Why We Play Music by Carey Skinner


Skinner FamilyFor most Americans, memories of Christmas are filled with visions of ornaments, stockings, and gifts under the tree; the smell of pine, holly, mistletoe, and ham cooking in the kitchen; and the warm feeling of floppy socks, flannel pajamas, and the roaring fire in the fireplace. My family, however, had a different tradition. I will admit, my childhood memories include the year I got an Easy Bake oven and went ballistic with excitement. We always still had a big dinner, some presents, and occasionally a few decorations, but my parents taught us to give back what we had to others with greater needs than ourselves, and consequently my strongest memories are filled with the things we did as a family.

For me, the sign of the coming holiday season was when we had polished off the Thanksgiving turkey and we started wrapping shoeboxes in festive paper and filled them with things like toothpaste, a toothbrush, soap, a flashlight, pencils and paper, in addition to little toys, stickers, candy, and whatever else we could fit inside. We would donate these to Operation Christmas Child for needy children in third world countries. When Christmas Eve arrived, however, we did not go to bed early, awaiting Santa and his magical sleigh filled with gifts. I, along with my four older siblings, took our instruments to the hospitals and rounded each floor playing simple arrangements of popular carols. My dad, a physician, would escort us to each nurse’s station, intensive care unit, and family waiting area to play for those stuck in the hospital over the holidays. And our tradition did not end there; we would cover one hospital Christmas Eve and move right onto the next one, bright and early Christmas morning! Most years we branched out and visited local nursing homes during the afternoon. My mother always says that her children “grew up in the nursing home” because of our frequent visits to elderly relatives who lived there. Because of this, we know the difficulty of not being able to have all of the comforts of home on such a special holiday, and we try to reach out to these families in any way we can. These yearly excursions were always an important part of growing up in the Skinner household. Our dad would come home from work the next day with compliments from his patients and nurses saying how much they appreciated our gift, but the full effect of it did not hit me until he came home with a specific story. An older man, a patient of my father’s, was dying of cancer, and his family stayed with him in the intensive care unit. That night we played some of our usual repertoire: “Oh Holy Night,” “What Child is this?” and “Silent Night.” The man had been restless with pain, and his family was distraught with his discomfort and their mourning in his final hours. My dad told us that, upon hearing our music, the man calmed down. His daughter cried when she listened to us and was so grateful for the peace it brought their family at such a difficult time. When we were playing, I did not know the impact our performance would have on those people. I knew from their applause that they appreciated it, but it had never occurred to me that our music would be the last thing some of those people heard. The man died later that night. That situation has taught me not only the importance of our family ritual but showed me the reason I play music. Indeed, I play for my own enjoyment and pleasure and I like to entertain others, but that is not my primary reason. Music is healing; it evokes feelings and memories that would otherwise stay locked away. Perhaps for that man and his family, those notes made them remember their own Christmases together from many years before. For me when I hear Christmas music, I think of these times I shared with my parents, brothers, and sister. I think of the effect we had on the lives of others. Most of all, I remember why I am playing music.

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