My mother has a picture of me as a baby plunking the keys of a piano. I began lessons when I was three; I could read music before I could read words. I wrote my first piece when I was five. It wasn’t much, but I placed my notes on the right lines and spaces and used the correct number of beats per measure.
My parents introduced me to music; they also introduced me to Jesus. Music and faith have been essential parts of my being for as long as I can remember. In high school I sensed the two were interconnected and that part of my calling as a Christian included being a musician, so I pursued a music degree in college.
My husband and I married right after college and had two kids within the next three years. Like every mom with young children, I had decisions to make regarding work and child care. Trained in both piano and saxophone, I decided to teach privately. The flexibility allowed me to work around my family’s needs. A few years later when my husband felt called to attend seminary, we moved halfway across the country and I “set up shop” there as well, teaching as much as I could.
Teaching kids and serving as a pianist at church used only a small fraction of what I was able to do. I sometimes feared I was sinning against the Lord and wasting my talent by burying it. After some time, my husband and I decided that we needed to homeschool our children. I knew my college degree and background in education would be put to good use, but I still wondered if I should be doing more music.
II Timothy 2:21 says that we are to be vessels “set apart as holy, useful to the Master, ready for every good work.” More than anything, I wanted to be a servant faithful to my Lord. I wasn’t sure what being useful as a musician meant, or what good works looked like in terms of music, but I knew that I needed to be ready. So, I made an effort to prepare myself for further musical work.
For years, I practiced. I taught myself new material, though I didn’t have time to work on anything particularly impressive; some days I could only play scales and arpeggios. I dabbled in composition; I read theory and composition books and wrote a few rather bad pieces. I wanted to have something to present if I ever had the chance to go back to school. I gained skills and hoped God would allow me to use them someday.
I did contribute toward “good works” during those years of waiting. First, I modeled practicing. My children learned that a mom is her own person with her own interests, her own skills, her own goals, and her own needs. There were times they played in the playpen while I practiced; other times they sat on my lap while I played Beethoven sonatas, dodging their little hands that were trying to play along. I am convinced those early years of observation influenced their own practice ethic later on. They were both offered enormous music scholarships to college.
Second, some of my students were challenged taking lessons from me. I have been commended many times for my patience, but that doesn’t mean that some students have not cried during lessons. One boy in particular brought bad habits he learned from a previous teacher. Undoing them was a painful process for both he and I, but he became one of my favorite students; I was extremely sad when his family moved away. A few years later, I received a CD in the mail. He had been selected to be a junior ambassador for the United States and had recorded the CD to raise money! In her note, his mom told me how my work with her was a key part of his being able to participate in this opportunity.
Third, when my family moved back to Rhode Island, I had the idea to start a music program for homeschoolers. Over the last ten years, my husband (also a musician) and two friends of ours have had the privilege of teaching a number of students instrumental and vocal skills, music history and appreciation, and music theory. Several of our students now serve on the worship teams at their local churches; a few have decided to pursue music on a professional level in various ways; many have grown in confidence; my intermediate and advanced theory students have written original four-part hymn-style chorales; the class my husband teaches on world music has helped to develop appreciation for other cultures. I know this program is one of the “good works” God gave me to do while I was waiting.
After fifteen years of preparation, I finally had the opportunity to go back to school at age 37 to study composition and piano through the continuing education program at New England Conservatory. In only five years, my career has taken off faster than I expected. I have made new connections with musicians in my community, I have had increasing opportunities to work as an accompanist, and my compositions are getting performed.
I once thought that the interconnection of faith and music in my life would have a specific theme or form. But looking back I see that, like a through-composed piece of music that has different melodies and motivic development in each section, each phase of my life has brought about different “good works” for me to do. My responsibility is to be ready and to do the good works at hand which God has given me to do, whatever they might be. May I be useful to my Master.
Heather Niemi Savage - composer, music teacher, and collaborative pianist
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Photo by Clark Young