The Magic Hour, The Lullabies of Mistakes by Joe Mills

My wife and I once saw Wynton Marsalis in concert as he promoted a cd called The Magic Hour. He explained the “magic hour” for parents is the hour after the kids have gone to bed. We knew what he meant, that sense of release, of being off duty, of completion, of having gotten through another day.

For us, the magic hour has changed over time. When the kids were very young, often one of us would spend it alone, drinking wine on the couch in a finally quiet house, waiting for the other to return, a return that sometimes didn’t happen because whoever had taken the kids upstairs had thought, “I’ll just lie down with them for a minute…” and had immediately fallen asleep.

As the children grew older, the hour became noisier, as we sat together on the couch, drinking wine and periodically yelling: “Go back to bed,” and “I can hear you. Seriously, go back to bed,” and “I’m losing my patience. Go. Back. To. Bed.”

Now, with the arrival of the piano, the hour has again changed and become even noisier. It’s when one of us sits and practices, drinking wine, and then the other does. In a way, we are offering our version of lullabies although, ironically, the one song that I’m not allowed to play is Braham’s “Lullaby.” It makes Danielle cry, involuntarily and immediately, because of a music box that she had when she was young.

Although I say lullabies, it’s not as if what we play is particularly soothing, especially considering the number of mistakes we each make. We deal with these differently. My wife sometimes slams the keys in frustration, and this might elicit a comment from the upstairs bedrooms: “I don’t think that’s right!” When I make a mistake, sometimes I deliberately try to repeat it, pretending like Jon Lovitz “I meant to do that,” the equivalent of the little jog you do after you’ve tripped. No one is fooled, and since the tunes I play are so simple and I do them so slowly the repetition just makes it more obvious.

When our children have friends sleepover, we don’t change our routine much (although the magic hour ends up being much much later). I’ve always thought one important aspect of sleepovers is the glimpse it gives into other families’ lives. However, I am self-conscious about playing since many of my kids’ friends already are talented musicians and some have parents who are talented as well. I hope that they just think it’s odd, this unidentifiable musical hacking. An eccentricity to ignore.

If they do recognize the songs, I am concerned about what they might think of the repertoire. I’m not religious, but I love to play “Amazing Grace.” It’s a song that moves me every time. Do they hear this and make assumptions? When my daughter’s Jewish friend stayed over, did she go home and tell her parents how the dad there played Christian music as they went to sleep? Are we regarded as “that family”?

Some songs, like “Amazing Grace,” are so beautiful, so well-constructed, and often so simple, that they are hard to ruin, and so they give pleasure to even poor players. I return to many of these night after night. They include:

“Greensleeves.” It surprised me how much I like playing this song. It seems to have vaguely been around me for much of my life, but I never paid attention to it until we got a piano. In fact, before then I would have said that it was a Christmas song or just something you hear when you enter a store that sells miniature fountains and hand-made jewelry.

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” On particularly difficult parenting days, I like to sit down and play this during the magic hour. It gives me a wry pleasure.

“Simple Gifts.” This Shaker hymn pulls at me as if I’ve heard it before, many times, but I can never remember when or where. It’s as if it simply exists in some collective musical unconsciousness.

“Coffeehouse Boogie.” This probably exists only in piano books, and it’s there to offer something that’s not classical and that’s vaguely cool. And it works. That was exactly why I initially liked it. Now, however, it’s one of the first songs that I play when I sit down – a warm-up, a coming-out-on-stage number. It’s a signature song for both me and Danielle (who mastered it first and who inspired me to learn it).

Perhaps like with Braham’s “Lullaby” for my wife, when my children hear any of these songs in the future, it will send them into an involuntary nostalgic reverie, even start them weeping. Or, it may be that they won’t remember the specific songs at all (since my renditions are often unrecognizable). I do believe, however, that they will remember the feeling of this time. Although right now they don’t consider it a “magic hour” since they never want to go to bed, it is. There is a comfort with all of us being together, safe, at the end of the day, and the music, although muffled when it reaches the children’s rooms, is a marker of our presence. Each night Danielle and I fill the house with lullabies of our mistakes. We’re here, the music says. We’re trying, it says. We’re messing up. But we’re here. Go to sleep.


Joe Mills
Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published five collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition). A new book of poetry is coming out in April: Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

Read Previous Columns by Joe Mills

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5 comments

  1. What a lovely post! As a single mom of a 2 year old, I so treasure my “quiet time” or “Mama time” when I can unwined (ha! see what I did there?) and gather my senses at the end of a busy day. After reading this post, I think this Mama also needs to get a piano too!

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