Sunday, December 05, 2010

Music to the Heart

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 5, 2010

Ever since I was a little kid, music has had a special place in my life. When it was “the people’s choice” at my dad’s Sunday evening service and we could request certain hymns, my favorites always were about singing: “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ear, all nature sings and around me rings the music of the spheres” and the ones with lots of “alleluias” and the lines about “o tell of his might and sing of his grace, whose robe is the light, whose canopy space”.

If somebody besides me was playing the piano that night and I had free rein to sing, I’d bellow out the words until my dad shot me a warning glance, as if to say, “honey, you’re a little too loud”. We did have a woman in our congregation who sang loudly and in a monotone and was a source of great amusement to my sister and me, but our father said to us very firmly, “Grace is praising God in her own way and I do NOT want you making fun of her.”

That’s probably why I have a soft spot for people who think they can’t carry a tune because I want them to sing anyway----and I want us all to be kind about it----because participation in music is a worshipful act, worshipful in terms of creating something of worth. Singing creates a tapestry of sound and we each contribute a thread to that tapestry, a creation that is worth more than whether it is perfect or not. Sort of like life, right?----worthwhile even when it’s not perfect! And who’s to say what’s perfect anyhow?

Remember the Leonard Cohen song Anthem? “Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in.”

Lots of less than perfect music in my life: campfires at the beach or in the forest, friends picking instruments and singing harmony under the stars, in living rooms, in bars; in choirs, struggling to meet the demands of the conductor, read the parts, stay on key, not fall off the risers, remember the words; though Glee Club in high school was never like the TV show Glee!

But the years passed and I went from hymn-playing and hymn-singing in my dad’s little church to leading the junior choir in other churches and a singing group at the Denver Christian Center where I worked for awhile, then on to folk music jams and group sings where I’d admire the instrumentalists and fumble with the chords on my own cheapo guitar, eager to join in but unable to sing and play at the same time!

It seemed natural to have the radio on full blast at home and harmonize to the Beatles and other pop singers of the day, as a young stay-at-home mom. And sing I did, at least until my spouse came home and switched the station over to jazz or classical, because he liked songs without words.

But we agreed on folk music as worthwhile and belted out the anti-war songs we both knew, admired Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary, together. We sang our little boy to sleep with “All the Pretty Little Horses” and “Go to sleepy little Baby”. Every once in awhile, nursing him at night, I’d sneak in a lullaby my mother sang to me, “Mama’s darling, daddy’s sweetheart, Jesus’ precious little lamb, how we love him, how we love him, how we love our Michael boy.”

At home before marriage, I sang a lot. Afterwards, I felt shy, afraid of critique, embarrassed by my love of the old hymns of the traditional church, and wanting to be a wife who was attuned to her husband’s wants and preferences, just like my mother.

After the end of the marriage, I found myself drawn back into choirs and children’s music groups in the church. I sought out friends who were musical, hungry to make music with others. I harmonized with the lounge singer in a bar a few times and even was invited to join one talented friend in his act on occasion.

But I never thought of myself as a singer. Nobody had ever encouraged me to sing; I had always invited myself into choirs and other singing groups and, once there, found the camaraderie and sense of belonging that I so hungered for.

As I grew more comfortable in a music group, I got braver and started to sing publicly with one friend or another playing the guitar: at open mics, at church, at parties. And it became important not to sing just anything, but to sing songs that were meaningful to me, songs with a message.

It became more and more important to be part of the music, not just listen. I didn’t need to stand out, I just needed to be part of it. I remember sitting in my Colorado church listening to our very talented pianist playing Mozart’s Turkish March, eyes closed, enjoying the lively tune, when the person sitting next to me nudged me and pointed at my hand, which was thumping the notes out on my knee. We both laughed and I hid my hand where he couldn’t see it and continued to play along.

When we sing here, in our worship services, I am so conscious of the words we are singing. You know that old joke about the Unitarian Universalists not being such great singers because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the words? I think this congregation has gotten past that, but I still am very aware that words matter.

I like our hymnal for that reason, because these hymns have been carefully selected for their universality, their inclusiveness, their reverence, and their power to inspire. They aren’t all easy to sing but this group does pretty well, even with the hard ones. I think you are wonderful, enthusiastic singers!

But as I reflect about music and its ability to inspire us, I am reminded of a moment a couple of years ago, when my whole relationship with music seemed to come together in an understandable rush.

It was at a gathering of friends, at someone’s house; we’d all come together for a late summer music party. There was food and beer and lots of laughter. We had plowed through the heaps of enchiladas and chips and guacamole and somebody brought out a guitar, struck a few chords, tuned a string or two, and began to sing.

More instruments joined in, more voices rose in song, and it seemed that everyone at the party had suddenly clustered in the living room of the house, standing close together, singing. Here I was standing among all these people, singing a harmony part that seemed to come out of nowhere but blending with the bass, the tenor, the melody carrier, and all the other streams of sound in that room. It was a transcendent moment.

If it could be said that we lived inside that circle of sound for the time it took to sing the song, it would be true. When the song ended, we stood looking at each other with amazement in our eyes. What an experience, to be inside the song, part of the musical vibrations that formed that enclosure of melody and harmony. My heart was pounding and I felt like crying. Instead we all took a collective deep breath, let it out, and just said, “Wow”.

I look for that kind of experience now every time I am singing with others. Performing is fun, but nothing matches that moment when the music envelopes and transports me beyond the every day.

I get it sometimes when we sing together and I look out at you and catch your eye and you grin and I grin back. I get it sometimes when I hear our choir hit a perfectly in tune chord. I get it sometimes when Nola swings into one of her wonderful hymn accompaniments and takes us along with her. I get it sometimes when all of you adults join the kids in the motions for some song or another----singing “Peace Like a River” or “This Little Light of Mine” and waving our arms around in the motions, just like kids.

When we make music together, whether it’s in song or instrumental form, there is a communion of sound that nourishes us and makes us more whole. When we listen to others creating music, we have an opportunity to let go and let ourselves be part of that experience, not just regarding it as a performance but as a way to come together in the music that is part of all of us, whether we can carry a tune or play an instrument or just listen.

The important thing is that we do it together. You may have noticed that we try to restrain our desire to applaud our musicians until the end of the service. That’s because music within a worship service is different, not a performance but an offering of an opportunity to be transported by the music into another realm of experience. It’s not easy, but our musicians usually understand that they are contributing something different, not a performance but an experience of worship.

Every voice, every tone, every heart raised in song, harmonic or dissonant, is important, not to be stifled but to be welcomed and accepted. That’s part of what it means to be in community. Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we have music within us, music to share and to treasure. May we find our own ways of being inside the music in our lives and may we not be afraid to share that music. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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