Wonderful Words of Life

March 11, 2023


Some parents dream their daughters will become the Mayor or a heart surgeon, but mine longed for the Doxology with a side of the Hallelujah Chorus — all from memory if possible. They would have traded me to the hippies, if it meant I came home a church pianist. 

“Reading two different staffs is like trying to read two books at once.” I protested. “It’s not natural. I think this is what the Bible means when it says not to be double-minded.” 

I played everything my teacher taught, except I played by ear, and reasonably transposed everything to the key of C — no pesky sharps or flats to get in the way. 

The only time I ventured out of C (for “comfort”), was when I found the hymn, “Wonderful Words of Life.” For some reason, it clicked and came naturally. It was a bouncy tune, with happy words and one exotic F-sharp. The confounded Circle of Fifths said this made it G-major, but I’m still not sure. I only know that for some reason, this one hymn was something I could handle.

And handle it I did. I jammed on Wonderful Words of Life.  I could play this hymn fast, slow, as a waltz, or a Jimmy Buffet beach tune. I could play it with the pitiful aching of a hungry child or with the throaty soul of Bourbon Street. At 10 years old,  I became an expert on Wonderful Words of Life.

Mrs. Bateman asked me to play the piano for our Sunday school class. 25 children, sat in rows, with the boys in back punching each other in the arms and the girls in front wearing pretty dresses and bouncy hair, the result of Saturday night  pin curls.

When asked to come to the piano, everyone would snicker because they knew what was coming next. Every single cotton-picking week.

“What shall we sing this morning?” Mrs. Bateman would ask. 

“Wonderful Words of Life!” My friends would whisper. 

“How about Wonderful Words of Life?” I’d suggest. 

After we sang, “words of life and buuu-teee, teach me faith and duuuu-teee” I’d bring it on home with a flourish of arpeggios. 

Then with hope in her heart, Mrs. Bateman would ask, “How about something else?”

And every Sunday, I’d stare at the terrazzo floor and say,  “Mmmm, that’s all I know.” 

“How about number 265?  It is well with my soul?” 

“That has 5 flats!” I’d say, totally shocked. I mean, who did she think I was, Liberace?

“What about the very first page? Holy Holy Holy?”

“Too many sharps. But I know The Music Box Dancer and The Entertainer.”

“Well, look right here, page 505 is in the key of C” she’d triumphantly say as if it were a game of “gotcha.” 

“Acc-ident-als” I’d hiss like a kitten staring at a Rottweiler. 

The few times I attempted a new song with a heart of hope and silent prayer, it would all come crashing down by the second stanza. My friends would squirm with laughter and snorting noises. 

I was in huge trouble when Mrs. Bateman told my parents the 5th graders were laughing at her. When I explained the source of our giggles came from having to sing Wonderful Words of Life every single Sunday of the year, they saw their dreams of raising a church pianist crumble like a Steinway made of Saltines. 

It was a true miracle when my friend Gloria began piano lessons and took over all accompaniment duties. She played sharps, flats and accidentals. And I was never again asked to play Wonderful Words of Life. 

Sometimes, when I’m alone., I still pull out the hymnal and let it naturally fall open to the overused page 181 - Wonderful Words of Life.  I warm up like a fifth grader in Sunday school, then tackle it like a late night jazz set. I think God loves both arrangements. And I love not being the church pianist. 

  • Leslie Anne, even though you may not have been happy with your piano performance, I suspect that you looked fabulous while playing dressed in a pretty Sunday dress and string of pearls! Remember the days when little girls wore frilly dresses and patent leather shoes and the boys had on tiny bowties? Now we have children comingto church in their pajamas! (One of my best childhood memories is my darling mama taking me to see Liberace in concert!!)

    • Leslie Anne Tarabella says:

      Oh yes, my grandmother sewed most of my dresses and made sure I had one in every pastel color. By fifth grade I had ditched the hair bows but had barrettes in multi colors to match. I am in total awe that you got to see Liberace! My mother wanted me to watch him on TV but I would hide in the closet to avoid the show thinking she would sit me down at the piano afterwards hoping I’d be full of inspiration. But to see him in concert would have been a life-long memory, for certain. How fun that must have been!

  • dorinda hickey says:

    I have no real musical talent as opposed to my husband, now deceased, who could play anything. He wanted a dulcimer so badly, so I scrimped and saved to get him a kit, and he made it. Beautiful instrument which I still play every day. He played it three or four times, and gave it up. I love it. I am a lefty, so I play it backwards which drives dulcimer players crazy, but it works. About five years ago, a priest (I am Catholic) got wind of the fact that I could play a dulcimer, and he called me to see if I would play for funeral. NO! The lady who had died had requested a song which was made popular on “The Andy Griffith Show” by the Dillards. Yes, I knew it, but I am not good for playing this instrument as far as timing. The priest convinced me to meet with the family. Well, it suckered me in. I did it. There was a choir loft, so I was in the back of the loft playing, so no one could see me. Thank you, Jesus, for that. The family was so appreciative. I was ashamed I had been so reluctant at that time, but I was still glad for the anonimity.

    • Leslie Anne Tarabella says:

      Oh, how I love this story! From building his own instrument, to you continuing to play and the Andy Griffith song for a grieving family. It’s all a great example of how music ties us all together. Good for you for taking risks and sharing your talent with others. Was the song by any chance, “there is a time?”

  • Sue White says:

    Boy can I appreciate this! I was probably around 10 when my piano teacher arranged for me to play the offertory one Sunday. Yep! Wonderful Words of Life she chose! (Did we have the same piano teacher?🤣)
    Also, I HATED playing 4 sharps and would transpose to flats when I eventually played for worship service. Later I played the organ and my years of church music remain such happy ones. Although Wonderful Words was never one of my favorite hymns, I would love to hear it and all the old hymns which are rarely sung anymore. 😢

    • Leslie Anne Tarabella says:

      It’s not exactly one of the most popular hymns, but “Wonderful Words” sure made a mark on pianists young and old! Glad you stuck with it and played the organ. Organists are being snuffed out with the elimination of organs . . . don’t get me started. That’s another story for another day!

  • Sandy Palmer says:

    Oh my mother had such high hopes for which I let her down as well. I totally understand your choices with no sharps. I had 2 Christmas hymns from the Junior Hymnal that I think I have seen on your blog. They only had flats. For some reason my brain could handle a flat but not a sharp. I do love that hymn though:)

    • Leslie Anne Tarabella says:

      Oh Sandy, that makes me laugh and feel much better. Misery loves company! What is it about the sharps? I read music just fine when I played flute . . . but that was only one staff at a time! I loved that Junior Hymnal! Good to hear from you!

  • Vicki Crowe says:

    I played piano for a tiny country church for 12 years. It has been years since i have played – about 30 years actually. I was so nervous when I played and i never played anything over 3sharps – but loved flats. Some songs I just could not play. It was not meant to be. I loved your story – but it brought back all those anxious memories! Lol!

    • Leslie Anne Tarabella says:

      How impressive that you played for 12 years – but how hilarious that even a good pianist like you fears the sharps! I feel your pain! Sharply! haha!

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