Why music matters so much to me: part two...

Last night, as I was helping a colleague before our monthly clergy support group meeting, I walked by a little boy and his mother sitting in the hall of a neighboring church.  The little guy who I suspect was about 8 looked up to me, pointed and shouted:  "I know you?!"  Hmmmm... and when I asked how that might be true he shouted with equal enthusiasm:  "THE MUSIC!"  Apparently the jazz ensemble had just played at his elementary school the day before and he was still grooving.  So, we chatted together about how much fun it is to play and share music and his mother said, "Thanks for brightening his day."

The same thing happened earlier that day, too, when we played in one of the affluent middle schools.  Three different guidance counselors came over to us and said, "OMG what an important mission you guys have!  Not only are you bringing jazz education to young people who would NEVER hear it on their own; but you are also creating a space for them to just be at home in their own skins.  They don't have to worry about their peers - or the expectations of their parents - or their fears about failing the standardized tests.  They can just rest in themselves for a bit.  What a blessing!"  A blessing - not a break or a breather - not a nice diversion or distraction - a BLESSING!

That is how I experience the music I play and share - as a blessing - and it does my heart good when others encounter that reality, too.  As I shared in yesterday's post, music is a multi-dimensional prayer for me.  Today I want to explore two other truths for me that I have come to cherish:  music as a community of mutual support and music as a gift of compassion. Clearly those guidance counselors experienced - and named - the compassionate gift of music, yes? They witnessed how liberating and refreshing it can be - and it is always a gift. You can't force people to rest and be open to the Spirit - you simply put it out there with love and trust that as the Spirit moves over the chaos of creation it will touch those who are ready and receptive. Well, let's get focused...

Music as a community of support:  Please understand that the music I am considering in this posting is the music I play and share, ok?  This is music created, developed and experienced with a select group of musicians who not only spark my creativity and compassion, but also challenge me to grow deeper and better in music and life as they share their gifts of beauty and encouragement. 

This is different than singing in a church choir where any and everybody can join in.  Choirs have their own beauty - and I love singing in our choir - but it is a very different type of music making from that created by an intentional band. In a choir - and a church - I have to learn to make music with people with differing skill levels:  some can sing, some can't and some don't really try.  So the spirituality of music making here is learning to share and listen and embrace everyone - even those who don't strengthen the sound - it is about letting my rough places be smoothed by a common love.  It is about getting over myself and finding a place for everyone at the table.

Playing music in an intentional group is very, very different. First the musicians are selected and recruited - there is NOTHING random about this community - so the expectation going in is that it will be deeper and more intense.  And when I search out musicians I want to play with in a band, I am consciously thinking about three things all at the same time: 1) I want talented musicians in my group; 2) I want loving and tender musicians in my group; and 3) I want musicians who share my vision that music is prayer, community and compassion, too.

I've played with musicians who are not talented - and outside of a church context this mix is maddening.  It not only grates on my soul but wounds my ears.  So let's face it, there are varying levels of skill and commitment and not all work together. To everything there is a season - a time to make a joyful noise unto the Lord regardless of ability and a time to create something beautiful - a time to be together as a mixed bag and a time to play music with a high level of skill - and in the bands I want to play in, I am searching for beauty not the lowest common denominator.

(NOTE: For those readers with a mostly church focus let me clarify something here; in a church community there must be at least three layers of music sharing so that everyone has a place.  On one level there is a musical place where any and every person can participate regardless of their abilities.  In my congregation, I have created a summer ad hoc gospel choir that encourages and welcomes everyone so that each person can taste the joy of making beautiful music together.  This takes work - and a lot of balancing and practice - but on this level there is only welcome, ok?  Everyone has a place at the table of the Lord on this level.

Then there is the level of the choir - and this, too, is broadly democratic - in that anyone who wants to commit to practice can participate.  Now, sometimes there are those goofy, self-absorbed people who want to sing on a regular basis but won't/can't commit to rehearsals. Really!  I'm not kidding - and for the sake of beauty I believe you have to draw the line here. If you can't make ANY of the practice times, then you can't sing in this group. Ok? In the 21st century, however, choirs need more and more flexibility so that people who work at night or are away during the week can find a time for rehearsal - and this is vital towards being authentically open and hospitable. 

And then there is a third level of music making that involves hand-picked ensembles that share a different level of beauty and skill.  These groups practice hard and cultivate their gifts for the glory of God - and by nature are more exclusive than the other gatherings.  In my experience you need all three levels for both hospitality and worship aesthetics)

Ok, back to the three parts of community building through music that is the focus of this posting... In the hand-selected bands that I give my time to - where there are talented musicians - I experience both encouragement as well as challenge to become my best self personally and musically.  Back when I was a seminary intern, I was working on a youth worship experience with a small group of very talented teens and adults.  They wanted to use "Eleanor Rigby" by the Beatles - so one high school junior scored the string parts over the weekend and recruited a violist to make certain the ensemble worked - he had a HIGH concern for beauty.  Then we recruited some key vocalists who could sing the close harmonies of Graham Nash's "Cathedral."  And when it all came together in rehearsal - when the instrumentalists were listening and grooving carefully and the vocalists hit the mark - it was sublime.  And we all said to one another, "This is unlike making music as a solo performer... somehow by listening and cooperating, trusting and loving the whole is soooo much greater than all the individual parts."

And that type of sharing community feeds my soul:  creating beauty in cooperation with the Spirit and other talented artists.  Perhaps I might say that as a pastor this is where I experience worship.  On Sunday mornings, I am a worship leader - I am moved and touched by the Spirit, to be sure; but it is different.  In a musical ensemble, when it all comes together it is pure grace that I can only savor and honor and then let it go.
And that means I am VERY selective about who is part of the band, right?  Because in addition to their talent, I want and need people who are kind and open and authentically compassionate. 

I don't need prima donnas or musical bullies - I've been those people and need help in letting them die their natural deaths.  I don't need musicians who are only in it for the sake of the performance either; there is something truly healing that takes place each week when our band gathers to practice. We check in with one another, we laugh, we encourage and we leave knowing how to pray for the others.  It is a place of deep refreshment born of sharing sounds and affection.  How does the hymn put it? "I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I'll laugh with you?"  I experience that type of emotional intimacy with my band mates.  I trust them.  I honor them. I feel incomplete when they are not all present.  In many ways, they have become my living contact with the Body of Christ.

And when talented musicians come together with me to create beauty and joy - born of our trust and mutual love - the result is compassion.  The music we offer is about healing and hope.  It is about lament and challenge.  It is about the human experience seen through the eyes of faith. It is not about performance - even though we have high standards - because our music is not a product or a commodity to be bought and sold. It is a gift offered for the healing of the world.  And just as we have been strengthened and healed by the music, we trust that it holds that same gift for others, too.

So as I think about the three ensembles I play with - the Thanksgiving Eve band, the Jazz Ambassadors (who are ALL head and shoulders better musicians than me) and our church/community group called Between the Banks - each of these three realities are present.  Each band has pushed me to become a better musician.  Each band asks me to learn how to listen more and give more of myself, too.  And each band has pushed me towards a humility that I might not ordinarily own if just left to myself. 

I know that in planning and looking forward to the Thanksgiving Eve gig, I am very excited because it brings together some of my dearest musical colleagues who are also some of the brightest and most talented musicians I know. It truly is a little taste of heaven for me - bread for the journey - and all the rest. This is a time for serious practice with great artists - it is a time to be in the presence of loving and compassionate musicians - and it is a time to share our gifts and commitments with God and the wider community, too.


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