Con Text: Poetry and Music

Context

What makes vocal music different from instrumental music? Of course there are obvious differences like the lack of fingerings or bow marks. But the most profound difference is that vocal music has words. Singers are interpreters of text.

Vocalists breathe with the phrases of poetry. We must know what the important words are to highlight them musically. And we must also understand the content to build to the climax and resolve the falling action.

As performers of poetry and prose, we have an intimate relationship with the subject matter. Rehearsing the song, the words implant in the mind. Later, the subconscious brings the words to our lips when we are cleaning the house or driving in the car.

Music is a memory device

The other night, I was listening to Bryan read poetry to the kids before bedtime. He began reading an Emily Dickinson poem. I joined in the recitation, the poem readily spilling out, though I had no idea that I knew this poem. It is the text to “Hope,” one of the anthems our choir loves to sing. For the rest of the night, I couldn’t get the words and music out of my head. It’s strange how musical memory works – one little nudge brings back the whole thing in an instant.

Or consider too how you know your ABCs. To this day, I still can’t alphabetize files without hearing the Alphabet Song in my head. It’s so much harder to recite those 26 letters minus the musical cues.

The blessing of practice

text

Seasons of Love

This week, my church choir is singing “Seasons of Love.” I can tell you there are “five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes” in a year. More profound questions lurk behind the text. What would it mean to celebrate and remember every single moment? If we measured in love, how much would there be?

It is a gift that vocalists have to think about the text. We, perhaps more than the audience, benefit from the profound mysteries revealed in the poetry. We have time, through rehearsal, to take a deep dive. Vocalists have the unique pleasure of understanding text painting (the composer’s use of melodic and harmonic devices to color words with a particular emotion.) The music is in our bodies, goes through our bodies, resonates with our bodies. It’s physical, emotional, intellectual work.

I am reminded of Jason Robert Brown’s song “The Music of Heaven.”

“I come with my armor in place,
Emotions in check.
And thinking I’m smarter or just more realistic.
I sit with my frozen smile,
All the while reluctant to trust what I’m told,
Cynical, cold.

Challenging music of heaven to open a crack in my chest.
And let something glorious in.
Music of heaven should puncture me, suddenly blessed,
Let the music begin…

And I sit there with dry eyes and cold hands
Judging and standing apart
Dry eyes and cold hands,
Waiting and wondering, when will it open my heart.
When will it open my heart?
When will I open my heart?”

Music breaks us open. It finds its ways into the smallest crack of our hearts. But it is also possible to stay indifferent, to not let that crack open up. Musicians have to turn toward the music, to be vulnerable, to open our hearts. That is the only way that we can have a truly meaningful performance. This is a gift we give the audience, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t something we do for ourselves too. Aren’t we changed by the study, rehearsals, and performance?

The voice within

I know I’m not alone in experiencing music that comes to me unbidden. When my grandfather died, the family was at his bedside. I don’t know where it came from, but the song “I’ll Fly Away” began in my head. I started humming it, then quietly sang the words. My sister joined in, then our mother. We opened a window. Singing with my family in that moment felt so right.

There have been other times of heartache that other songs have come to me, rolling in like a storm or like sunlight breaking through the clouds. Unexpected. Perfect. Songs like “All Will Be Well,” “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, or “Something Told the Wild Geese.”

There seems to be a song in the jukebox of my head for every situation, every emotion. There are days when I feel like my life is one big musical. There’s something magical about the subconscious finding the right song for the moment.

A picture in my studio has this poem:

“An awe so quiet I don’t know when it began.
A gratitude had begun to sing in me.
Was there some moment dividing song from no song?
When does dewfall begin?
When does night fold its arms over our hearts to cherish them?
When is daybreak?” -Denise Levertov

What songs are playing in your head? If you turn up the volume and listen, is the song trying to tell you something, trying to open some crack in your heart?

A challenge to my choir and all vocalists

choir practice- I'm on the left with a drum

NUUC Choir

The church choir offers the perfect opportunity for spiritual growth through music.

When you are working on choir music, I challenge you to think about the lyrics. What do the words mean to you? Can you relate to that experience? How does the music help carry the message? As a performer, how can you help the audience feel and understand the text? And finally, I wonder if we can find ways to be more willing to receive the blessings of music.

I think Jason Robert Brown was onto something. “Let the music begin.”

Music as a Spiritual Practice: My Path

Music as a Spiritual Practice: My Path

The Beginning

spiritual practice at church

Covenant Presbyterian Church

Like many people, I first began to connect music and spiritual practice while a young child. I attended a large, stone Presbyterian church with my mother. The church was well endowed and had a huge organ, robust choir, bell choir, several children’s choirs, and occasionally an orchestra. It was a rich place for music.

My favorite service of the year was Easter. The church was full of people, the altar adorned with lilies, and the choir was resplendent in their robes. At the end of the Easter service, organist Trudy Faber would take the organ to its full volume and open the trumpet stops. I remember the sanctuary filled with sound, feeling the floor vibrate under my new white shoes. Even now, just thinking about it, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. As I listened to the organ in the grand sanctuary while gazing at the stained glass windows and flying buttresses, I felt divine ecstasy. This was an awe-inspiring experience that forever linked music with spirituality.

Music still has that power over me. When I am moved by music, I feel its spiritual force within me and a reconnection with the divine.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I don’t know where I got the idea to play the flute, but my mom remembers me telling her that I wanted to play and insisting on it until she relented. Practicing the flute was a pleasant escape from the intensity of my home. While other teens were talking on the telephone or listening to the radio, I was playing the flute in the safe cocoon of my room. This is where I learned how to be alone to be comfortable with silence, and to direct my own learning. (Just to be clear, I had no guidance on how to practice and consequently had terrible practice habits that wasted a lot of time.)

Practicing also cultivated grit because my commitment to the flute was unwavering. In fact, I never missed a day of practice during the entire four years of high school.

Much later, I would learn to meditate. I have come to understand that my music practice is a meditation, reaching that same place of calm and flow.

Music has also opened me up to a range of emotions. For a melancholy piece, I must channel the composer’s pain and reference difficult moments in my life. On the other hand, jubilant music makes me feel energized. Little by little, music has expanded my emotional intelligence. It helps me to simply sit with people who are sad without trying to “make things better.” I am learning to be present with uncomfortable feelings… without trying to change them. Performing music demands that a musician stay present and fully engaged, no matter the emotional intensity.

Music practice can be a spiritual practice. I learned how to be still, how to listen, how to commit mind and action to a singular goal. Music cracked open my heart to the joy and suffering of life.

University Studies

degree

MM from CU

The Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, Top Chef… the judging tables in these shows are less intense than music school. Universities accept only a fraction of students who audition. Fewer make it through the first year. Every week, professors offer criticism in lessons and studio class. Then there are the yearly juries and solo recitals. Music students are required to make fast progress while working through stage fright and self-doubt.

While many teachers tried to be constructive with their criticism, the voices in my head were more destructive. Am I good enough? Do they like me? What if I shake/get sweaty hands/can’t breathe? Facing these fears has been difficult. At times, the negative self talk was deafening, paralyzing. My playing suffered from performance anxiety. So I took classes in Alexander Technique and performance anxiety. I developed a tough skin.  Eventually, I learned that obsessing over these minor details did not serve the music. We do our best and then we move on.

Confronting self-doubt is a kind of spiritual practice because it leads to love and forgiveness.

Post-Graduate

flute studio in 1997

studio photo 1997

After graduating with a masters degree in flute performance, getting married, and moving back to Ohio, I worked to build a career in music. Very quickly I learned that there were lots of other people trying to do the same thing and they were just as driven, just as talented (often more talented.) It was thrilling to land a good gig but it also sent me into a spiral of over-work, self-doubt, and anxiety. Teaching, however, has always been something I love. I have a terrific home studio of flute students, teach classes for preschoolers at recreation centers, and work as a music director for a wonderful church, which is aligned with my spiritual beliefs. This wasn’t the career I had envisioned, but I have a passion for it. All of these jobs allow me to help others find joy in music.

Finding my place in the music community has taught me humility and given me a sense of purpose.

Growing a Soul

Meditation, prayer, ritual, yoga, fasting, and writing are all examples of common spiritual practices. I believe that studying and performing music can also be part of a spiritual practice. For some people, the point of spiritual practice is achieving a closer connection with a higher power. For others, it is liberation from this world. But for me, the goal of any spiritual practice is to grow a soul. Music has been part of my life since the beginning. I am aware of ways that it has shaped me into the person I am today. The lessons I am learning are about

Traveling a spiritual path means greater self-actualization. Music continues to reveal new ways to explore the journey.