Perfect Pitch

December 15, 2005

A grand piano sits in John Lilley's living room in Reno, Nev. He is a musical man, earning three music degrees from Baylor and a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Southern California.
"I chose my parents perfectly," he laughs. "I have so-called perfect pitch, I can play by ear anything." And he often does, sitting at the piano and playing Mozart and Beethoven, jazz and modern selections, depending on his mood.
"Gerrie [his wife] will walk by and ask me what I'm playing, and I'll say 'I have no idea. I'm just wailing, just playing.'" 
Although Lilley's repertoire is improvisational, he has noticed one constant when he plays.
He always begins with a certain hymn.
He pauses at this point and begins telling another story. "My father's retirement, after I don't know how many years as a Baptist pastor, was $98 a month. My mother, who was a schoolteacher, had her retirement, and they had Social Security. My father died first, and then my mother died."
The combined inheritance left to Lilley and his two brothers was $36,000, divided evenly among them, he says. "Her legacy to me was spiritual and intellectual," he says. "She was a quintessential Irish mother. She had great dreams, great hopes.
"I really thought about what would please her and my father, and I was very fortunate to be able to buy this grand piano with that inheritance."
He purchased the piano shortly before his move to Reno about four years ago. Since that time, he has noticed that the first song that flows through his fingers each time he begins to play always is the same: "Great is Thy Faithfulness."
"It's a beautiful hymn, both the music and the message. It naturally brings out your musicality, and of course, another word for that is your spirit." When he plays it, he says, he does so as prayer and with thanksgiving. "It's a joy to play, and it means a great deal to me."