Tuesday, February 17, 2009

People of the Book go sailing

One of my favorite movie lines ever is from the comedy "What About Bob?" Bob (Bill Murray) is multiphobic, almost panphobic, and has stalked Dr. Marvin, his therapist (Richard Dreyfuss) to his vacation home, hoping for some attention and help. Anna Marvin coaxes Bob onto her friend's sailboat, with this result:

For Bob, this brand-new experience is a defining moment--it becomes part of his self-descriptive narrative. And that's where the "funny" lives. Because he's only experienced one aspect of what it is to be a sailor...he's literally all tied up in knots.

Well, as for me: I'm a reader! I read! Reading is central to my makeup.
  • Fiction and poetry teach me to imagine new worlds, and to see the one I'm in more clearly and completely.
  • The Bible shapes me, along with academic-type study of various subjects. I get all excited about things like historical/critical interpretation, about peeling away the crunchy intellectual layers to find the chewy center.
  • I understand music most immediately through listening, but also through navigation of a printed score. I don't seem to have much of a "jam" gene; rather, my bent as a singer or a conductor is to combine the forces of imagination/imagery, textual interpretation, historical understanding, and music theory. I try to understand the pieces and then do what they ask of me...to blow into the "sails" of the song. At its best, it's as alive as a jam session that really cooks; it's just a somewhat different path to the same destination.
I was at a choral workshop recently with Craig Arnold. He said that it's our job, as singers and conductors, to understand what's on the page and to bring it to life...in our voices, our faces, our bodies, whatever it takes to fully present the message of that particular piece of music.

The page as a bearer of meaning...a means to an end, not an end in itself. Hmmm...interesting.

If you've ever sung in (or heard) a choir that has rendered a piece of music completely, you know what that "bringing to life" feels like. It's as if everyone is moved by the same gust of wind at that exact moment, and we're all sailing. Conversely, if you've ever sung in (or heard) a choir that sort plods through their piece, you also know what I mean. Like Bob, we can get sort of tied up in knots--so focused on what our next note/consonant sound/vowel sound/dynamic marking is that we miss the deeper meaning. It's easy to keep our heads down and just look at the next thing in front of us. But it doesn't make very interesting music. If you're singing "alleluia" with a frown on your face, that creates cognitive dissonance for the listener, who then frowns with you. And the "alleluia," which was the point of the thing, gets lost.

We Western types are, in many senses, People of the Book. We read to discover, to understand, to learn. I don't think this is problematic, in and of itself; it's one of our points of origin, a characteristic of growing up in the Western world.

However, if we get stuck to the page, we miss out on the geist of the thing.

Music from oral traditions is passed on in a very different way. For example, in many parts of Africa, a child wishing to learn to drum starts out by listening to the drummers of his (yep, usually it's a guy thing) village, who repeat complex, polyrhythmic patterns beneath the improvisations of the master drummers. The child might be a listener for a l-o-n-g time before he's given a drum and a simple pattern to play. As the child's ear and technique improve, he's allowed into the more complex workings of the ensemble. This takes years, and there's no paper involved anywhere.

Folk songs of every culture are handed down by, well, singing them. Simple, memorable melodies with simple accompaniments (if any) are handed down, generation by generation by making music together. Again, no paper.

The beauty of the paper is that it's able to transmit a large amount of complex information pretty economically. It's researchable, it leaves time for pondering, and often, it charts more than one possible route to its destination. But paper is only a starting point; the music doesn't live until it lives in our bodies.

I know that my choirs sing better when they can get off the page. More and more, I'm making opportunities for that to happen--having a longer curve of rehearsals, so that we can memorize (or get close to memorization of) the mechanics, in order to enter into real conversation with our congregation/audience. There is generally some grumbling about this; most of us are middle-aged, and memorization takes a bit more effort than in those halcyon days of our youth. :-)

But it's not just about the freedom of movement and communication we gain by not having to hold music. There's something intangible at work here, too. It's about having the discipline to turn ourselves into artists...into sailors. If we don't somehow internalize the message of the page (music, poetry, Scripture), we won't have access to it when its moment comes.

We study so that we may practice well. We practice so that we may participate in the creative process of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we study and practice so that we may live.

Madeleine L'Engle talked about her piano practice as a way both of preparing herself and of inviting the Holy Spirit's presence...of readying herself for that moment in which the Holy Spirit would come:

Hugh and I heard Rudolf Serkin play Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata
in Symphony Hall, many years ago.
It was one of those great unpredictable moments.
When the last notes had been lost in the silence,
the crowd not only applauded, cheered, stamped, we stood on our chairs.
This doesn't happen often in Boston.

But if Serkin did not practice eight hours a day,
every day,
the moment of inspiration,
when it came,
would have been lost.
Nothing would have happened;
there would have been no instrument
through which the revelation could be revealed.

I'm not suggesting that church choirs should practice eight hours a day. But I AM suggesting that, as conductors, we must invite our singers into the adventure of the thing; that we never let the phrase "just a church choir" pass our lips; that we take seriously their commitment and artistry; and that we help them to prepare themselves musically (mechanically, intellectually, spiritually) for that moment of inspiration--the moment in which the Spirit comes.

I'm suggesting that we take 'em sailing.


Magdalene6127 said...

Well, a-MEN to that!! It works in prayer too... I've found a quote of Harry Emerson Fosdick I'll be using (I think) in Sunday's sermon that says much the same thing about experiencing the numinous, the presence of God... if you don't pray, if you don't have the discipline of the spiritual life... you won't see it. Him. Her!

Catrina said...

wow - a great post on so many levels, CG, and funny that I should read it tonight, after yet another frustrating Chorale rehearsal. We are singing Bach's Mass in B Minor in a month (yikes!) and we are just not getting it - we're still tangled up in the knots of this intricate music. Normally I memorize music more easily than I read it on the page, and then I can have that more conversational connection with both my conductor and our audience. But, I don't know, this one is just eluding me - I feel like a cog in a giant fugue machine, and while I rationally know my part makes sense, I can't quite wrap my ear around it, lots of practice notwithstanding. I'm still holding out hope it will come together and we'll sail, but I've got an increasingly sinking feeling that we're just going to make bloody fools of ourselves. . .

Choralgirl said...

Oooh, sorry to hear it, Catrina. But you made me giggle at "cog in a fugue machine." Very evocative--TOTALLY get it!

Shalom said...

Thanks for the great thoughts. Helps me think about the 'practice' of preaching as well.

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

I've been in church choirs for over 40 years (as a child too!) and some of my best moments have been in the preparation and presentation of those choirs.