‘Tis the season and the Christmas music is floating in the background of daily life. Ironically, “Jingle Bells” was the first piece I heard this season; no doubt Momma ordered it especially for me. Here are the circumstances as to why this important holiday tune resonates even today…
“Would you please play Jingle Bells, Grandpa?” The sounds of Christmas ring crystal clear in my musical ear. Grandpa Brock, my talented (Gospel Music Hall of Fame) maternal grandfather, created everlasting musical impressions on the lives of all he touched. He passed on a wealth of gospel music, lyrics, and strong family traditions throughout his life. As far back as memory serves, he shared his genuine love of music with anyone who listened. Chords, shape notes, and tuning forks created daily amusements to a little four-year-old with wondering eyes who was yearning to learn keyboard, musical techniques, and a little piece called Jingle Bells.
“Would you please play Jingle Bells, Grandpa?” I never hear Jingle Bells without thinking of Grandpa Brock’s unique rendition of the old secular classic. He usually played in the key of C, with the chords and gospel flair, including his famous “turn-around” key change. My sister, Becky, and I frequently requested the piece; after all, Christmas music celebrates joy and good cheer year-round. At a particular gospel singing convention one Saturday evening, I managed to squirm my way to the stage and onto his piano bench during the set as he played a new Stamps-Baxter song for the crowd of hundreds. He usually took requests from the newly-published songbooks, so I took advantage of the opportunity as the song changed by asking for my favorite piece (how was I to know it wasn’t in the songbook?). To my amazement, Grandpa honored my request, with the understanding that I join the singers at the microphones to lead the congregation. I assume he thought I would back out, but what does a precocious 4-yr-old know about stage-fright? We praised the Lord and brought the house down singing Jingle Bells that night.
“Would you please play Jingle Bells, Grandpa?” Not long after that singing convention, I received an autoharp from Grandpa Brock. He taught me to play the stringed instrument; of course, I learned Jingle Bells first. The very next Christmas I was honored when my KPUMC Preschool teacher, Mrs. Bertha Mae Cox, asked me to play the autoharp during our school Christmas performance. I learned Silent Night and Away In A Manger for this annual event, but continued to perfect my autoharp rendition of Jingle Bells. Although I didn’t play the piece on the preschool program, Grandpa sat at the piano afterwards and accompanied me; he told me, “Jesus needs an encore, baby girl.”
“Would you please play Jingle Bells, Grandpa?” The next year I began formal piano lessons, and Grandpa held high expectations for my success as a trained classical musician. The only request he made of my extraordinary piano teacher was that a rendition of Jingle Bells be included in the seasonal repertoire. One particular Saturday morning, as we made our rounds tuning pianos, he packed up his tools while I gingerly slipped onto the bench of the beautiful Steinway he had just tuned. His surprise registered quickly when he realized my left and right hands played my favorite piece—the very one I constantly asked of him. At that musical moment, we became a duet, and it remained our most requested number during the holiday season.
“Would you please play Jingle Bells, Grandpa?” As the years passed, the duet became a trio when my sister joined us at the keyboard. We created more versions of Jingle Bells than Rachmaninoff’s “Theme of Paganini,” expanding our musical horizons and yet, never losing the old gospel flair. The last piece my precious Grandpa Brock ever played for me on the piano was Jingle Bells. As the gospel quartet sang several of his songs at his memorial service, my thoughts centered on Christmas and our favorite piece. The angels and St. Peter most likely played Jingle Bells upon his arrival.
“Momma, would you please play Jingle Bells?” Fast forward a few years to two young daughters seated closely at their mother’s side while she picked notes and practiced choral Christmas music on the piano. The oldest child, Rachel, watched in wonder, carefully observing; she studied piano with her mom’s former teacher (before moving to oboe). Both girls frequently requested their mom’s beloved piece. While cooking supper one evening, the youngest child, Hannah, requested “Jing-Bel.” Rachel confidently tickled the ivories while teaching her sister to sing the words to the song. With a tear in her eye, the mother silently gave thanks to God and to the Grandpa who always played Jingle Bells.