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The Right Notes

Updated: 05/13/2014 @ 9:44am

When the universe sends you the same message from two different directions, I think it’s important to pay attention.

A while ago, I heard an interview with Harry Connick Jr., the jazz musician. Now, I know nothing about jazz, but he was an interesting talker, and I was in the midst of a long midnight drive, so I kept listening. He told a story about a recording session where a young man, still in college, sat in with a group of grizzled veterans. The kid had some skills, but Harry Connick Jr. said, “We were all kind of laughing at him because he was so young. I mean, he was playing ALL the notes.”

The interview asked him what he meant by that, which was good, because I had the same question.  

His reply was, “I’ve been playing a while now, and when I’m sitting in with a good quartet, I might just sit and listen, or I might just play one note. But if I do only play one note, it’s the right note.”

The story made me smile because a few weeks before that I’d read an article about Pete Seeger, the famous folk musician. When he was well into his 90s, he was still playing banjo for audiences, and a critic had come to a performance to review his work. The critic was prepared to be gentle, because of his fondness for Pete and his concerns over an old man still performing in public. To his surprise, he was very impressed. The review said something along the lines that Pete was only playing half as many notes as when he was young, but they were all the right notes. The music was spare and uncompromising, and retained all its meaning.

What I don’t know about music could fill several large books, but I don’t think we’re talking about just music. There’s a lesson here - a big one. We live in a world with a lot of music, a lot of notes, more to do than time to do it, and we can all get swamped. Sometimes when I compare calendars with family and friends, everything seems vastly complicated - even just trying to line up dinner. And the problem with complicated lives is that amidst the cacophony of noise and confusion, it’s easy for the sweet, simple notes to be missed and misplaced.

As we get older, that’s something that we should be passing on to the younger ones around us. We’ve all paid to learn; if you think you get anything in this life without paying for it one way or the other, you’re dreaming, and the lessons on how to live a good life are the most expensive of all. We should be using that hard-won knowledge, and, again, should be passing it on to the younger ones around us.  

It’s not a complicated lesson. The right notes lead to the sweetest music. Prune away what isn’t needed, don’t play anything that detracts from the melody. The best musicians know that.  

We should, too.

Copyright 2013 Brent Olson

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