As always happens during Advent and Christmas, I’m giving thanks for the remarkable gift of music, a gift as necessary for my spirit as breath is for my body and nearly as impossible for me to make. Other than singing hymns in church, with Bruce Springsteen in the shower, and with Van Morrison in the car, I can’t make music. I depend on the cadences, melodies, and harmonies of creation and on the skills and imaginations of real musicians.
It’s not because I haven’t tried.
When I was in junior high school, I played clarinet for about a year. In those days, though, boys who played football had to choose between “band” and athletics. I chose football (actually, it’s truer to say that football was chosen for me). It’s just as well; I doubt that I’d have become much of a clarinetist. Besides, I’ve since discovered that the instruments which tune my heart are voice, guitar, flute, organ (pipe and Hammond b3s!), and piano.
Just a few years ago, while still serving as pastor of a busy downtown congregation, I found a piano teacher with a studio near the church and signed-up for weekly 30-minute lessons. On Thursdays, midmorning, I’d disappear from the office, walk to the studio, have a lesson, and walk back. Usually, I was away for less than an hour.
I’d practice on the inexpensive upright spinet we’d bought when our children were little and Anita was serving as a part-time Minister of Music. Sometimes, when I was at the office late or early and could be sure not to be discovered, I’d drill for a few minutes on one of the scores of pianos scattered around the building.
Only a handful of people knew about the lessons, thank goodness; because, after about six months, my teacher and I agreed that I didn’t “have it.” The “it” I didn’t have was twofold: time for sufficient practice and feel for the relationship between my hands, the keyboard, and the music I yearned to play. My brief and less-than-successful tenure as an adult music student served to increase my already profound indebtedness to people who bring music to my ears and heart.
Advent and Christmas heighten my need for music, because the wonders and mysteries of these seasons necessarily elude bare and unaccompanied words. The marvels are too deep, the joys too vast, the loves too broad, and the hopes too lofty for words alone to voice. They need the strength and the strings, the wings and the wind, of music.
Because my faith and my life itself would shrivel without music of all kinds, musicians are means—instruments—of grace for me. In a poem addressed to “Church Musick,” George Herbert said, “if I travel in your companie/You know the way to heaven’s door.” I travel often to places of glory and grandeur I could never glimpse without the guiding companionship of those who play and sing.
What’s true of music is also true of many gifts on which I depend: I eat food I don’t grow, drive a car I cannot repair, and remain alive because of medical treatments I cannot even begin to understand. I’m carried by prayers others offer and sheltered in mercy I cannot provide. Independence is an illusion which life, especially as it bends toward its ending, strips away.
Once, the Robert Shaw Chorale was booked to sing in a rundown Tennessee town. They were slated to perform Mozart’s Requiem, but the concert manager suggested to Shaw that Mozart was “too highbrow” for the likely audience. Mr. Shaw politely but firmly went ahead with the Requiem. After the concert, a young woman waited on Shaw to exit through the stage door and said to him: “I suppose there are two kinds of people who would understand the Mozart Requiem: those sufficiently skilled in music history and theory to appreciate its technical mastery, and those who have lately experienced a deep personal tragedy. I am no musician. Thank you very much” (adapted from “Robert Shaw’s Ministry of Music,” The Christian Century, March 22-29, 1989, 311).
That’s just right: “I am no musician. Thank you very much.”