Music Is Not a Spectator Sport


Singer-Songwriter Beck Hanson (known simply as Beck) published a book recently entitled Song Reader. In a review in the November/December issue of Books and Culture the reviewer, Jeff Johnson (himself a recording artist) made this comment: “Music is not just a soundtrack for whatever it is we are doing; if we participate in it instead of simply consuming it it will make living richer.”

The Christmas season is an appropriate time to think about our participation in music. My involvement in making music rather than consuming it came about because I wanted to do something that would cause people to think well of me. I thought and still think well of people who make music, the same way that I think well of people who are exceptionally intelligent or creative or have dedicated their lives to becoming really good at something such as a competitive sport.

As a high school student I thought that playing the guitar might serve this purpose and so I located a guitar teacher and began taking lessons. Sadly my guitar-playing career was short lived. Around the same time I observed that my peers in the church that I was attending who were part of the high school singing group were something of an elite, and so I began thinking about singing in a group setting as a way of accomplishing my goal. I didn’t act on that until I was in college, then one Thursday evening I showed up at the senior choir rehearsal. These were the people who wore the robes and sang in the Sunday morning services. I was welcomed in, despite my having no musical or voice training. To my surprise I found myself wearing a robe and singing from the choir loft the very next Sunday. Within a few months I was invited to join a smaller group, comprising mostly the younger members of the senior choir and a few others, who sang mostly in Sunday evening services. When that group held a reunion in the 1990s as part of the church’s centennial celebration I could still sing some of the music from memory. I have sung on and off in church choirs since then.

Anyone reading this probably understands that singing in a church choir doesn’t necessarily cause people to think well of you. I’d like to think that I’ve outgrown the need or ambition to have people think well of me, but the truth is that I probably haven’t and never will. That said, it is still worth observing that singing with a group is great fun. It’s also often a great challenge. The choir with which I currently sing, at Grace Presbyterian Church in Montclair, NJ, sings Bach cantatas in German, contemporary Gospel music, and classic choir repertoire by a wide range of composers.

In 2003, as the last tuition payment for our children’s undergraduate educations was in view, I saw the opportunity to fulfill another musical dream and begin studying an instrument. With the help of a friend and fellow church member I took up the euphonium and later joined the Bloomfield, New Jersey Civic Band. The photo at the top of this post was taken this morning (22 December 2013) as I prepared to play as part of a Christmas Carol sing at Grace.

Many people will say that they can’t sing. I know some people of whom that is actually true, but I think for many others it’s more a matter of being too self-conscious to sing in a setting where others might hear them. That’s sad. Like the highly processed foods that fill the shelves of our supermarkets, highly produced and highly commercialized music might satisfy our senses for a short while, but participating actively in locally produced music, even if it’s just singing hymns, feeds the spirit wonderful, nourishing food.

Take a chance. Sing. Whistle. Take up (or take up again) a musical instrument. Make a joyful noise, at the holidays and at all times.

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