Profile of a friend: The Music Man

This post is part of an ongoing Saturday series profiling friends of the author—and perhaps friends of yours.

He is one of those people I know I must have met at some point, but I feel like I have always known.

We must have met at some point in my first year of college, probably as the result of an audition process for a choir we both ended up joining in the autumn of that year.

That year, we lived in twin buildings, he and I. His, the original, had been built in 1763, and mine, completed in 1805, was built to match. There are subtle differences between the two, both in form and in history. While his featured brick ridges between each row of windows, mine featured stone lintels above each frame. His was used to house Continental troops during the Revolution, and was home to several esteemed firstyears—Emerson, Thoreau, Updike, and Santayana among them. Mine had a shorter list of celebrity occupants (including Horatio Alger and Robert Lincoln, son of the president), but claimed the honor of being designed by Charles Bullfinch, America’s first architectural son.

When I think of the two buildings in which we both lived that first year, it seems that they very much resemble our friendship. While we differ in the details, we have many of the most important things in common.

In our own way, we’re both deeply religious people. I’m Lutheran; he’s Catholic, and we each enjoy ribbing the other for his failure to see the truth. On the whole, my approach is more faith-based, while his strikes me as more traditional; it is clear to me that he deeply respects the mysteries of the Church, even if he cannot always bring himself to swallow all that his church teaches. Indeed, on some level, I know few people who are more devout. We have had long and profound conversations regarding both of our ideas on the subject—really, some of the best conversations I’ve ever had. And every year on Good Friday, we were accustomed to go to the morning service together, and coffee afterwards. This year I went alone and certainly felt his absence.

Like me, he is an incredibly pragmatic person, and I think this is a large part of the reason we get along so well. Oh, we both dare to dream from time to time, but I think we spend most of our time firmly grounded in reality. Things were not always that way. I knew him when he was much more of an idealist, but people often change when circumstances change, and I think that when we entered college, we both confronted a different world than the one we had encountered thus far. Over the years, across a number of conversations about people, reality, and the interaction between the two, I think both of us grew up quite a bit. Now, like me, while he is not always so sanguine, he is always true.

Like me, he favors precision over ambiguity and commitment over vagaries. He sees the value of saying what you mean and meaning what you say, and rarely (if ever) does any differently. There may be nothing that annoys him more than doing something without a reason for doing it—for example, because “that’s what we’ve always done” or because “that’s just what everyone does.” He despises self-importance and putting on useless airs, he dislikes overly effusive people, and he appreciates silence.

I couldn’t agree more.

Unlike me, he is also very wise. Despite the fact that we are the same age, I often find myself looking up to him as I would to one much my senior. For this reason, I weigh his words quite heavily and tend to ask for his advice in the most serious of affairs. He is perceptive not only as to the ways of the world, but also as to my own character, and I always value what he has to say. When I am frustrated or apt to complain, he is well-equipped to lend a sympathetic ear—because I think he spends a fair amount of time being frustrated, too. The ability to see things clearly can be a burden in a world of people who, largely, do not.

Above and beyond all of this, though, I am always most in awe of him because of the music.

Who among us can truly say that we understand music? And yet, he does.

Being modest, he would say differently, of course. He would say that the more he learns, the more he sees he does not understand, or something like that. But for my money, I’ve never met anyone who gets music as well as he does—its structure, its ingredients, its secrets, and (most of all) its expression.

He is a keyboardist of the first rate, and conducts with the experience of someone twice his age. I sang in a chamber choir that he conducted for one year, and in that year, I learned more about music and what it means than I ever have before or since. I’ve always been trying to find a way to thank him for that. I guess I’m doing it here.

As I mentioned above, music was actually how we met: we both tried out for the same choir. (Luckily, we both got in, as well.) In experiencing that choral sound together for the first time and continuing to revel in it over the years, we became closer—and, later, when the bureaucracy and superciliousness of student organizations began to get to us both, we each had a friend in the other. He was the one who taught me to be “at” rehearsal rather than “in” rehearsal, as I may have mentioned at one point before.

Today, he is out there doing real things with music—not putzing around in a student choir, but learning and studying and making music at a university in Leeds. I have no doubt that this will not be the last we hear of him. In fact, I can’t wait to see the great and wonderful things he accomplishes with the knowledge he acquires there.

Committed to excellence and not satisfied with less, humblingly brilliant and brilliantly humble, he is the Music Man, and he is my friend.

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