Play Along

I am bent over a piano in one of the soundproof rooms of Smith Hall. I’ve been here for hours. It’s Jan Term 1993, and I made the mistake of enrolling in Music Composition as my elective. Our assignment: Write a piece of music.

I want it to be beautiful. Perfect. Amazing. I want it to be unique and original. Wow-worthy. I want to impress Dr. Rohlig. It is way more work than I expected.

I enrolled in the class for two reasons:

1. I thought it would be fun and easy.
2. I wanted to spend more time with Dr. Rohlig.

1. I was dead wrong.
2. It was worth it.

I stumble into the classroom the next day clutching my music score in my hand. It’s six hard-won bars, hand-written on a blank printed staff. Dr. Rohlig comes into the classroom with his rolling gait, head tucked down, smiling.

“Ohkay, how are you? How are you? It’s good to see you, Oh, hello,” he says in his deep, rolling German accent. He takes attendance: “Heather, are you here, Heather? Oh yes, I know you are. Hello,” and on down the roster.

When it is time, he asks who would like to show their work first. I raise my hand. I always like to be first. He looks over my score, pleasure etched in his features:

“Oh, very nice. Shall we listen?”

He sits down at the piano and plunks out the notes written on my paper. It sounds pretty good, actually, not bad, for several hours of agonizing work. It’s nice, you know.

Then he adds a few chords. Really nice. A moment later, we are all listening to him run riffs and variations, up and down, adding harmony and sub-melodies until my music, my six scruffy hand-written bars, sound like something that ought to be performed in front of hundreds.

When he is done, we applaud loudly. I am so proud. He talks about the piece as though it were a great work of art, adding layers of depth and meaning that I didn’t know existed in it. It’s a beautiful moment.

Then the next person gets up. Now I KNOW this next guy is here for the easy credit. He’s a slacker, lazy t-shirt, lazy hair, lazy posture. He ambles up to the front and sits down at the piano. He doesn’t even have anything written down. It’s like he’s not even trying.

He throws out some chords, obviously making it up as he goes, so much bull crap. Dr. Harald Rohlig writes intricate and esoteric modern classical music that is renowned around the world, so I know he knows exactly how much this thing sucks.

His smile never falters. Dr. Rohlig survived Hitler, he can deal with this. He walks over to the piano. He stands over Mr. Lazy-Pants, still smiling. Just smiling and smiling. You know this is going to be good, right?

And then he sits down and starts to play, right alongside the kid. He plays a counterpoint, adds some chords, takes over one portion. He makes it beautiful. It’s beautiful. Stunning, actually.

I am agog. This is so. not. fair.

I adored Dr. Rohlig. We all did. A child prodigy, he survived the Nazi regime, came to America, built a world-renowned reputation as a composer, and settled in humble Montgomery, Alabama to compose and teach, and touch the lives of lowly students like me. And, apparently, slackers like Lazy Pants.

Harald Rohlig

It was Dr. Rohlig to whom I turned when I was torn up inside from an abusive relationship, Dr. Rohlig who always understood, always knew just how to talk to me. When Dr. Rohlig spoke, a person listened, because whatever came out of that brilliant, profound, loving heart was worth hearing.

So it bugged me that he treated us all the same. His smile was not reserved for the hard workers, the good kids, the talented ones, or even just the ones who actually cared. He treated us all as though we were all equally worthy of his attention and time. Not fair. I wanted to be special.

I’m still that way. I think it’s part of the same drive that pushes me to perfect. If I’m just good enough, if I just try a little harder, shine a little brighter, the important people will notice me. Hey Dr. Rohlig, look! Look at meeeeee! Maybe God Godself will look upon my countenance and smile (a special smile, just for me): Well done, my good and faithful child, God will say. If I just try hard enough.

It’s a sickness, actually. And wrong-headed. We are all beautiful sparks, children of God, no work required to belong on this train.

And whatever gifts we bring, God does just like Dr. Rohlig. All we gotta do is show up and bring something, and God will sit right down beside us and play along, turning whatever we’ve got, whatever lazy pants piece of bull crap we’ve brought, into something beautiful.

Well, I guess I can live with that.

P.S. Dr. Rohlig, despite the fact that he was already a triple bypass survivor when I knew him, is still alive and composing in Montgomery, Alabama. The wikipedia article about his life and work does not do him justice.

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