Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pianos and Heartstrings

The piano in the living room of our home had never been tuned until a few weeks ago. A good tuning was long over due. I say this, not because it made a terrible noise, but because the piano happens to be older than I am.

Before finding a new home, the simple but warm piano used to stand against the wall of a very small room in my parents house where I grew up. The room, adjacent to our living room, was part of a small addition Dad had built on the house. Besides the piano and bench, the only other things in the crowded room were a small bookshelf, a lounge chair, and a lamp. It was a cozy place to sit and read, or listen to your sister play the piano.

I have some fond memories of that piano. I never really learned to play it very well, but I pretended to be a composer of cacophony when I was little. I would bang on things I am not certain even qualify as chords, let alone harmonies, and I would sing made up songs to my accompaniments. I had a very small audience. Mom would occasionally remind me that I had other things to do besides play the piano. She was patient with my unwritten compositions.

At the recommendation of a close friend, we had a piano tuner come look at our upright. The tuning took twice as long as he expected and it required two separate visits. He vacuumed out the inside of the piano and found no less than a full inch of dust that had collected on the bottom of the inside. It was very intriguing to watch the piano dismantled enough to tune each of the strings.

Previously, I thought our piano sounded fine, especially when played by someone with talent. Its relative pitch had been fairly good because all of the tones had gone flat together, making the need to fix it less apparent. Now that it has been tuned, it sounds much, much better.

I realize now that my original appraisal was based on the fact that I was comfortable with the sound and was simply used to it. There is a lot to be said for familiarity. When we are very familiar with something, or someone, it is easy to overlook small quirks and irregularities, particularly if it is something we are fond of. I was used to the piano being out of tune, so it didn’t seem out of tune. It merely seemed like what it was – our good old upright piano. This says a lot to me about the things or people we become familiar with.

Our oldest son seems to show the most interest in playing the piano now. He has become quite proficient at it too. He can sit down at the bench, place his feet on the pedals with his hands on the keys, and something wonderful begins to happen. This instrument of wood, string, and connections changes me. He will play things I could never dream of at his age. As he does, I begin to daydream and his music takes me to places I have not been. Music is powerful that way.

For many years I have reflected on this power of music. I can’t explain why it does what it does, but I feel it. I have heard music that has changed my feelings and mood. I have sung music that has caused me to swell with emotion. I have experienced music that has moved my heart to action. There is something unique about music that causes it to resonate in my heart. Because it does, I have recognized that there are two sounding boards at work, one in the piano and the other inside me. This observation has led me to believe that both the piano and the heart are powerful instruments.

A friend of mine, Allan Smith, recently taught me about resonance. Allan is a sound engineer who has a passion for physics. We both work on buildings and share an interest in architectural spaces. His fascination with how things resonate has intrigued me enough to share his interest in physics and look a little closer at instruments.

One reason a piano sounds as beautiful as it does (or can, once it is tuned) is because of a component called the sounding board. The sounding board of a stringed instrument is typically, but not always, a hard surface. It takes the vibrations of a string and amplifies them to create a more audible sound. As the hard surface experiences the gentle vibrations of the string, it begins to vibrate at the same frequency. The sounding board takes the vibration and gives it a larger effect.

Personally speaking, I think our actions are really the sounding board for our hearts. They definitely resonate at the same frequency as our desires and usually reflect what is deep inside. While our hearts perform best when they are not hard, our examples resonate best when they are firm with resolve. At least, those are the examples that resonate best with me. Without the sounding board, the heart has little effect on others. But with it, the heart can do amazing things, for good or not.

When we are properly tuned, we will hear beautiful things. To tune an instrument, the one performing the work will compare and adjust the instrument to meet a standard. Inside a piano, the keys are connected to little hammers that touch the strings causing them to vibrate. For ourselves, the little promptings of the Holy Ghost may touch our hearts, causing them to vibrate, move, enlarge, and even swell. It doesn’t take much if we are in tune and ready to receive. When we are properly tuned with the promptings of the Holy Ghost, it is easier to be in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel.

When something powerful touches our heart, it resonates within us. You might say that, “It rings true.” This happens for a few different reasons. First, one role of the Holy Ghost is to testify of truth. When we feel truth, we can also feel the witness of the Spirit. We can feel it resonate. Secondly, the Holy Ghost will bring all things to our remembrance. This happens “within us,” within our realm of experience both in this life and the life before. Resonance has a lot to do with familiarity. The more familiar we are with the truths of the gospel, the more they will strike a cord with what we know and have experienced. Our taste in this music increases and grows with time and repetition, layer by layer, and line upon line. As our examples resemble that of the Savior, Jesus Christ, the familiarity with which we know Him will ring clearer and clearer.

Following the resurrection of Jesus Christ, He walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus and taught them. After He dined with them, their eyes were opened and the things they had been taught resonated true. “And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures.” (Luke 24:32) Their hearts, properly tuned, were instruments that allowed each of them to feel the power of His word.

In the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Alma compares the word of God to a seed. For the purpose of this comparison, we may use this example to see what happens when truths are placed in our hearts to see how they will resonate. If we are in tune, and we seek to be in harmony with God, Alma teaches that the word of God will begin to swell within us, “and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that… the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.” (Alma 32:28) It will resonate within your heart.

The term heartstrings often refers to things that pull at our hearts, or our desires. These strings cannot pull much unless they are tight from tension, connecting our desires and our actions. When the Holy Spirit touches our heartstrings, we will see very quickly whether or not we are in tune with the standard of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we have a sound understanding and seek to do the will of the Father, we will likely feel at peace. If our hearts are not quite aligned, we may feel discord or cacophony, suggesting that we need to realign our hearts and have them tuned.

A simple test to see if we need a tune up, is to ask the questions, “Am I willing to put God first? Am I willing to yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit? Am I willing to submit to Father and undergo a change that will make me more like Him?” If we are not willing, a follow up question of, “why,” may suggest which strings need to be adjusted most. Hopefully, for most of us, it is only a few strings that are out of key and not the whole piano.

The prophet Alma further teaches us that being willing to experience this change of heart is synonymous to being spiritually born of God. This change allows us to receive the image of God within our countenances. He then asks a telling question, “if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:14, 26) This suggests to me that even though we have done good things in the past, and have felt the desire to serve God, our hearts are in need of constant tuning.

One thing that can help us to maintain these strong feelings in our hearts is to stay close to the Lord. If we remain steadfast and anchor our hearts with our faith in God, it is harder for them to wander. It is harder for them to slacken and get out of key. Tying our heartstrings to the will of God is the safest way to keep them properly tuned.

I have fond memories of our old upright in the small room of my parent’s home. I have newer memories of my son playing the same piano, properly tuned. With a little bit of care and attention the instrument is performing better than ever, ready for the next song to be discovered.

This is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.