Friday, April 3, 2015

On the Third Day

Well it's Holy Week, and I'm a church organist, so what do you suppose I've been doing all week. Preparing for Easter services?

You'd be wrong about that. Mostly.

I like to prepare pieces I'm going to play with plenty of lead time since it is time that allows from the greatest familiarity and comfort in performances. Therefore, I am likely to work the hardest on the piece or pieces I will be playing the following week, which is how I spent much of my time.

Oh, I sketched my improvised introduction to the opening hymn on Wednesday, and I also dusted off the Widor Toccata yesterday. That didn't take much time since I've been playing it for over a decade. I play it in church once a year, on Easter, and occasionally for weddings and funerals by request. I spent as much time setting the pistons (which thanks to the organ's new memory capacity I will never have to set again!) as playing the piece, the bulk of which turns out to still be memorized, which is handy if you have no limbs free to turn pages and don't wish to commandeer a page turner.

Knowing that I could probably pull these elements together in a short amount of time, I spent the first portion of the week learning something new. This is always uncomfortable at first. In the beginning I tended to miss a lot of pedal notes, since there was not only a fair amount of coordination between the limbs to be gotten used to, the pedal was largely on the far right of the pedal board so I was feeling a bit off balance. By the second day I was starting to feel less clumsy about the whole operation. And then on the third, a miracle happened.

Perhaps I ought not overstate this. But I do find it really interesting that nearly every piece I can remember starting, if it is either fairly short, or uncomplicated, or at least if it is not a major work for organ lasting tens of pages (in which case it may take a couple of weeks), seems to come together in three days.  Even back in college I remember the contents of pieces starting to rapidly affix themselves to my mind--become memorized, and familiar--on the third day of practice. It has happened so often now I look for it.

I wonder if the ancients didn't notice patterns of this sort. One semester in college I noticed it rained every Thursday for a couple of months and wondered if weather patterns often tend to cycle in six or seven day increments with any regularity. It has happened many times since then (it snowed every Sunday during Advent one year) though there may be many unnoted exceptions. But why seven? Or six? Did anyone have a five day week back then? Or eight?

That may seem to be the right length for a cycle of labor and leisure, but the number three has done far more duty. It is a magic number; it is a holy number; it is a convention in story telling, and it, too, sometimes has to be fudged.

You'll note that so far I've left out the biggest three of them all, the one that occurs this weekend in the Christian calendar. On the third day, he rose again from the dead.

The problem with that formulation is that people can't be counted on to preserve it exactly as stated. So it becomes, not "on the third day" but "in three days" or "three days later" which is not the same thing. That would have made Easter a Monday or Tuesday. Besides, picking a few nits, we observe that Christ died in the middle of the day on Friday, and rose before dawn on Sunday, which is really only a day and a half, which is considerably less than three. But three it is. As long as you include the day of death and count the day of resurrection, you can get three in there. Just like the sign of Jonah: "for as Jonah was three days in the belly of the whale, the son of man was three days in the belly of the earth." More or less. If you count it right.

There is a bit of abstraction in there, and a looking for patterns. Sometimes we find them because we look. I should point out that while the piece I am working on seems to have come together on the third day, it is hardly ready for prime time. It will need another day or two before it can be aired on the first try amidst distractions and nerves. This third day is partially a sudden awareness of comfortability and the fulfillment of the promise of the first two day's work, but not a sign of completion. It is there, and yet it is not there.

That is how mystical numbers and signs work anyhow. Part of it is given, and part of it is what we make of it.

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