As my 50th wedding anniversary approached, I began learning to play the harmonica.

There is no connection between my new instrument and the anniversary, but each is teaching me something about the other.

The harmonica is a cute, funky instrument. It can play rousing tunes and wail the blues. It’s small, a very “personal” instrument, and I thought it would be fun to play; just to make music for myself; I’m not interested in performing (but you never know).

I watched harmonica players over the years. It looked simple. No fingers flying across a keyboard or closing odd combinations of holes on a clarinet (two instruments I have played in the past.) Blow in one harmonica hole and get a note, inhale – “draw” in harmonica lingo – and you move one tone up the scale, then move up one hole for the next note in the scale. How hard can that be?

It’s not hard, but that’s not playing the harmonica any more than poking keys with one finger is playing the piano. I quickly learned that to make “real music” on a harmonica, one does a lot of complex things with breath, lips, tongue and even the shape of the inside of your mouth. You have to learn these things, practice them, and some are hard to get right. The outsider watching a harmonica player sees only the instrument sliding one way or the other across the player’s face. Much more is actually going on.

When my fiancée and I tied the marital knot 50 years ago, it looked easy. You get married, get a job and a house, have kids, work, mow the lawn, go to church on Sunday, send the kids to school and that’s it.

Yeah. Sure.

You do those things in a marriage,  and that’s what others see you doing – the harmonica sliding across your face – but much more is actually going on. If I succeed in “bending” a note on my harmonica or get a chord progression right, no one watching sees how I make that happen.

We look at marriages of friends and family. We think: That one looks good; there’s a great couple; that one seems shaky. Or we ask: How did those two ever get together?

And then we are surprised. The “great couple” splits, the shaky relationship lasts and lasts. It turns out that some were just picking out single notes on the piano keys or blowing through one hole of their marital harmonica.

That’s OK at first. Single notes. Simple tunes. But marriage is a complex relationship, a growing relationship, requiring more than the simple notes of “I love you” or “Let’s get married.” You learn a lot of things that you never knew – as an idealistic young couple – had anything to do with making a marriage.

A year from now, I hope I’m a better harmonica player than I am today. It’s fun learning new things. If I hadn’t learned new things about marriage decade after decade, it wouldn’t have lasted 50 years.

The beloved wife says I still have a lot to learn. I get that. When I lift the harmonica to my mouth, I can put out an almost acceptable version of “Camptown Races.” I’ve got a lot to learn before “St. Louis Blues” will sound right. That didn’t happen on my 50th anniversary; but next year, or 10 years from now? If I keep learning – about my harmonica and about marriage – maybe.

Charles Austin
Charles Austin is a retired ELCA pastor who has served parishes in Iowa, New York and New Jersey. He has also been a reporter for The New York Times and other news organizations.

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