A couple of weeks ago, a student at Wheaton College, where I used to teach, emailed me with some questions. She was writing a senior thesis on the role of music in church, and her advisor, an old colleague of mine, told her I was a church musician and she should contact me. Being totally caught up
in preparing the virtual choir for today’s Music Sunday service, I struggled to find the time to think about her questions, but even when I found some time, I discovered that our current quarantine condition had jumbled my brain; my sense of what was important, and what wasn’t, was in a nervous state of flux.

Then I remembered that almost eighteen years ago, Charlyn and I had given a lay music service here at First Parish. I went back and dug out the homily I had delivered then. It was precisely on the question of the relationship between music and spirituality, but instead of being an abstract academic overview, it centered on my own experience playing in church. At that time, Charlyn and I were not yet on the staff here, but I had played piano on the Music Director’s days off, and also occasionally at First Parish in Bedford, where a friend of mine was music director. I felt a strong desire to explain why I enjoyed playing in church more than performing in concerts.

I started by describing the typical fears that performing musicians have to deal with: Being nervous and self-conscious. Feeling judged by people in the audience. Worrying about making mistakes. Worrying that I wouldn’t measure up to some preconception of what a serious performance should be.
And perhaps worst of all, feeling that the initial magic that had attracted me to the piece I was about to play, that had attracted me to music itself in the first place, was evaporating into thin air, and that what was left was only a self-punishing exercise in vanity.

Playing in church, I found a sense of transcendence, a release from my critical judgements, and a connection to something that is bigger, and for the moment, more important than my self-consciousness. Actually, “more important” is not really the right word: the experience of playing in church is, to me, so engaging, so interesting, so alive and transcendental, that my worries and fears simply go away for lack of attention. When I was young, I had ecstatic visions of what playing music for people would be like; playing in church was where I have most often realized these visions.

This was my starting point in that homily: why was playing in church so important to me? Or rather, why did it seem to me, a pianist who had trained for a concert career, that playing in church was more true to what music really was than playing in a concert hall? I talked about my frustration with most concert audiences, even sympathetic ones, who seemed more interested in watching my fingers, or reading the program notes, or daydreaming, than in engaging directly in the arc of the music with me. To answer this question, I realized that I had to really figure out how I experienced the music I played, and how that might be different from what typical concert audiences experienced. I talked about “multiple intelligences”, about how music was processed in a different part of the brain than words or vision were, about how just as words and vision were characterized by objective critical thought, music was experienced kinesthetically, as movement through space.

As I put it then:

We live in an age that places great emphasis on both the visual and the verbal. There appears to be more music than ever around us, almost always accompanied by images and words. Yet I suspect that we are actually listening less and less. Not because the quality of music has declined, or that standards have fallen, but because we have come to rely so much on our ability to see and analyze the ever-busier and more overwhelming world around us, just in order to survive it. We are less inclined to close our eyes and let go, connect to the spirit of music kinesthetically, without categorizing, judging, and controlling.

When playing in church, I wrote, there is no longer a performer, and a listener, each with a specific role to play. We are all in the experience together, and I find that when people come to speak with me after a service, it’s so wonderful that they want to talk about the experience of the music, and not so much about how I played it.

The spiritual connection that music provides is both individual and social. The vibration of the soul that music can initiate, only grows and reverberates as the experience is shared with other people. Singing together, listening together, performing together, all of these serve to magnify the spiritual dimension of music just as the music helps to break down the barriers between us.

Which brings me to today. My thoughts about music and performance are pretty much the same, at least abstractly. But, as with all of us, my entire life has turned upside down and inside out. I feel more separated from others than I ever had before, yet the new connections we’ve made with each other often seem more intimate, more honest, and more vulnerable. My physical experience of and with music has totally changed. I’m playing the piano far less than before, and of course there are no rehearsals. And yet, in communicating with choir members about participating in the virtual choir, trying to learn and create technology to allow us to sing together from a distance, I have discovered that my musical connection with others is deeper than ever.

Like any craft, musical performance requires a lot of work and willpower, a willingness to keep perfecting your product. The hard part has always been to not lose the soul of the music, to not let perfectionism overwhelm the spirit.

In our current virtual choir, there are no professionals and amateurs. We are all struggling together to create something bigger than ourselves, to overcome the enormous social and physical distances between ourselves, and in so doing, I think we have created something stronger than I have ever experienced before as a church musician. The virtual choir singers have spent the past two weeks recording themselves singing in their home. Each recording I get from them is like a message in a bottle, and I’ve spent so much intimate time with these recordings that I feel they are a part of me. Even the singers who were not able to participate in the virtual choir were deeply present in the process. This Music Sunday service is a distillation of this spirit, this commitment. Every part of it was conceived by, contributed by, and shared by all of us. More than ever before, music has been a blessing that has transcended our private limitations with a spiritual wave of energy.

Our Musical Meditation is a chorale by Bach, “Ein’ festes Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress is Our God). The words are feisty Lutheran calls to fight the devil, but I’m not really interested in the words in a literal sense. Bach’s chorales, short settings of Protestant hymn melodies with added parts in the other voices, are considered by musicians to be the almost perfect balance of musical expression: each voice has its own independent melody, its own motion, its own intervals. At the same time these independent voices merge into a whole that creates surging harmonic motion and compositional unity.

Our virtual choir has been an expression of that combination of independence and unity. I invite you to flow with us during the musical meditation. So may it be.

Guy Urban
Pianist | + posts