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Vol. 35, No. 3

The Gift

by William R. Bay

When I was a boy, my mother sang. She was quite good, even if I am her biased son. But I tell you the truth, she had a following and whether at church or on special occasions, she answered the call. I still remember the songs and the words. It was a gift she had and she shared it often. I sang some, but never with as much talent. I found the law to be a better choice.

So it was with some degree of pride that I saw my youngest daughter pursue classical vocal music performance in college. I’m pleased. So is my mother. She listens and praises and encourages. It’s all good.

Just a few days ago, my mother gave my daughter her music. It’s several boxes and contains the collective knowledge of nearly 60 years of singing. I was there for the transfer. There was printed music and other songs scribbled on pages with notes and symbols. There were handwritten notes on each one. I watched my mother talk to my daughter and go over each piece—describing the occasion each could be used, where to emphasize certain words, when to hold a certain sound, what song needed a strong accompanist, how to say a certain word, pointing out versions in different keys.

My mother knows it’s not enough to own pieces of music, perform them, and enjoy. You have to understand them. The purpose. The passion. Where to hold a note. When to pause and rest. The place to be loud. The spot to be soft. On each piece of music, there were notes written from her experience—the trial and error of rehearsals and many performances. These were the things she tried to say and show as she passed the music to my daughter. Because she knew that if you understand it, know it, practice it, then the hard work makes the music beautiful.

That’s just like our democracy. We can say the words. We can name the institutions. We can enjoy the fact we live in a democratic state. But there’s so much more. It’s understanding the music of our democracy and its handwritten notes—the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers. It’s knowing when to stand and defend another’s rights. And when to listen to the voice and reason of others. It’s the knowledge of those who have defended it—the men and women who acted on their beliefs, the leaders of each generation who spoke the appropriate words for the right occasion. It’s their purpose, their passion, their actions that resonate from the lessons we learned in our youth.

There’s less and less education on democracy and civics these days. You’d be surprised what’s not covered in school. And that’s a challenge for our profession. It’s up to us to make sure the knowledge stays fresh, the experience is not forgotten, and the handwritten notes are still read. If we want democratic voices to be heard in our world, if we want to defend liberty and pursue justice tomorrow, our most important task may be the steady work we perform today as bar associations and lawyers promoting civic education in our schools, communities, and places of worship. We are all stewards of this heritage. It’s a gift we have been entrusted with and it requires our best efforts to convey it to the next generation. It requires knowledge, practice, and preparation, but the hard work is well justified when they appreciate the nuance and beauty of our democracy and the people whose lives have made it so.

My mother understood the importance of those concepts in music. Because she passed it on, I hear her voice when my daughter sings. What’s true in music is true in our democracy. If we want the music of democracy to be heard tomorrow, it will be because we cared enough to pass on the gift we inherited.