Recently I stopped by a music store in town to buy banjo strings. I hadn’t been in the store for at least ten years. I remembered it as a bustling hive of kids and grown-ups trying out guitars, pianos, clarinets; browsing through racks of sheet music and instruction books; going in and out of the back rooms for lessons. This time, it was almost empty—partly the result of the guitar mega-store that had opened on the highway.
What had also changed was the owner, whom I’ll call the music man. He had slowed, acquired a tremor, and lost the steadiness of his speech. To me the change in him, along with the decline in his business, was wrenching, a physical shock. I had expected, without knowing it, that he and his store had remained and would remain the lively hub that I had known. As I left the store I anguished over what the music man’s life had felt like over the last few years. What had been the satisfaction, the worth of it all, as he became ill and his business dropped off? In life, did aspiration and effort always lose out this way to decay? Though I’m in relatively good health, I knew I was asking about myself as well.
But such spasms of pity are distortions of sorts. My sorrow for the music man was based on a very limited view. I had no way of knowing how he saw himself. He had had many years of teaching music to people of all ages, a legacy to be proud of, though whether he was or not I don’t know. And he had music itself as a constant source of joy, presumably. Human sympathy often overgeneralizes. When we feel sad or compassionate for someone or for a group, we easily forget to ask about their ordinary pleasures— in family, community, nature, imagination, music. Sympathy can turn patronizing. I had fallen part way into that trap.
Still, I couldn’t put down the question that the music man had handed me: what is the value, the worth, of the arc of our lives? Our inner voice, the way we talk to ourselves about ourselves, prompts us to feel that we matter. Do we? There are many responses to that question—lessons about change, the illusory self, and larger realities, and in this blog I describe my own beliefs. But they are all stymied for a moment when we encounter someone who, like a mirror, reflects back at us the starkness of the passage of time and the frailty of joy.
There is another “Music Man.” The 1950s stage musical and film of that name describes the charming con man Harold Hill who arrives in an Iowa town to sell musical instruments and uniforms for the kids with the promise that he will teach them to play and will organize a band. Hill falls in love with the town librarian, who knows he is a fraud, keeps the secret to herself, and loves him anyway. Just when Hill, exposed by someone else, is being put in handcuffs, the instruments and uniforms arrive. Quickly the children appear in their uniforms, magically playing a Beethoven minuet haltingly and then, full bore, the rousing finale of “Seventy-six Trombones.” All is forgiven.
“The Music Man” shows another kind of big-picture consolation about time and fate. It is a romanticized version of the Christian response: the sinner is redeemed by love, death is defeated by grace. Perhaps the music man in my town likes this story. But as I see it, much as music itself is most compelling when one person plays it and another listens, our human condition, transient yet often dignified, comes home to us most forcefully when we witness it in another.