Mr. Archie and Waiting in Advent

Every month, we pay a certain sum of money for music lessons. In theory, this […]

Carrie Willard / 12.18.19

Every month, we pay a certain sum of money for music lessons. In theory, this is so that our children will learn how to read music, perform in front of a crowd, and take direction. In reality, they learn so much more than that, and that music tuition is worth every penny.

Our youngest, Ben, is on his fourth violin teacher in as many years. One might think that he’s scaring them off, but we know that this is just the nature of the work. These are part-time music teachers, often working their way through graduate school with a combination of weekend gigs at weddings and ungrateful third-graders learning scales. Ben’s fourth teacher, Mr. Archie, seems like he drove off of the page of a children’s storybook and into the music studio.

Mr. Archie drives a motorcycle with a sidecar. He wears a colorful pocket square to recitals. He lets Ben play music from Star Wars. Ben treasures their thirty minutes together every week, and gets upset to miss a lesson. I repeat: my eight-year-old boy is upset to miss a violin lesson.

I’ve witnessed Mr. Archie’s magic up-close. One time, I was backstage as an accompanist for Ben’s performance. Another kid was holding his violin and it fell apart in his hands. I watched the whole thing go down. One minute, a kid was holding an intact violin, and the next minute, the violin was in pieces. Mr. Archie, without breaking a sweat, reassembled the violin before our very eyes. I don’t know how he did it. The kids were not flustered, because Mr. Archie was not flustered, or at least he wasn’t outwardly anxious in any way we could see. It was amazing. I’ve seen him kneel down on the stage to hold music for the teensy-tiniest violin players, whose instruments seem to be no bigger than the palm of my hand.

This past weekend, the music school held its recital at a local university. One adorable child after another filed on stage, played a piece, and took a bow. There were a lot of screechy versions of the Suzuki standards, which is par for the course for this type of event. My face hurts from smiling at the end of every recital, though, because I love watching the parents and grandparents watch their kid on stage, doing this thing that they’ve practiced to do for months. We all imagine these babies’ hands curled around our fingers, seemingly just minutes ago, and now they’re walking on a stage and performing music. It’s almost too much.

One student, a tween boy, got on stage with his violin, played a few notes, and froze. He stopped playing and looked around. We all held our breath. There was a moment of group panic by proxy. In less than a minute, Mr. Archie bounced on to the stage, his own violin in his hands. He stood next to the frozen boy and played the entire piece with him, first side-by-side, and then with Mr. Archie fading into the background. As they played together, it was impossible to tell which violin was playing, because the teacher matched the student so perfectly in tone and rhythm. That kid received the biggest round of applause of any performer that afternoon. We were all so relieved for the student, and so grateful for Mr. Archie. I don’t know that kid, but I saw him sobbing in the lobby afterward. I wanted to tell him that what people will remember from that day is not that he froze, but that he kept going. People will remember that Mr. Archie gave him a little nudge and then faded into the background. People will remember that he finished, and he did a really hard thing. I hope that by the time he went to bed that night, our applause started to drown out his sadness.

I think about the Mr. Archies in my life a lot. My kindergarten teacher had to teach a precocious five-year-old whose sisters had groomed her to believe that she knew everything already. My mom ran behind my bicycle, holding on to the seat long after I should have been able to do it myself, and launching me into the world in so many more ways than on two wheels. My dad gave us pep talks every day, and then had to leave us at school hoping that we’d retain some of his pep and most of his advice. Every boss, coach, and mentor who has ever had to call me out on my bullshit has played this role. These are the violin teachers who hop up on to the stage, play right alongside me, and then fade into the background to let me believe that I’m doing this all by myself. I’m finding myself trying to fade into the background myself, as my own kids gain more independence and tend not to have the same urgent needs they did when they were younger.

It takes a certain amount of humility to fade into the background, letting your protege shine. I’m sure that for every back-up violin save that Archie has performed on stage, there are dozens more backstage that we’ll never see. That describes so much of parenting, too. For every stage mom, there are unseen hundreds of thousands of pieces of poster-board purchased, and teeth straightened, and hairs combed. There are millions of hours of unseen work and worry that go into launching a person into the world. Some people would have us believe that this is a modern phenomenon, and that “folks just didn’t worry so much about everything” back in their day. I submit that those thousands of hours fade away for those who give them, too, because infants have never fed and bathed themselves.

In this tallying of the millions of unseen hours spent in the thankless work of violin scales, where we often find ourselves fading into the background, I have faith that God sees our toil. God sits with us in the frozen moments of silence, and God rejoices with us in the moments of triumph, when the music magically, eventually, flows out of the instrument. God plays alongside us, fading away like some well-trained music teachers can do, and God sees us in our love for one another.

My husband likes to say that most of our lives are like the season of Advent: waiting for what feels like an eternity in what can feel like a dark season. Advent, and life, for that matter, can feel like those frozen moments on stage before Mr. Archie pops up beside us. You know you’re supposed to know what to do next, but you’re sure you don’t know what that is. We might not know when a rescuer is coming, but we know a rescuer when we see one.

As much as I like the image of God riding a vintage motorcycle with a sidecar, Mr. Archie is not God. (Even if he were, I’m not sure Ben would practice any more than he does now.) But the Mr. Archies of the world who rescue, encourage, and make beautiful music are a small, sweet glimpse of all the Rescuing we await during Advent. Thank God for the small-r rescuers: the music teachers, the invisible nudgers, and the mercy-givers who remind us why we wait.