Perfectly Off-key

The Dave Matthews Band formed in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1991 when vocalist/guitarist Dave Matthews decided to put some songs he had written on tape. The band immediately attracted a strong word-of-mouth following by touring the country constantly, concentrating on college campuses. In a few short years they became one of the most prolific bands of all time.

But long before the acclaim, Dave Matthews was shaped by a few choice words from his dad. It was dinner time. Dave was eight years old. Sitting with his two sisters, his brother and his parents, Dave was deliberately disrupting the meal by singing off-key—on purpose—just to annoy everyone. Rather than scolding Dave or telling him to cork it, his dad looked to his mom and said, “Look, he sings so well he can sing off-key!”

Dave would later reflect, “What a clever compliment: one part praise and one part admonition. I was a kid, so I latched on to the praise part. No one had ever told me I could sing well, and I was filled with pride. Consequently, I shut up.”

In the few choice words, Dave felt praised and humbled. What he heard his dad say was, “You have a great talent, now knock it off.” He stopped disrupting dinner as he replayed his dad’s words over and over in his mind. At that meal he learned something that would change his life: He could sing.

Shortly after the incident, Dave’s dad died. The words at the dinner table took on new significance.

Dave tells the rest of the story: “Years later, I started to think about playing music in places other than my mother’s living room, and a big part of me was saying ‘Who do you think you are to try to get up in front of people?’ I was overwhelmed by doubt. I had stage fright. I wondered if writing music was ridiculous and self-indulgent, but I let my dad’s words push me along. They got me thinking: Maybe music isn’t just something I like. Maybe it’s what I am.

“Just like I did when I was a kid, I held on to the praise in my father’s words. It sounds silly now, ‘My dad says I can sing,’ but in the beginning of my career, those words offered exactly the encouragement I needed.

“Today, the admonition part of my father’s comment is equally profound. I use the ‘knock it off’ part to keep me focused and grounded. I’m lucky to have a talent that I’ve discovered, but it’s just one thing, not the only thing. When I need a boost, I remember the first part of what my dad said, and when I need to remember that family dinners are more important than record deals, I remember the second.”*

It’s a good story to remember when you find yourself wondering about music. On the one hand, your heavenly Father says you can sing. Whether you play the bassoon or just the stereo, music will play some role in your life. On the other hand, you have a responsibility to use the gift of music wisely. So don’t disgrace your Dad when you enjoy His gift.

In the words of Ellen G. White: "Music was made to serve a holy purpose, to lift the thoughts to that which is pure, noble, and elevating, and to awaken in the soul devotion and gratitude to God. What a contrast between the ancient custom and the uses to which music is now too often devoted! How many employ this gift to exalt self, instead of using it to glorify God! …That which is a great blessing when rightly used, becomes one of the most successful agencies by which Satan allures the mind from duty and from the contemplation of eternal things" (Christian Education, p. 62).

*Dave Matthews' story adapted from The Right Words at the Right Time, by Marlo Thomas and friends, pp. 211–212.

April 01, 2006 / Fresh Start