Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Impulse of His Love

At first, Karen Piranian Burgman didn’t realize the full impact of what was happening to her. Only a junior in high school, having just won a major competition, she had every reason to expect a fruitful career as a pianist.

But the pain in her hands kept getting worse, creeping in between her fingers until she couldn’t play for more than 10 minutes. The seriousness still didn’t really hit until the hand surgeon looked her in the eye and told her she would never play again, and suggested she take up swimming.

“I was crying,” she remembers. “I said: ‘This isn’t my hobby. This is my life.’ I had studied since I was 5.”

When the shock wore off, she was able to acknowledge something she had actually known all along, music wasn’t her life, God was. And God was getting ready to show her just how well-placed her trust had been. Her career as a pianist wasn’t over. Instead, she was to get an education no conservatory could ever provide. She would use her hands again, but she’d be playing from her soul.

“I had no other agenda except to say what God had done in my life,” said Ms. Burgman, 25, one morning during a telephone interview from her home in North Wales, PA. “Playing the piano is how I express my love for him. Now I feel I have so much more to say.”

Ms. Burgman has poured all her praise and thankfulness into a CD, “The Impulse of His Love,” released this summer by Paraclete Press. It’s a piece of work she never could have anticipated on that day when her tendinitis was diagnosed.

“I had thought, ‘There’s 13 years of training down the drain.’”

But more training was in store, thanks to Sandra Carlock, the coach of a trio of which Ms. Burgman was a member, who offered to work with her one-on-one to help her relearn to play. This involved teaching her to relax, to be in tune with her body and to feel the weight of her fingers on the keys.

A year and a half later, she was off to Oberlin Conservatory for a major in piano performance. The following summer, while she was home in North Wales, her friend Ron Lamar told her she had to make a CD as a way of telling her story.

“I said, ‘I’m just a kid. I’ve just gotten over this injury.’”

But Mr. Lamar held firm and so Ms. Burgman began choosing hymns. She knew “Take My Life and Let It Be” had to be one of them, with its lyrics “take my hands and let them move at the impulse of your love.” She had been playing the piano at her church, Hilltown Baptist, since she was in 10th grade, so she was familiar with many hymns. In improvising them for piano solos, she felt she could personalize them to share her journey.

For three or four weeks she lovingly recorded her arrangements of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “The Lord’s Prayer” and 11 others. The hymns sounded beautiful and when she was finished she and Mr. Lamar sat down to listen to the tapes. But as they played them, what they heard was not so lovely after all. Birds that had made their home in the ventilation system had been picked up by the high definition recording equipment and could be heard on every number.

“It wasn’t some pretty little birds chirping,” she says. “It was really ugly.”

Not willing to give up, Mr. Lamar said he had the studio for one last hour the next day so they would go back and do the entire program then. Ms. Burgman was aghast. She had poured her whole self into that work. She told him she was spent.

“He said, ‘Then you better get down on your knees and pay for a miracle.’”

She went home and told God she had nothing left to give, that she was empty.

“He said, ‘’That’s exactly where I want you to be.’ I asked the Lord to work through me.”

Once again trusting God, she returned to the studio and improvised all 13 songs in one hour. “I get chills talking about it now,” she says. “He took over my hands. I never played like that before. I was crying. My heart and soul came out in it. That’s what the CD is. It’s unedited, all in one take. It summed up the way God was working in my life.”

For four years she sold the recording on her own at church and her concerts. Then a friend gave one to someone in the acquisitions department at Paraclete and another minor miracle occurred. They wanted to represent her and market the CD the very week she sold her last. Since being released in July, “It has absolutely flown off the shelves here at Paraclete,” said Rachel McKendree, music publicist.

Ms. Burgman thinks she understands why.

“There’s an interest in hymns that basically give a new sound,” she says. “People appreciate the depth of theology, but played with a personal testimony of a life touched by God. It reaches people. There’s no more powerful way to communicate than through the arts.”

To continue this work, she and her husband, Michael, a middle school English teacher, have formed a company, Lifespring Music, for future projects, including a Christmas CD of piano improvisations.

“This thing has a life of its own,” she says. “It’s so much bigger than I ever imagined. God’s hand is in it. It’s been his.”

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