Psalm 100: Psalm 9:1-4
The Rev. Tom Herbek
March 6, 2016
There is a tribe in East Africa in which the birth date of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth, nor even the day of conception as in other village cultures.
For this tribe, the birth date comes the first time the child is a thought in its mother’s mind. Aware of her intention to conceive a child, the mother then goes off to sit alone under a tree. There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive. Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches it to the father so that they can sing it together. After the child is conceived, she sings it to the baby in her womb. Then she teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village so that throughout the labor and at the miraculous moment of birth itself, the child is greeted with its song.
After the birth, all the villagers learn the song of their new member and sing it to the child when it falls or hurts itself. It is sung in times of triumph or in rituals and initiations. This song becomes a part of the marriage ceremony when the child is grown, and at the end of life, his or her loved ones will gather around the deathbed and sing this song for the last time.
— Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart
Each of us can have our own song, as well. And each of us can express our joy as we sing it – for each of us can sing. Even if we are not very good at carrying a tune, we can still sing. Somehow we have been told that only those who have beautiful voices should sing. This is learned behavior, not the way God created us.
If you ask a class of four-year-olds who can sing, the entire class will raise their hands. Try it with nine-year-olds and 2/3 will raise their hands. Ask it of 19-year-olds and only 1/3 will raise their hands. We must all unlearn this hesitancy to sing. We must all learn to sing our songs.
Singing comes from the heart, and it has little to do with the technical proficiency of the voice. Somehow we must let our voices capture the heart sounds within us.
Music can have a transforming effect on all of us. Music can bring tears to our eyes.
And when we first discover the possibilities of music within us, it can change us dramatically. In the movie, “Music of the Heart”, Meryl Streep’s character begins a string program in Harlem that transforms an entire generation of children. And in the movie from France, “The Chorus”, a boy’s school of incorrigibles is transformed by the beginning of a boys’ choir.
Music can put us in touch with a level of reality that we never knew was possible, in us and in our world. We never know where the music that moves us will originate, and we never know what music might be within each of us. John William’ scores for “Star Wars”, “Jaws”, and “Schindler’s List” all touch us in unique and special ways, calling forth remarkably different emotions in us. Musicals have challenged us to see life differently, to change our perspective. Just think about the same story, told from different perspectives, in “The Wizard of Oz” and in “Wicked.”
Rogers & Hammerstein took a huge chance in “South Pacific”, by including the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” at a time when prejudice and racism were widely accepted as OK. How better to experience the loss of special people and special lives to AIDS than to hear the song from “Les Mis,” “Empty Chairs, Empty Tables,” at an AIDS fundraiser.
And let us never forget the true story of the cellist from Sarajevo, playing amidst the Bosnian-Serbian war, ethnic cleansing, and unpredictable cruelty, calling for peace and humanity through the simple act of playing his cello amidst the rubble.
Music calls us to become more of who we have been created to be. But musicians have had to deal with their own prejudices, as well. Thanks to the creativity of a few in the music world, symphony orchestras finally began to conduct auditions with the instrumentalist behind a screen, so that the decision-makers could only hear the musician, not see them.
In the past thirty years, since screens became common place, the number of women in the top U.S. orchestras has increased fivefold. What the classical music world realized was that what they had thought was a pure and powerful first impression – listening to someone play – was in fact hopelessly corrupted. “Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confident and have good posture,” one musician, a veteran of many auditions, says. “Other people look awful when they play but sound great. Other people have that belabored look when they play, but you can’t hear it in the sound. There is always this dissonance between what you see and hear. The audition begins the first second the person is in view. You think, Who is this nerd? Or, Who does this guy think he is? – just by the way they walk out with their instrument.”
When Julie Landsman auditioned for the role of principal French horn at the Met, the screens had just gone up in the practice hall. At the time, there were no women in the brass section of the orchestra, because everyone “knew” that women could not play the horn as well as men. But Landsman came and sat down and played – and she played well. “I knew in my last round that I had won before they told me,” she says. “It was because of the way I performed the last piece. I held on to the last high C for a very long time, just to leave no doubt in their minds. And they started to laugh, because it was above and beyond the call of duty.” But when they declared her the winner and she stepped out from behind the screen, there was a gasp. It wasn’t just that she was a woman, and female horn players were rare.
And it wasn’t just that bold, extended high C, which was the kind of macho sound that they expected from a man only. It was because they knew her. Landsman had played for the Met before as a substitute. Until they listened to her with just their ears, however, they had no idea she was so good.
-Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Music is one of the most magical gifts that we can experience in life. It can change us. The Psalmists of the Old Testament talk about the power of music in worship, and in our celebration of the goodness of God, the compassionate love of God. We all have within us the capacity for song, and we each have our own unique song that begins at our birth.
Let me share a story about a musician.
He was one of those rare irrepressible talents, like lightning in a bottle. His alcoholic father was an adequate musician. When he discovered his son’s gift, he pushed him relentlessly, though the boy was only five. His father would come home late and drunk, sweep in like a storm, and make him practice on the piano till morning.
There was no still point for the gifted child. The only peace he knew was from his gentle mother, whom he would describe later in life as his best friend. He was the lost pearl among seven children, except when his father, drunk and sinking, would ride his son’s gift to quiet his own lack of worth. At the age of seven, the boy gave his first public performance. Before the age of twelve, he published his first musical work. Within the year, he was earning a living for his family by playing the organ and composing.
Soon the gifted child left home and began to study with the giants of his time. He was growing by leaps. When seventeen, he was called home because his mother was dying. Now there was a sadness to counter his gift, to feed his gift. At first he tried not to listen to his grief, to listen only to his gift. But soon he learned that this is the purpose of all gifts: to carry our grief, our joy, our humanness, and our confusion and wonder before all that is unknown.
The precocious son of the alcoholic musician was Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the great composers in the history of music.
In his late twenties, he began to complain of a ringing in his ears that made it hard to hear music of any kind. It was hard to distinguish between instruments. Music was rushing endlessly within him, but his ears were no longer the instrument through which he could hear the world. He was also having trouble tracking what others would say and started to avoid conversation.
In 1801, Beethoven confessed to his friends in Bonn that he was severely frightened of becoming deaf. He left Vienna for a time and withdrew to the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, where he thought of suicide. How could he live in this constant taunt: being a conduit for such unprecedented music and never being able to hear it in the world? Beethoven’s great music came out of this acceptance of both his gift and his humanness, out of this messy mix of will and surrender. He resolved to live for and through his gift.
At the end of the symphony, as the audience erupted into a standing ovation, Beethoven was several measures off and still conducting. It was then that the contralto Caroline Unger walked over and gently turned, the disoriented master to face the crowd. Seeing their reception and hearing nothing, he began to weep.
-Seven Thousand Ways to Listen by Mark Nepo
No matter what we are put here to do, no matter what obstacles we face, Beethoven’s commitment not to leave this life, his commitment to keep working, despite his increasing experience of loss, is a clue to how we can all live our lives. We are each called to take what we hear, despite what diminishes us, and make whatever music we can for as long as we can. It’s our determination and our resolve that reveals our own song of life.
God calls each of us to reveal our own song, that unique and special gift that enables us to make a difference in the world. God calls us to be God’s hands and feet and voices in this world.
Let us allow our song to enable us to inspire those around us, to bring peace into the troubled places in our world, to bring joy and comfort and strength into the sadness in our world, and to bring the love of God, the presence of God’s grace, into the hearts of those who feel left out and left behind.
So let us sing our song, infusing the spirit of God in our humanity and into the life God calls us to live!