’s home almost every year no matter where they were. It is always something close to my being to sit quietly as my sister plays her Baldwin piano. She has collected a considerable amount of sheet music over the years. While she lived in Medford, in Oregon, she used to play in various senior citizens’ homes. She would often comment on the effect of music on those good souls almost too old to remember anything; how they would light up on hearing some song that they knew.

Jeannie plays a wide variety of music – classical, church, Protestant hymns, Irish, western, Spanish, popular, from various decades. As I listen to it, her music always – how else to put it? – refreshes my soul. How very nice to have such a sister who will play for her brother! Jeannie usually knows when the song she is playing was written, by whom, who sang it, what movie or play, if any it was in. Sometimes she will also sing it, if it is sing-able.

Jeannie does much of her own arrangements, which she learned to do from a course which she once took while they were living in Simi Valley. She plays in her parish on an electronic piano. I am not much of a fan of electronic instruments. I cringe when I go into a church for Mass to find a line of electronic guitars and keyboards waiting for me. So I am glad the Baldwin is simply a classic piano, even though her church piano sounds fine.

Over the years, I have often taught courses that include Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, each of whom wrote a treatise on music. At first, I never took seriously what the classical writers said about music. I was somewhat puzzled by the amount of space that music took in the Republic and in the Politics. Indeed, they said that a change in music will signify a change in polity. What finally woke me up, I think, was the chapter on music in Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. I have known families who send their children off to rock concerts as if they are just another “entertainment.”

But Bloom too has read Plato. Music is not just another “entertainment.” I often realized while listening to my sister that music does move one’s soul. Listening to her play can change one’s whole mood. As Aristotle says, music will reproduce in us the motions in the human voice under emotion. We are formed by what we hear, whether we know it or not. A disorder in music leads to a disorder of soul. This subtle influence is why Bloom said that the real educator of youth today is not the school or the parents but the music-makers. Robert Reilly’s essays in his Surprised by Beauty on whether music can be sacred have also taught me much. The association of music and divinity is not merely accidental.

By now everyone has noticed that we have a pope whose brother is a Kappelmeister. Benedict himself plays Mozart on the piano just because he loves it. This ability is not a requirement for the Office, I suppose, but it surely does not hurt it. Reading between the lines, one senses that Benedict is rather annoyed by the awfulness that we too often hear in church music in recent decades. Indeed, he says as much. “Is it just a difference in taste?” we wonder. Benedict seems to think that one of the main consequences of revelation is in fact beauty, including, perhaps beginning with, beautiful music.

The notion of the “heavenly choirs” in which we will all participate is, I suppose, both profound and amusing. “You mean all you do in heaven is sit around and sing?” Surely part of the answer is, “Well, yes, of course.” There is probably on this earth no experience quite like singing a Haydn or Bach Oratorio in a large choir with full concert orchestra before a silent, riveted audience. Music is not an occupation but a celebration of something beyond itself. Let us hope, in any case, that the heavenly choirs are closer to Mozart than much of the raucous music we hear. Still, I think of my sister’s piano. It means that any home can have its own music played by someone within it. German and Czech families will often have string quartets midst their members, at least in the days that the Germans and Czechs had children. Eric Voegelin, himself a lover of music, once remarked that no one needs to participate in the aberrations of his time. This is true of music too, something I learned listening to my sister play her Baldwin Grand Piano.

About the Author

Fr. James V. Schall taught political philosophy at Georgetown University until his retirement and he remains a prolific essayist and author. Among his many works are the following from St. Augustine's Press: The Regensburg Lecture, Sum Total of Human Happiness, The Modern Age, and The Classical Moment.

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