When I was five, my mother started teaching me to play the piano. I progressed reasonably well for about a year, at which point the music got more difficult. Since I made more mistakes, my mother had to correct me more often, and my six-year-old ego couldn’t handle it. So I quit.
One day when I was 13, we sang “True to the Faith” (Hymns, no. 254) in sacrament meeting, and I thought it was just about the coolest hymn I had ever heard. I thought, Hey, I remember how to play the piano—sort of. At least I remember what a piano is. I convinced myself that, based on what I knew about piano playing, I could learn to play “True to the Faith.”
The only problem was that I didn’t realize “True to the Faith” is also a very difficult hymn to play. It’s written in a key with just one sharp, but lots of extra sharps and flats are thrown in here and there. After six months of practice I learned it, and I was on my way to being a pianist.
I continued with the piano over the next few years and found myself getting better. Heavenly Father increased my abilities, and I improved in sight-reading, improvising, and other related skills. My mother taught me chord theory and some other useful information. I frequently accompanied soloists and was the pianist for priesthood and Sunday School.
In college I played for sacrament meeting in my student ward and also began to create some arrangements of hymns for Christmas and Easter. At this point in my life I was playing the piano a lot.
During all this I received lots of praise. When I was still learning, members of my home ward would encourage me, telling me how well I was doing. Now people would compliment me on my prelude and postlude music, and my rendition of “Called to Serve” (Hymns, no. 249) always drew a few comments. I tried to acknowledge the Lord’s hand in my abilities and not let it go to my head. But sometimes I liked the praise and would do something snazzy with my playing to ensure that I received compliments.
When it came time for my mission I had my father give me a priesthood blessing. Before the blessing, he asked if there was anything in particular I was worried about. I told him I was a little concerned that if I didn’t have much chance to play the piano and write, and all the other things I enjoyed doing, when I came home I would be too rusty. Considering I hoped to make my living doing some of these things, my ability to do them was of major concern to me.
My father gave me a wonderful blessing. In the blessing I was told that while it’s true we need to exercise our talents or lose them, that rule doesn’t apply to missionaries; if I served faithfully, even if I never used my talents once in those two years, when I came home my abilities wouldn’t have diminished but would have increased. What a promise.
I didn’t have much chance to play while I was in the MTC until the night before I left. Those from my branch who were leaving had a meeting together with the branch president for some final words of advice. There were many tears and tender feelings. And I was asked to play the closing hymn, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” (Hymns, no. 152). This stirred up more emotions and made the Spirit even stronger.
After the closing prayer, which built upon the Spirit we already felt, I played some quiet postlude music as people talked and began to filter out. I played “The Spirit of God” (Hymns, no. 2) very softly on the upper keys. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes just believing in the words of the song you’re playing, and having the Spirit with you, causes you to play so that the people listening feel what you’re feeling. You can actually express your emotions through the way you play the song. It doesn’t always happen (at least not to me), but it happened this time. I really felt what I was playing, and I really wanted to convey a message by the way I played it.
As I played, I noticed that someone was behind me watching and listening. I finished the hymn and quickly glanced to see who it was. It was Elder Smith, someone I didn’t know very well. He was standing there, crying.
He had already felt the Spirit during the meeting, like the rest of us, and now the music was helping to intensify it. So I kept playing.
That’s when it struck me. For perhaps the first time, I was playing the piano, not for my own enjoyment and not to receive praise, but to help someone feel the Spirit. I actually, truly wanted to be an instrument in the Lord’s hands and serve him. In this case, the best way I could serve him was to help convey the Spirit to one of his children through music.