January 25, 2021

More on “Playing the Music”

MS Band 1

Picking up on yesterday’s post, here few more thoughts on “playing the music”…

• • •

Last night we went to a spring intermediate school band and choral concert (5th and 6th grade). My grandson was playing and we knew several other children and families who were involved. I have four children and have been to many of these events before. I’m not being unkind when I say that concerts at this age are usually events to be endured rather than enjoyed. At least with regard to the music, that is.

There is, of course, much to be enjoyed and celebrated. Just looking down at that gymnasium floor and seeing all those energetic, eager, dressed-up, awkward pre-teens navigating their first tentative steps toward adulthood is entertainment enough. Then, take a glance back at the bleachers. Some of their parents are barely thirty years old, many are holding drooling newborns or squirming toddlers, and there they are watching their little man or woman play an instrument, sing in the choir, maybe even do a solo in front of a huge crowd. That can be a wake-up call! There are plenty of grandparents like me, too, the old veterans, who chuckle with recognition when the jazz band strikes up “Ben’s Blues,” the same piece we’ve heard played by every first time combo we’ve witnessed. A blest community of ordinary people in all shapes and sizes and seasons of life, gathered to hear the music come alive through our kids.

The young choral director in her twenties always throws in a surprise or two to delight the crowd and show off the kids’ energy and emerging talent: a solo or two in a contemporary pop song, a swinging rendition of “Rockin’ Robin” with movements and gestures, an African folk tune that impresses everyone with the children’s ability to sing in a foreign tongue. The band’s not left out either — they rock the joint (oh so slowly) as they don sunglasses and play the theme from “Mission Impossible.”

Of course, the tempos are tedious, entrances and cut-offs are anything but precise, the tuning is questionable and instruments squeak here and there, often at the most inopportune times. A vocal soloist misses her cue and the choir has to start the song over. The audience begins to clap at a pause in the music rather than at the end. Mics feed back on the teachers who introduce the numbers and there are awkward silences between performances as the groups rearrange themselves and their equipment and music. The teachers always tell bad jokes. Parents and grandparents like me crawl around the floor and bleachers trying to find the best spots from which to capture the memories through pictures and video. It’s a scene right out of Mayberry, I tell you; small town charm at its best.

But somehow it all comes together, and the audience and participants end up thoroughly enjoying the show. Afterwards the community mills around, we visit with our neighbors, snap pictures, admire each others’ children, and touch base with the teachers, some of whom are getting to know yet another generation in our families.

MS ChoirYesterday, we talked about “virtuoso spirituality.”

Maybe that word threw some of you a bit. I for one don’t think I’ve felt like a “virtuoso” for a single second in my life of faith. More like the kid who hit the cymbal on the wrong beat or the one whose clarinet squeaked or whose voice cracked when trying to hit that note that was just out of reach. When it comes to following Jesus, I’m not sure I’ll ever leave the awkward middle-school stage.

But I’ll give it to those kids and this community. They may represent exactly what “playing the music” is all about. Putting yourself out there. In all your awkwardness and naïveté and self-doubt. Trusting the music and the practice you’ve had. Keeping your eye on the director or conductor. Listening to the others and trying to blend in. All the while knowing that there is a big community around you that takes delight in you and your growth, that is there to applaud every step of progress and to encourage you after every mistake.

I tell you, I saw a lot of grace, forbearance, kindness, joy, and encouragement at a 5th and 6th grade concert last night.

I also saw a lot of awkward, half-grown kids who made a bunch of mistakes and produced a lot of mediocre music — it surely wasn’t “virtuoso.”

Or maybe it was, in its own way.

However you want to look at it, music came alive here last night, we were all a part of it, and the joy was tangible.


  1. The music finds a way through the chaos and the missteps. In light of David Letterman’s retirement from television I read a recent quote from Jerry Seinfeld regarding advice he received from Letterman early in his career. Letterman told him that if he failed, to be sure it was in doing what he wanted to do. I agree. It would be terrible to fail while singing with someone else’s voice, acting someone else’s role. The choir requires the individual talents and if we hold on to our integral role and play it through we become a part of that music. Sometimes it starts as a cacophony but the music finds a way.
    Being confident of this very thing, that he which has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ: Philippians 1:6

  2. In darker moments in the past, and sometimes even know, I question all this. God is perfect, right? Why would he not demand (as Reformed theology teaches), and grant us the infallible ability to do (as we will supposedly have at SOME point), perfection? He didn’t cut the rebellious angels any breaks, after all – so why us? Tell me, WHAT is so precious about human free will that He allows it in spite of the wretched sin and imperfection it gives rise to? Why the hell not wipe the slate clean and start fresh with better-made materiel?

    Because of love? For us?


    • Really !!!!!

    • Robert F says

      Because Jesus is human, everything human has been lifted up and ennobled, and the whole human race has been caught up in the interweaving love of the Trinity, even despite our best efforts to the contrary.

      Why did God assume human nature in Jesus Christ? I have to believe it’s because, in some fundamental sense, God has always been “human”.

    • Music is keeping time. Here stuck in the middle of a song being played out. Now 55 I realize that the song is changing in tempo and coming to an ending which is only a new beginning. I have a question what makes us think we are not good material. The song hasn’t ended yet. If our God came to be us so we could be like Him it would seem maybe we just might have the right stuff after all. Not by self so no man can boast.

      I wondered at your statement that He didn’t give the rebellious angels any chances. I know Paul says…….. But no where I know of does it say He didn’t. I can only imagine what something would twist into not being in the presence or relationship. This agony can be realized when even swine would prefer to drown. IMO we are still in the presence here even when it seems not. I know I only have few choices here but one is definately time and how I spend it. I never have thought that God wanted anymore from me than time. I hope what’s left will be music suitable for His hearing. I have a question. How is it possible to spend time with the Almighty and not be blessed by it.

    • Eeyore: the good news , in part, is that in Christ YOU ARE the “better material”. That’s good news, right ??
      I’ve asked the same questions, though, about “better material”. It is a head scratcher…..

    • Yes, because of love. I had very gracious, loving parents growing up but I often wondered how somebody that screwed up as much as I did could still be loved so much. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that it started to dawn on me; I love my children not because they are perfect but because they are my children and that’s the way my parents loved me. It’s true that I long for them to not fall (“sin”, if that’s what you want to call it) but only because of the pain it will cause them not because their failures have anything to do with me loving them. They are my flesh and blood–they bear my image and I delight in them.

      Obviously, you can see the analogy I’m making here. God loves us because we are His children, we bear His image and He delights in us. Brennan Manning always said, “God loves you just as you are, not as you ought to be because none of us are as we ought to be.”

      I know that’s hard to believe sometimes. Sometimes I don’t. But the cross of Christ demonstrates that it has to be. Like Robert F. said above, “Because Jesus is human, everything human has been lifted up and ennobled, and the whole human race has been caught up in the interweaving love of the Trinity, even despite our best efforts to the contrary.”

      • Scott, your comment really resonates with me – I have a 21 month old little girl at home.

        There is a patience that develops towards the beloved, a pervasive (while imperfect) willing of her good, a celebration of tiny, insignificant things and an appreciation for how fleeting time really is and how little control I really have.

        Sometimes I think that religion in general and Christianity in particular is infinitely complex and confusing, hopelessly depressing and divisive with an unavoidably tragic end to the story. Other times it seems simple, graceful, hopeful, and restorative.

        Thanks for the simple & beautiful thoughts today Chap Mike.

  3. I got my degree and did my student teaching in biology, so the students where suprirsed when I showed up as a long term sub for band. The school was a large consolidated school in southern Indiana with three concert bands. Fortunately, it was a team teaching situation and I was able to spend most of my time in the background, but one thing became abundantly clear to me during that time – I don’t mind the incompetence of young scientists, but I didn’t think I had the same level of patience with budding musicians. It made my ears hurt.

    And as I shared with one of my former high school band colleagues, I don’t remember us ever sounding quite that bad….

    My daughter teaches vocal music and I marvel at her patience in coaching individual voices until they are competition quality. I smile because I remember my days of coaching science fair and taking kids to state level competition. There is a genuine delight in bringing youngsters along until they develop a proficiency that surpasses my ability. One of my former biology students is now an orthopedic surgeon, far more biologically competent than I will ever be.

    So why is it that we don’t treat those “learning to play the music” in church the same way? Why the expectation of instant transformation and understanding of All Things Theological? I think it might be because the lack of proficiency is in an area where we really, really want to see virtuosity rather than the baby steps you describe in this post.

    And that’s wrong.

    Thank you for posting this.

  4. Hehe, so you’re all up for metaphorical Christian musicians not being perfect from the get-go?

    How ’bout the literal Christian musicians? On Sunday morning?

    Where I am, they’re in the process of purging the “less-than-stellar” musicians from the ‘worship group’. I can see the logic of it, but can’t quite square that with the logic of what we’re saying here.

    • David Cornwell says

      “Where I am, they’re in the process of purging the “less-than-stellar” musicians from the ‘worship group’.”

      And in the process they may be doing more damage than they are doing good. What are they saying to those they eliminate? And I can’t help but wonder about their unspoken responses and also what they are saying in their families.

      “Honey I was kicked out of the church band. Don’t tell Tommy,. he hates church already.”

    • petrushka1611 says

      And as a qualified musician who often squirms through church music, but at least theoretically believes that even the least talented singing can still be worship, I’m genuinely torn.

      My wife and I visited the local Catholic church on Easter, and the music was the worst I’d heard in a long time. I thought, “God must really love us to put up with this.”

      • Alas, our cultural malaise! Everyone – and I mean everyone – can recognize music, and nearly everyone can sing with a little voice coaching. But music (especially as worship) was originally communal, and we just don’t have that anymore, although I have seen it in one church I attended. Our songs are not tailored to the audience, and participation is sketchy. I worship in a Lutheran church and let me tell you – those Germans were half a measure too clever at putting tunes together. Even if you like the black keys. But we just pick hymns out of the hymnal (usually based on lyrics), instead of music being a production of the community. I’d like to hear Miguel’s thoughts on this.

      • petrushka, I don’t think there is a strong tradition of congregational singing in RCC churches in the US. Back in the 70s, I attended Mass regularly (with catholic friends) at a variety of parishes, and in most cases, only a handful of people in the congregation actually *sang,* even when churches were packed. (Which they often were, for Sat. evening Mass.) People also used to leave as soon as they had taken communion, and even in adequately heated churches, nobody ever took off their coat.

        All of these things were and still are mysteries to me, having been raised Lutheran – a tradition in which there is robust congregational singing and a lot of good music.

        Where I did hear Catholics singing: at “folk Masses” and “charismatic Masses.” Everyone sang, and there was some very good music written by contemporary Catholic composers (from the mid 60s-early 70s) in a folk-ish style that worked very well. It was sophisticated stuff, in terms of composition and structure, but still easy to sing, and most of the texts had very good content. It’s a shame that some of that material didn’t cross over into Protestant churches – it preceded CCM and “worship” music, and frankly, puts all of that stuff to shame.

    • One of the saddest things to happen at my last church, a mid-sized non-denom, was when we hired a staff person to fill a number of roles, one of which was worship leader. This person was a professionally trained vocalist. Soon the complexion of the praise band changed, as ordinary people she deemed “not as good musicians and singers” were replaced with more professional types.

      Maybe the sound quality increased–it was hard to tell. But there were a number of people whose smiling, “into-the-music” and worshipful faces were now missing. And there were others who were afraid to audition for the band because they didn’t think they’d be judged good enough. IMO the overall beauty of worship and feeling of oneness within the congregation decreased greatly at that point. It was divisive and left lingering hard feelings.

      We were much better off with a less professional band that had more participation from a cross-section of the congregation, and whose members were visibly worshiping as they were singing and playing, rather than just performing.

    • First, all analogies break down.

      Second, there is nothing inherently wrong with venues in which more proficient musicians can perform at higher levels. This post is not calling us to abandon musical achievement, excellence or true virtuosity.

      Third, large churches generally are more “performance-oriented” in their public services and there may not be much opportunity in those services for people of lesser ability to play or sing.

      Fourth, none of this is any excuse for hubris, snobbishness, and failure to love.

      Finally, I am fully aware that a post like this reveals my own biases for small churches and communities, process over product, and congregations as families rather than performance venues. I freely admit this, and recognize that there are many problems in these settings as well.

      • Putting the music thing, metaphorically and literally, aside for a second: I loved your post just for the meme of the gospel being something believed then put into action, real live, something DONE. Something incarnated…. a savior followed, not just fanboy posted..

        Everyone plays…. I liked your post.

  5. If anyone is so inclined, Richard Rohr’s daily meditation today is s real nice fit with the theme of today’s post.

  6. This article brought a happy tear to my eye. Thank you.

  7. Christiane says

    maybe it’s the ‘baby-steps’ that warm the heart of God most . . .

    I remember ‘exchanging words’ with my husband when my small daughter was two years old
    . . . just then, with all the calm dignity only she could muster, she came to the door and raised her hand and said “Mommy, Daddy, stop it ”
    . . . and we did 🙂

    how is it we are so touched by children’s efforts at their Christmas plays?
    maybe, in their simplicity, the children have been given the grace to awaken in our DNA some persistant memory of an innocence lost in Eden


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