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Opinion

Learning Matters: Musical-instrument switch demonstrates need to be flexible in life

Steinway, maker of pianos, sold for $512 million to hedge fund
Having to change from an organ to a piano during a church music rehearsal brings reflections for need to sometimes make impromptu decisions in life.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

The organ was working fine in the sanctuary at Glendale First Methodist Church this past Sunday morning as our choir rehearsed the anthems before the worship service.

We were singing two anthems that day, one with organ, the other with piano.

When we finished rehearsing, the choir moved into position at the back of the church, ready for the start of the service and the processional hymn. All seemed well.

The pastor gave his welcome and announcements were shared, followed by the organ voluntary, a choral introit and a responsive reading.

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Then there was silence.

With acolytes and choir ready to process up the aisle, waiting for the organ to start the opening hymn: nothing. “What’s happening?” we all wondered.

Our organist, I’ll point out, is Ladd Thomas, now in his 60th year serving our church. Professor of music at USC and renowned among organists, he’s known in the liturgical world as a master of service music with a gift for improvisation.

Whether responding to the texts of individual verses in a hymn or riffing on Bach or a gospel tune, he has a way of propelling the service and the congregation forward, sometimes to unexpected realms of feeling or reflection.

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The silence was very unusual.

At last, Thomas stepped away from the organ.

“The electricity to the organ is out,” he matter-of-factly announced. “We’ll use the piano today.” He quickly gathered his music and walked down to the piano, while a member of the congregation quietly rose from his pew, walked up and raised the piano lid.

And so the service continued, with Thomas nimbly transposing to two hands what he’d planned to play with two hands on the keyboard and two feet working the organ pedals.

For 38 years now, from my position in the choir loft, I’ve watched those hands and feet, continually marveling at how they all work together. This time I observed the glee evident on his face as he took on this unrehearsed musical challenge… and seemed to thrive on it.

Thomas’ similarly eminent organist wife, Cherry Rhodes, watched him through the service with equal wonder.

“I couldn’t do that,” she told me after the service. Not many organists could, she added.

Driving home after church, I pondered my fortune at getting to witness such a joyful demonstration of one man’s willingness and readiness to address a challenge.

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How many of our society’s problems might be solved, I wondered, with more willing spirits ready to pitch in on the spot?

Granted, the readiness Thomas demonstrated musically came from a lifetime of practice, training all his extremities to work in concert with his mind, heart, ears and eyes.

Most of us aren’t that ready. We’re not as skilled or practiced in the talents we possess, and the big problems of housing and climate change, homelessness or disconnected youth are too daunting, so we wait for people who know more to address them.

But I’m hoping the image of that Sunday morning transposition — from problem to promise — will urge me forward to welcome the challenges ahead.

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