Monday, June 13, 2016

Precious Sister Pat

In most people's lives, a person can probably count on one hand the people who have had an indelible influence on his life.  I have had those people involved in my life, and I am thankful for them.  Unfortunately, this past week, I have one less.  My childhood music and violin teacher, Sister Pat Binko, passed away last week.

When I was about 6 years old, I began taking piano lessons from a nun who was, shall we say, less than happy to be working with children.  I recall getting my hands slapped on the keyboard several times when I made mistakes, and just a general attitude of disgust toward me when I didn't excel as quickly as she had hoped.  Granted, I'm sure my remembrance of these times is a bit overblown due to my tender age and immaturity at the time, but even in my memories, it was a significantly negative experience.  As a result, I convinced my mom that I should not play piano, but should instead follow in the footsteps of my older sister and take up violin.  Soon thereafter, at the age of 8, I began taking violin lessons from another nun - Sister Pat.  Little did I know that I would remain under her instruction for the next 10 years, and that those 10 years would have a lasting impact on my life.

Each week (September through May) I went to Sister Pat's school of music for an hour-long lesson in the Suzuki method of violin.  Each lesson consisted of playing through the prescribed songs, working on music theory, and just general life-encouragement from Sister Pat.  Weekly lessons were complimented by monthly "Play-Ins" where all of Sister Pat's students would get together to perform an informal concert of sorts - mostly just for parents.  Students were sectioned out by their level in the Suzuki method and played songs from the book they were in.  Additionally, from time to time, Sister Pat scheduled other informal concerts at local nursing homes.  When you factored in at-home practice times (which, to be honest, there should have been more of), my life was full of violin and music.

As time went on, I began to realize that I had something of a natural talent for musical things.  In high school I went on to also play the string bass in the school orchestra, in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony, and bass guitar in school productions, talent shows, and garage bands.  I also played first chair violin in the school orchestra, played with a touring high school musical group called "Fiddles & Friends" (along with all the cool kids) and took elective musical theory classes in my later high school years.  At church, I joined the worship team and played bass guitar.  In my freshman year of college I declared a minor in music, but later dropped out when I discovered the immense workload.  However, I also joined the college worship team, and played regularly there.  It was also in college that I took up guitar, teaching myself based on the musical knowledge I had gained throughout y childhood.  Guitar led to banjo, which led to the tin whistle, the harmonica, drums, and so on and so forth, which led to songwriting, arranging, playing in semi-serious bands, etc., etc.  Put simply, music had become perhaps the biggest thing in my life.

By this time, my regular violin playing diminished significantly.  I had completed the Suzuki method (all 10 books!) before graduating high school, and was no longer taking lessons from Sister Pat.  I still played violin at church once in a while, but not too often.  My musical studies began to move more toward sacred music and music for worship, and worship theory.  Most, if not all of this study was independent, but I have learned a ton since having graduated high school.

As I reflect on my musical growth and experiences throughout my life, it is crystal clear to me that the foundation for everything that I have done or accomplished, musically speaking, was the teaching I received at the hand of Sister Pat.  She saw my natural ability and nurtured it through the violin and through theory in ways that no public school teacher would have been able to.  Sister Pat had a no-nonsense approach to learning and practicing violin, but was also easy-going enough to teach her students that the main purpose of creating music was fun and joy and using the gifts that God has given us for good things.  She also emphasized the spiritual component of creating music, which was something unique about her, although now that I'm an adult I would probably differ from her teachings in a few ways.  Sister Pat also emphasized the "why" of music.  In other words, she knew that teaching theory was just as important as teaching technique.  From what I know of most music teachers today, this distinction no longer exists, which I think is a shame.

After graduating from high school, I mostly lost contact with Sister Pat.  I would see her once every few years, just coincidentally.  She always stayed in contact with our family however, through Christmas cards and whatnot.  A few years ago I was at Menards buying something - I can't recall what - when I heard a familiar voice behind me, and it was none other than Sister Pat.  We made small talk, but I was able to thank her one last time for the monumental influence she had in my life over the majority of my childhood.  That was the last time I saw her in person.  Although we lost touch pretty much after I graduated from high school, the impact she had on my life cannot be overstated.  I am grateful to God for how he used her to influence me.

Sister Pat also had several mannerisms that set her apart.  She was always upbeat and outgoing, and always seemed to be genuinely concerned about what was going on in our lives.  One of her catch phrases was to say, "Well isn't that precious!"  It was more of an exclamation than a question.  She would say that whenever she heard or saw something funny or unique.

Her frequent use of the word "precious," and her recent passing, makes me think of Psalm 116.15: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."  From her obituary, I learned that Sister Pat became a nun at the age of 18.  We never got into any significantly deep theological conversations during my relationship with her (and at the time, I was neither knowledgeable nor mature enough to have one), so I'm not sure of her spiritual state.  She certainly professed faith within the Roman Catholic tradition, but I don't know what her personal spiritual beliefs were.  It is my hope that it can be truly said of her: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."  I hope that she is in heaven at this moment, doing what she loved before the Lord Jesus.  That would be precious.

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