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The Melody of Life: Beginning, Ending, and Seasons In Between

For a number of years now, I have served as the drummer and occasional lead or background vocalist for the Duncan L. Wood Band, which is based in Elon, VA, just north of Lynchburg, VA (see When I first began practicing and performing with this formidable group of iron-clad melody makers, I was a decidedly "green" musician. I knew virtually nothing about music theory and little about musical aesthetics, which placed me firmly at the bottom of the band's "totem a la chops." My only real skill (if one were being quite generous with accolades) was that I could keep relatively good time on a drum. So, because I had nothing else to offer, I became the band's drummer, and today I sit confidently behind my Roland drum set, having received the graces and mercies of Duncan Wood (band leader and namesake, guitarist, and designated lead vocalist), Herb Chamberlain (keyboard), and "Grumpy" John Bullington (bass). Although I will never be a virtuoso on the drums, I am certainly much more technically proficient than I could have ever become absent the extraordinary mentorship of my bandmates.

However, I must give Duncan the most credit for teaching me the science and art of music. As an experienced and acclaimed music teacher and songwriter, Duncan has an innate knack for making people better musicians, no matter their starting points. And one of the first things Duncan taught me is what I have come to refer to as the "movements of melody and songwriting." That is to say, good melodies are never mono-elemental; instead, they involve intentional movements from one melodic element to another in an artistic flow that results (if done well) in consonance, energy, and aural-spiritual pleasure. Any given song that makes the Top-40 or has resilience in the music industry probably contains an instrumental introduction that transitions smoothly into a verse, then a chorus, then another verse, then a second chorus, followed by an instrumental bridge, then another verse and chorus, and, finally, some sort of instrumental ending, often containing a retardando and/or combination sustained chord/cymbal crash. The introduction, of course, prepares the "ear" for what is to come, the verses tell the story of the song, the choruses provide the moralistic (or other) theme, the bridge offers a sabbatical from the routine, the third verse and chorus impart nostalgia and/or renewed vigor, and the ending brings it all to a tidy close. And that, my friends, is melody making (in a nutshell, of course)!

But, in a recent moment of philosophical musing, it occurred to me that melody making is not limited to guitars, keyboards, and songwriters. Indeed, there is an overarching and discernible melody to life. Each and every one of us had an introduction...a moment in time when we were born and a period of time wherein our parents or guardians prepared us for adulthood. We then moved into the verses and choruses of our lives, where our stories unfolded before the world and where we learned the moral and experiential lessons of human frailty and victory. For those of us who are a little older, what followed was most likely a time of reset. Be it a mid-life crisis, born-again experience, or philosophical revelation, we bridged the old self with the new and forged ahead with fresh purpose, direction, and motivation for future. This, of course, led to a reinvigorated story and renewed philosophical and moral themes, all laced with a bit of nostalgia. As a middle-aged man, this is where I currently find myself, as do many of my readers. We have arrived at our third verses and choruses and, though we still experience the inevitable line-by-line ups and downs of life's melody, we remain optimistic about tomorrow and hopeful in purpose and legacy.

Nevertheless, I am living out this present newness of life in the shadow of its impending denouement. And as most songwriters will attest, the song's ending is far more important than most presume. The ending is the bookend to the song--the last melodic turn the listener hears and the first thing she remembers. A good ending brings closure and satisfaction, while a bad one leaves the listener unfulfilled and wanting. And, so, I routinely ask myself, "Will I close my life with a rock-n-roll, crescendoing crash, an inconclusive fade out, or an anti-climactic retardando?" That is, will I go out in positive, legacy-inducing energy, will I just sort of fade away in obscurity, or will I continue to slow down until at last I close my eyes for the final time? Moreover, I sometimes use my imagination to project my consciousness past the day of my death and wonder how my melody is remembered. Was it euphonious and pleasant, or did it grate and ring in discord? Did I make beautiful music, or did I merely sound a gong or clang a symbol (1 Cor. 13:1)? Did I make a difference, or did I simply exist? These are the questions that keep me (and many others) up at nights.

Fortunately, as long as we have breath left in our lungs, our songs are never over! I remember a number of occasions when, while performing in concert, someone in our band missed a chord, fouled a chorus, or botched an instrumental. In these moments, Duncan simply and furtively shot us one of his patient, constructively critical glances to get us back on track, and then all was right again. In fact, I don't remember our band ever foozling an ending. We made the necessary corrections along the way; thus, when the last note came, we were all on time and in tune. Would the majority of our audiences say we are the best band they've ever heard? I doubt it. But they would no doubt agree that we made beautiful music, even in the midst of our imperfections. And I trust the same can be true regarding the melody of life. You see, our melodies are introduced and played out in the verses, choruses, and bridges that represent the seasons of our lives and the fortunate and unfortunate trappings thereof. But it is the ending that makes all the difference, because it is in the ending that we demonstrate who we have truly become in story, theme, and revival. I am singing my renewed verses and choruses today, but I know I am sometimes out of tune, my verse-chorus transitions are all-too-frequently rough, and my chord progressions are again and again wrong. Still, I am making my fine-tuning adjustments along the way; therefore, I am confident the ending--whether of the rock-n-roll sort or not--will be just right!

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