Random thoughts about community building and music making...

We had a very sweet band practice tonight - a little bit of work on my song about Pittsfield for Sunday - and a whole lotta shakin' goin' on for Thanksgiving Eve. One of the things I have always been blessed doing on TGE is an "homage" tune for those musicians who have died over the past year - a sort of rock and roll All Saints/All Souls Day - and this year we're going to use the Isley Brothers anthemic "Shout" to return thanks for people like Solomon Burke, Marvin Isley, Leana Horne, Johnny Maestro and Kate McGarrigle (we'll do her version of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," too.) This shortened version from 1959 is just a gas...

My dearest aunt, Donna, who died about 12 years ago this winter, taught me to DANCE to this song. She was 5 years older than me - more of an older sister than an auntie - and we used hang together LOTS throughout the years. When I was not yet in school, she played me Little Richard's "Tutti Fruitti" and that changed my world! One Easter break when I was 7, I spent the week with my grandparents - Donna was 12 - and she kept playing this record over and over and showing me how to dance "dirty" to it! Damn, it was the best and after all these years without her EVERY TIME I hear the Isley Brothers start to wail, I am transported to that little aqua-marine living room by the Atlantic Ocean in southern Connecticut where Donna taught me to dirty dance to "Shout!"

So we practiced it tonight with my church folk - and it was a blast. A little ragged like good rock and soul should be - some sweet harmonies along with lots of sweat and laughter, too - all of which set me to some random thoughts I have discovered about Christian community from my years of making music in church:

+ First, community requires proximity and practice with a defined group of people. Individuals can jam - and that's a lot of fun - but it is only when the same group of musicians get together over and over - and work through a song - that something exciting and beautiful happens. Not everybody understands this truth; sometimes people think they can just show up and be allowed to sing or play and it will work. Well, not EVERYBODY is able to sing or play music - which is why there is something called an audience when it comes to musical performance - or a choir and a congregation, right? The choir helps the congregation participate and sing well. Same with authentic Christian community: it takes practice and intentionality and lots of time spent together listening, correcting, rethinking, suggesting new directions and tons of repetition before a song - or a band or a community - comes together.

+ Second, authentic community has rhythm. There are up times and down times, seasons when things fit almost like magic and other times when the best you can hope for is just showing up. Making music is like that, too. After a group of musicians have been working together for a while, they understand the ebb and flow of one another; they can sense the moods and intuitively respond. But not at first: in the early days of a band you do a lot of bumping in to one another and stepping on one an other's toes and groove. Hopefully, in time, you become less awkward and clumsy so that you listen and watch with greater sensitivity. In other words, you grasp the rhythm of the music making. Tonight, after we worked through Mary Chapin Carpenter's song, "Why Shouldn't We" and ended it with an a capella version of "Amazing Grace," it felt like things were over. I wanted more - I get obsessive with band practice and wanted to push the envelope - but clearly the Spirit had spoken: you are done. Anything more would have been both selfish and exhausting. So we quit - the rhythm had moved us all from music into silence - and we violate that rhythm at our own risk.

+ Third, in all good music making there is always a place for both tradition and innovation. Everybody LOVES to sing their old favorites - and it is crucial to give this expression - while at the same time pushing the envelope, too. Singing memory bank hymns or folk songs gives us all a chance to connect and shine in a deeply satisfying way. At the same time, it nourishes a community for individuals to be given a chance to both improvise on a riff as well as introduce new and creative music into the mix so that the gig is more than sentimentality or nostalgia. Gertrud Mueller-Nelson once wrote in To Dance with God that sentimentality is a half-truth - a partial emotion - and half truths are... lies. The best bands know this and creatively mix up old favorites with new songs - even reworking some of their old chestnuts - so that a new insight can be born. Look at what Springsteen does with one of his old haunting acoustic blues from Nebraska during the Seeger Sessions tour: here is the new/old thing - with lots of room for tradition mixed with creativity - in a way that leaves everyone blessed.

+ And fourth, just as every good band has a natural leader - or group of leaders - so, too, with community. If everybody is in charge, it is chaos; if nobody is in charge, nothing creative happens. Think of Lennon and McCartney who drove the Beatles; yes, sometimes they were too overbearing and Harrison suffered; at the same time, they had a creative vision and achieved some of the most enduring, meaningful and beautiful pop music of our generation. Or Springsteen. Or U2 - who explore both the vision of Bono and the Edge in communion with Larry and Adam. Leadership is essential for music and community, but it has to be a careful and attentive leadership lest it miss the cues others have to share.

We experienced all of these truths tonight sorting through some of our TGE tunes. We kept working on the bridge to one gospel song - or refining the harmonies at the end of another rocker - or even practicing taking visual cues from the leader during "Shout." It was a whole lot of fun and a whole lot of work. There are great singers alongside modest amateurs and there was space - given planning - for both to shine. There is NOTHING automatic about this kind of sharing and there is nothing automatic about authentic Christian community either: making fun and satisfying music or helping everyone's gifts to shine takes TONS of careful attention and planning by a leader. I would go so far as to say that there is nothing romantic about playing music in a band or Christian community either and those who think otherwise are more part of the problem than the solution.

So, here's to making beautiful music in real Christian community...


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