Inspiring a Stranger

28 10 2008

This is going to be a long post. I hope you’ll hang in there for the ride, because this is one of the most extraordinary things that has happened to me since we moved, maybe even in my life.

I debated for a while whether or not to share it. Mostly, I don’t want this to come across as fishing for a compliment. But it was a way in which I so clearly saw God moving in and through me that it almost feels wrong to keep it all to myself. My hope is that this story will simply point you toward the goodness and graciousness of God, who uses messy, imperfect humans in His endeavor to draw all men unto Himself.

Here goes.

One of the hardest parts about moving to Gallup has been giving up my piano-teaching studio in Colorado. Some of my students had such potential, and I earnestly hope that they are still pursuing their piano studies with new teachers.

It’s not so much that I enjoy imparting knowledge (of which I really don’t have that much), but rather it’s that I have a passion for inspiring people. I love to see people become deeply passionate about whatever it is that they do, especially if it involves making music. I think that, more than my ability to teach piano, what made teaching lessons so precious to me was helping to light a fire within my students that I hope will stay with them their entire lives.

The best decision I made during the nine months that I taught lessons was to take my students and their parents to the Denver Symphony Orchestra for a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Not all my students got the same benefit from it, but for a few of them, I could see that sparkle in their eyes that told me they were picturing themselves sitting at that same piano bench performing later in life. How I hope it happens!

Since our move, I have lamented not being able to continue to play the role of the inspirer and encourager.

That is, until September 5, 2008.

Nearly two months ago now, I stumbled across a stranger’s blog. The stranger’s name is Shirley Buxton. She is a pastor’s wife, author and grandmother who lives in Arizona. On that day, I saw her blog featured on the front page of WordPress and was immediately drawn because of the title of her latest blog entry, “Should Music Lessons be Forced?”

In that blog post, she told of her 11-year old grandson, Nathaniel Cowen, whose mother, Rebecca, had recently taken him out of drum lessons and put him into classical piano lessons instead. Although he seemed a natural at piano, he didn’t like the switch at all. And even though his grandmother praised him in her blog for how well he had recently played a piano piece for her, it seemed that his interest in piano was still nonexistent.

Here’s an excerpt of what Shirley noted about Rebecca’s decision:

“Nathaniel loved drum. He hates piano. (He still has a fine drum set, practices and plays for an occasional youth service at his church.) ‘Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have a student such as Nathaniel; someone who hates it so much,’ his teacher recently told Rebecca. ‘But he is so talented, I want to keep teaching him.'”

Shirley went on to ask for opinions as to whether or not music lessons should be forced.

For some reason, I just knew in my heart that it was very important for me to write an answer and post it on Shirley’s blog. It took me two days to finish writing it. When I was done, this is what I sent:

“Let me preface this by saying I play piano, drums, and guitar. I have opened for major-label bands, and I have worked as a studio musician on recording projects.

“My parents made piano lessons available to me throughout my childhood but never forced them upon me. I believe if they had, I would not be a musician today. I learned by my own choice, in large part because my parents helped me see what learning piano could do for me, and that made all the difference.

“This is what it really comes down to: A person won’t benefit from lessons they don’t want. But you CAN help someone want lessons, and that’s the key.

“It seems to me like you’re asking the wrong question — that is, ‘Should we make Nathaniel take piano lessons or not?’ The question you SHOULD be asking is, ‘Is there some way we can encourage Nathaniel to WANT to take piano lessons?’

“I guess you could force him, but he’ll be resentful. He’ll perhaps learn the components of music, but never fully develop that ‘it’ factor that separates piano drones from actual musicians.

“But if you can instill in him the desire to want to learn piano, the developing love of it will propel him forward and make him into an accomplished musician, in a way that may never make sense to you, but that he will understand in the core of his innermost being.

“If I were able to write a personal letter to Nathaniel (realizing, of course, that I am a complete stranger, so take this with a grain of salt) here is what I would say to this 11-year old aspiring musician:”

Dear Nathaniel,

It sounds like you (like myself) really enjoy being a musician when you’re playing drums. And who can blame you? Drums are quite possibly the coolest instrument on the planet. No modern band could possibly survive without drums, and there’s nothing in the world like being a drummer. It’s something that people who don’t play drums can’t really understand, but that we drummers grasp just like that.

There’s something I learned along the way, though. Although every band needs a drummer, every drummer also needs a band. There will be times when you want to sit down, perhaps all by yourself, and express yourself through music in a way that you could never express yourself through words alone. When I’m playing in a band with friends, I love to be behind the drum set. But the times when music has meant the most to me in my life, I have found I’m sitting at a piano, not at the drums.

I would have never guessed that my knowledge of piano would actually make me a better drummer. In fact, since piano is a rhythm instrument, I found that the more I learned on the piano, the more naturally drumming came to me. It made it easier to learn guitar, too. I think many people might approach piano a little differently if they knew they could consider it another method of training their brain to become better at drumming, or better at strumming complicated rhythms on the guitar.

You may also find someday that you enjoy songwriting. In the music industry, I can tell you that almost every good song in the world gets written at the piano. They may eventually be played on the guitar, but if you ever want to write, the ability to play the piano will prove invaluable.

I said before that every drummer needs a band. You’ve probably never been to a solo concert where the musician played nothing but drums. It doesn’t work. But think of the times when your family sits to listen to you play the piano. Even if the songs you’ve learned to play aren’t your favorite songs or your favorite style, you can’t deny that you love what it does to the people listening. They sit, captivated, moved in their hearts in a way they can’t explain. And you’re the one who has the ability to evoke that emotion in them. It’s that love right there — not really the love of playing the piano, but rather the love of impacting people through the language of music — that drives people to want to become better musicians.

Picture yourself at the end of your teens. You’re almost 20, you’re sitting in a living room late at night with a group of friends and family. Something major has just happened. Maybe someone close has passed away. Maybe the country has faced another disaster of some sort. People sit silently, and no one really knows what to say. You quietly sit down at the piano bench, and you start to make music that, if played on any other instrument, wouldn’t have the effect it’s having now. But something in the notes you play calms the hearts of the people in that room and brings you all together.

The question, Nathaniel, is whether or not you want to have the ability to be that person.

Agreeing to take piano lessons isn’t agreeing to be forced into a lifetime of music that you don’t enjoy. It’s not limiting you to an instrument that’s not your favorite. Rather, it will open doors for you in all of your musical pursuits, no matter what kind of music you choose to make in your life, no matter what instrument you consider your favorite. Piano lessons can only help you, my friend. If you go down this road, you will eventually understand what it means to be able to sit down and pour out your heart, even if no one else is around, using a language that every person in the world understands. Nathaniel, there’s honestly nothing else like it in the whole world.

But no one can make you WANT to do it. Sure, they can force you to take lessons even if you don’t want to. I don’t recommend that they do it, because more likely than not, you might have music ruined for you in your childhood by having it turned into a chore instead of a passion.

I will tell you this, though — your mind right now is the sharpest it will ever be when it comes to music. Your 11-year old brain is capable of learning things in just minutes that will take you days when you’re older. If you can look inside yourself and find that desire to learn now, you will learn as much in a year of piano lessons at your current age than you will be able to learn in five years of lessons when you’re an adult.

You probably look at piano lessons right now, and what you find is probably not a love for piano. Other instruments are easier to love, and that’s okay. But just by knowing that you’re already good at the piano pieces you’ve learned, I think that somewhere deep inside of you, there just might be a love for piano that you aren’t even aware of yet. It may turn into a passion that leads you down musical roads that your young mind hasn’t yet even considered. Would it be worth approaching lessons willingly, even eagerly, for the next couple of years, just to determine whether there really is a love for piano somewhere in your heart that you have yet to discover?

Without telling you what to choose, I encourage you, young friend, to consider it.

I made the decision when I was your age to take piano lessons and see what developed. The impact it has had on my life has made all the boring practices worth it. Because, you see, as I learned, little by little it all became less boring. By the time I was 15, it was the most interesting thing in the world, and I hadn’t even realized that it had changed.

You and I are two completely different people. It might not work out exactly the same way for you that it did for me. But I’ve never met someone who approached piano with a willing heart, even if it wasn’t what they really wanted to learn at the time, and ended up disappointed. Like me, they’ve all found that it was worth the effort. I suspect that if you’re willing, it will work out that way for you, too.

However this works out for you, I wish you the best in your musical pursuits. I have been blessed in my lifetime by being able to play music — on the drums, the guitar, and most of all the piano. May you find similar blessings in your own life as well.

All the best,
Rob in Gallup

When it was all done and sent, I actually felt a little silly. It seemed almost ridiculous to have written such an imploring letter to someone who I would likely never meet, or for all I knew, whose grandmother wouldn’t even greenlight such an overly-emotional comment on her blog.

I was humbled by her response. Shirley wrote back to me the following:

“Rob in Gallup:

“I have been writing this column for 2 1/2 years now, and have had some touching and meaningful exchanges. None have exceeded yours, Rob. Let me tell you why.

“The first reason is that you – a person Nathaniel does not know, and I do not know – took time to respond to the concerns of these unknown people; a grandmother, a mother, and an 11-year old boy. Without commenting now on the excellence on your advice, let me say how struck I am with the kindness and thoughtfulness you have shown – that of true concern of one human being for another. Thank you. In this troubled, confused world, you truly shine as a beacon.

“Your expression of the soul and passion of a musician is eloquently done, and not only will speak to Nathaniel, but has to me, and will to every reader of this column.

“The computer in Nathaniel’s home is not functioning properly, and until a few minutes ago, I was not able to reach them by phone. But now I have, and have read your beautiful, moving words to Rebecca, his mother. She listened silently, obviously touched by your expression, before commenting.

“Tomorrow, he will read your post, and it will move him profoundly; he is a sensitive, deeply feeling young man. (Can also be a rascal!)

“I suspect Nathaniel may want to communicate with you. If he does, I’ll check with you before giving him your email address.

“God bless you.”

Honestly, I was very surprised by her response, and humbled to think that she would actually want to share it with her grandson. Even more surprising was another woman who posted a comment, asking if she could use the same letter to share with her own children, substituting their names for Nathaniel’s.

I was touched, humbled and pleased to think that, even here, in a small town in New Mexico, I still might be able to play some small part (through the internet, of all unlikely venues) in awakening a desire to pursue music in someone else.

Today, I got a response that astonished me and made it all worthwhile.

Nathaniel’s mother, Rebecca, posted the following as a comment on Shirley’s blog:

“Dear Rob in Gallup,

“Miracles do happen! My computer, with the help of a great friend, has risen from the dead!

“Nathaniel and I sat in the library a couple weeks back and read for ourselves the extraordinary, inspired words.

“I wish you could see the change, feel the passion that you have ignited, to such a degree that Ms. Val, his piano teacher, wanted to know what happened!

“He won a medal this past week for composing a song, ‘The Happy Bounce,’ and for completing some theory requirements. For a Christmas present next year, he wants to play for me ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ Miss Val thinks he can do it. So do I.

“Thank you. Sincerely, I thank you.”

I held it together until I got to the part about Moonlight Sonata. Any of my friends or relatives who know me well are fully aware that this beautiful piece by Beethoven is, hands down, my favorite piano piece ever composed, and the piece I am most proud to be able to play from memory.

When I reached that part of Rebecca’s response, I lost it.

Sitting in my office, tears came to my eyes and ran down my face. All I could do was thank God for so generously allowing me to play some small role of inspiration in the life of an aspiring, young musician. I am extremely humbled, and so incredibly grateful, that even amidst my current circumstances, being so far away from home and working at a decidedly non-musical job, God could still connect me to another family and give me His words to inspire this young man.

While I am not one of those people who believes that God intentionally micromanages every exacting detail of every situation, no one will ever be able to convince me that God was not pulling some strings on September 5, 2008, to make sure that Shirley’s blog post just happened to be featured on WordPress that day, and to make sure that I was at the computer to see it.

I truly hope that Nathaniel pursues the passion for piano that he has just begun to discover, and that it will both bless him and enable him to be a blessing to others.

Perhaps someday, if God allows, I will have the extraordinary privilege of being invited to hear firsthand, maybe in a concert hall, maybe in a rock venue, maybe in a church, the music of a stranger, an accomplished pianist by the name of Nathaniel Cowen.




16 responses

28 10 2008
Jon Schroeder


That was awesome. That is all.


28 10 2008

Ditto Jon

28 10 2008

Super awesome, dude.

28 10 2008
Emily S

wow this is absolutely amazing. Jenilee has found the same thing, that if she explains to her students how learning piano will open up the rest of the world of music, they are much more enthusiastic to learn the piano. I hope someday you do get to watch Nathaniel play, no matter what instrument. I am proud of you! Love you!

28 10 2008
Edie C.

As I’ve said before, God is using you! Can’t wait to see what He does next.

28 10 2008

Rob, when you are gifted…. you have to share!!! Gods rule …. thanks for helping a friends grandson. You will be blessed!

28 10 2008

Rob, Rebecca is my sis and I will tell you first hand, what you took the time to write, and the way you let God guide you will I believe forever touch Nathaniel’s musical and spiritual life. Thanks and God bless your every venture. Mike Buxton

28 10 2008

Hey, thanks for stopping by my blogspot. Yep, it’s the same bakery you’re thinking of. The “help wanted” sign wasn’t in the window today. I’m not available until 11/20, so I didn’t really expect them to wait for me. It’s all about God’s timing.

With preschoolers, you need Miss PattyCake in your life! Check out her “stuff” — 10 DVDs, an awesome lullaby CD (Goodnight World), etc. It’s all JUST for parents of preschoolers — to support the parents as they teach their little ones to listen to & obey God.

Blessings! Thanks for playing with my kid (Giles).

28 10 2008

I am a close, life-long friend of Shirley, Rebecca, and Nathaniel. Thank You for all you’ve done to inspire Nathaniel. I believe that God used you in this situation. Thanks for allowing yourself to be used by Him.

I wish some day you could meet Nate The Great. He is a very special boy with an obvious touch of God upon his life. My family will be in Albuquerque after Christmas – is that far from Gallup? Perhaps I could stuff him in my tote bag and bring him with me. It would be very cool for him to meet you. And – you would be impressed with his musical talent. He’s been tapping out rhythms since he was a toddler.

Thanks again Rob, I’ve been blessed to be a witness to this unlikely exchange. Reading your post today brought tears to my eyes. Thank You, you’ve also inspired me.

29 10 2008

You have a God-given gift to be a natural teacher! Not, as you say, necessarily from your “wealth” of knowledge (which you do have some) – we have plenty of those kinds of teachers. It is more that you teach others how to become interested, to have a passion, to light a fire…you teach them how to want to learn, and from their they will for the rest of their lives. I think you could teach anything you put your mind to, because of that. You also put ideas/instruction into understandable terms (like for me with computers – lol). Aside from being a natural teacher, you are gifted in music, words, computers, art, cooking, etc. there are so many….maybe that stems from your own passion to learn all that you can from the things that interest you. I think you’re the greatest! Lean in to God; He’s got big plans for you! Love you so much

29 10 2008

Ditto, to all of the above!

30 10 2008

That’s awesome, Rob. Thanks for the post. You’ve inspired me, too.

30 10 2008

LOL – no warning on length needed, Rob – I always read through to the end. 🙂 I think that God does use people in strange ways. I call them “tweaked.” We could never come up with what He does; He tweaks situations so that the best can come forth. I wish I’d been able to have that motivation passed to me when I was taking piano lessons! (I did stick with my violin lessons tho because I loved it, and consequently I still play my electric violin for church). I completely agree that it was a God thing for you to read that blog on that particular day. God is amazing and though it sounds funny to write down, I’m proud that you followed his leading.

31 10 2008
penne pasta

What a gift you’ve given this man, Lord.

31 10 2008

Rob, I sit here reading, my face drenched with tears. The tears are joyous and peaceful ones, distinctly marked as having no relationship to tears of frustration, sorrow and distress.

These are tears of thanksgiving in acknowledgement of God so loving you, Rob of Gallup, and Rebecca and Nathaniel of San Bernardino, and me of Lake Havasu that He leaned over in Heaven one day, and must have said, “Think I’ll do a little extra special work today.” He moved on me to write a few words at a certain time and arranged for you to read them at a crucial moment. For God–the Supreme Being–had seen your need and Nathaniel’s need, and “said,” I know how to effect a resolution here.”

So the tears I shed are in great part a response to the realization that God is real, that He cares about my every-day happenings, and that He is directly involved in my life. That continues to astonish me: I think I will never grow accustomed to such a thought. And He cares and sees Nathaniel and Rob and Rebecca in the same way. It is far more than I can grasp.

Thank you for your part in this godly happening.

I’m in Tucson for a conference, and believe Gallup is not terribly far away. Some day perhaps we will meet here or elsewhere.

God’s blessings continue on you and your work for His Kingdom.

Shirley Buxton

3 11 2008

The people who have inspired me have made my life beautiful, bountiful, rich. They have walked me from a small understanding of something into a grand and unfolding yearning for all that is there that I do not know. And always, God is in the works. Thank you so much for blogging this.

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