Sing a new song to the Eternal; sing in one voice to the Eternal, all the earth.
Sing to the Eternal of all the good things He’s done.
Psalm 96 (The Voice)
I think the ultimate instrument is the voice.
I love a lot of contemporary solo music as well as the classics. It touches my soul so often and songs play back in my head in the night. Music carries messages that comfort and challenge and lift my soul. Something marvelous happens in corporate worship when voices singing together are not drowned out by amplified instruments and a singer with a microphone.
People talk about singing a new song and a new sound arising. I wonder if the new sound is an old sound we have forgotten? The Bible speaks of God singing over us and of us responding to Him with song when we realize that He really does love us.
There is something in choral music that speaks of unity in the Spirit. How I long to hear the entire family of God joining their voices in praise to the Creator.
I’ve known many pianists, but very few excellent accompanists. It’s a rare and beautiful talent that not only requires skill, but also outstanding sensitivity and a willingness to put someone ahead of oneself. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it works. As I thought about it I realized that good accompanists demonstrate servant leadership.
The topic came up for me as I stumbled upon a Youtube video in which a famous conductor was playing piano accompaniment for an equally famous singer. It was a great performance including several of my favourite lieder by Brahms (and became even better when another famous conductor made a brief appearance as page turner.) When I listened a second time to the song, Von Ewiger Liebe (Of Eternal Love), I could hear the accompanist’s ego asserting itself as he kind of dragged the singer along during a display of passionate virtuoso playing. Brahms is not easy to play, and if I could do it I would probably take off with the music too, but as a singer I remember what it feels like to be in competition with an accompanist who is bounding for the finish line ahead of me.
The worst accompanist I ever had will remain nameless. The event planners hired him and assured me he was a competent musician who played professionally. I sent the music on weeks in advance. Travel delays and bad directions meant we only had half an hour to rehearse.
“So how does it go?” he asked, sitting at a piano with no music in sight.
“You did get the music, didn’t you?” I said with a sense of panic about to introduce itself. “I sent it to you weeks ago.”
“I don’t read music,” he stated, seemingly without concern. “Just sing a few bars and I can pick it up.”
Now I appreciate jazz and most other forms of music, but with classical music one simply does not “pick it up.”
OK. Change of plan.
“Um…. how about a spiritual?” I was grabbing at whatever came to mind. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child?” I did feel rather like crying for my mommy at that point. “It is slow and sad …it has a kind of blues feel,” I added just trying to be helpful, which it turns out was not.
We worked it out and added some more well-known music and rushed to the venue. I admit I was nervous and could have handled it with more aplomb had I any inkling that this guy’s professional piano experience was playing blues in a bar. I sang three verses of a two verse song and he kept playing, improvising…and improvising…and improvising. If this had been in his bar I could have enjoyed the two drink minimum while he did his thing without me, but instead I just stood around trying not to look surprised or fifth-wheelish and waited for an opportunity to jump back in. Eventually I rushed in and sang a big ta-da ending to a song which is meant to fade into a pianissimo -just to let the guy know that I, at least, was done.
At the end of the evening I took my compliments and my check and checked out.
Apparently the group invited him back for another gig. They didn’t invite me. (Although I did sing in a sold-out concert hall in that city later, with an orchestra which was too cumbersome to just “pick it up.”)
Once, when I was only about fourteen and singing in a large church I accidentally aspirated some saliva and choked right at my entry of the second verse -in front of God and everybody. The woman at the piano acted as though she heard nothing amiss as I coughed and cleared. She skilfully raced to the finish line without me. I slunk sheepishly off the stage swearing I would never do that again. (Thank God for an older gentlemen who encouraged me later when everyone else was too embarrassed to say anything.)
Here’s the thing. I did not feel honoured by either of those pianists because neither of them were listening. The only part that mattered was theirs.
Years later, to my horror, the same choking thing happened -and in front of folks who actually paid real money. This time my accompanist (who I freely admit was a superior musician) circled around, adding an improvised passage in a style consistent with the song to give me time to recover, and then modulated back into the introduction again. He swooped by like a hero on horseback to scoop me up and we rode off together, most of the audience none the wiser.
Once when he and I were looking at potential pieces for a concert I showed him the music for a song I liked but explained it was too low for me. He sight-read and transposed the unfamiliar piece of music at the same time. My jaw dropped. Later, when this guy gave musical advice, I listened. He was not a singer, but he was full of great advice.
Accompanists are often better musicians than the “soloist” (loathe as we singers are to admit that.) Sometimes they are also coaches or conductors. They know all the parts, not just their own. Making music is a collaboration and rehearsals are the place for discussion and compromise, but in performance a good accompanist lets the singer take the lead and will cover for things like rhythm errors and memory glitches. In private they are not afraid to call them out and work through a problem area, though.
When I hired professional accompanists for students the inexperienced often complained privately that the accompanist had played the piano too slowly in a performance.
“That’s because he’s much better than I am,” I explained. “You’re used to a teacher making heavy suggestions from the keyboard. Not only does this guy play all the notes -and accurately- he is listening and breathing with you. He’s just a hair behind you because onstage you are the one who sets the tempo. If he’s playing too slowly it’s because you slowed down waiting for him to do everything.”
When I thought about this singer/accompanist relationship I made a connection with leadership in the church. Ministry is not about doing it right, or drawing attention to oneself. It is not without honour or respect and actually requires superior understanding, skill and sensitivity -even nice clothes- but the job of a minister (whether apostle, prophet, teacher, evangelist or pastor) is to raise other people up to their potential in their own service to the Great Composer. It’s not to draw attention to themselves, nor even to do everything “right” by constantly taking control because others are not up to their standards.
Gerald Moore was a well-known accompanist. His love of music was greater than his love of recognition, although he was not a shy person. He teamed up with some of the greatest artists in the past century. In some videos only his hands were in the frame. He deserved more respect. The singer or instrumentalist received (and still receives) top-billing. He made them sound good, but anyone who has ever worked with an accompanist knew this man was a giant among musicians.
May those who desire to lead in the church raise others up with the same spirit of excellence and confident humility.
This is an example of his work. Morgen is a setting of a poem by the German poet John Henry Mackay (a story in itself) by Richard Strauss with Janet Baker before she was a Dame. Somehow Moore makes us forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. The song is about the hope of seeing a loved one again in the morning.
He could have blasted us right out of our seats if he wanted to. Instead he sang with the most exquisitely sensitive pianissimo. He made us want to lean forward and be willing to strain to hear every note. I was privileged to hear a recital given in our small local theatre by one of the world’s greatest tenors. These guys have powerful voices that can easily carry over a large orchestra with significant brass sections. I have heard that the easiest way to obtain tickets to hear him in Bayreuth in Europe is to inherit them, but he often does concerts in the type of small remote Canadian town he grew up in, in town halls with less than perfect acoustics and accompanied by pianos usually banged upon by reluctant nine-year old recitalists. God bless Ben Heppner for honouring his roots. Every once in a while that voice would totally fill the room and ring with the power and beauty that made him famous, but it was the still small perfectly controlled sound that impressed me. Such musicality. Power under control. Gentleness.
Somehow gentleness becomes greatness only when it is connected to power.
I once watched a young singer walk away from a music competition looking very discouraged. I knew he didn’t understand the reason for the judge’s harsh critique so I spoke to him, hoping to encourage his pursuit of developing a considerable talent. (Alas, I have witnessed far too many judges who seem to feel their role is to cut down the field to the very best of the very best, rather than encourage all young musicians to enjoy music and to aspire to be the best they can be.) The baritone had a powerful voice that could shake the rafters, and like many young singers who discover they have a range and a power that is the envy of the less endowed, he was tempted to sing “blastissimo” to show it off, even though the song he sang was about wooing a young maiden.
After chatting and telling him I admired his voice he asked me what I thought of his performance. I told him I was indeed impressed with his obvious strength and then winked and said, “A woman may be very impressed by your muscles, but you will win her heart more thoroughly with gentleness and self-control than with your fists. ”
I guess I spoke his language, because he then went on to give me entirely too much information about his love life, which essentially can be boiled down to, “My girlfriend admires my body-builder physique and that I can protect her from any guy in the bar, but she says it is my gentleness in bed that pleases her most.”
He understood the advice instantly -and went home to work on his dynamic range. A comment about the spirit of gentleness on an earlier blog reminded me of this conversation (and set me to blushing again) but there is a strong connection between power and gentleness.
Power is task oriented and gentleness is relationship oriented. Power gets the job done, but gentleness demonstrates love and uses no more power or strength or authority than is necessary. Gentleness includes consideration of another person’s sensitivities and weaknesses as well as their strengths. A good daddy applies a different level of gentleness when cuddling his baby boy than he does play-wrestling with his four-year old or teaching his adolescent self-defence skills, but all of them require a restraint of the kind of power that would show up should an evil person threaten his child.
We all long to be protected, but we also need to know we are safe. Gentleness is not wimpiness. The juxtaposition of the symbolic language of violence in Psalm 18 gives all the more strength to the phrase, “Your gentleness has made me great.” The Creator of the universe could blast us right out of our seats with a whisper, but he knows that we are as frail as a woodland rosebud. He cradles us, provokes us, and trains us with no more power than is essential to help us develop every talent he has given us to be the people he intended us to be. He sets the example for how leaders in the church are to teach, encourage and correct, with a spirit of gentleness based on relationship -and backed by authority and power in Christ Jesus.
I’m in a television studio watching the recording of a talk show. The hostess is a youngish woman whose usual topics I consider to be, well, a bit shallow. The person she is interviewing this time is a composer and conductor. I don’t recognize him, but she seems a bit out of her depth.
She starts the interview by admitting she knows very little about music, but always wished she had some talent in that area, especially that she could sing.
The composer tells her anyone can have a part in making great music. He demonstrates three simple notes for her to sing (do, so, mi) and gets her to sing along with him …do, so, mi…do, so,mi…do,so,mi…
He tells her not to stop, then picks up a clarinet and starts weaving a tune around her three notes as she concentrates on singing.
A classical guitar joins them. The music I hear in my dream is soft and gentle and quite pretty.
Gradually more instruments join in –a cello playing continuo, a violin, a French horn, each adding to the melody making it more complex but still very lovely.
As I listen I close my eyes and the sounds become ribbons of colours winding around each other to weave a three-dimensional tapestry. The tension and drama in the music rise to a crescendo that blasts a trombone fanfare of thunder. Staccato flutes and harps and pizzicato violins ping like raindrops gathering into rivulets, streams and a mighty river. I see waves of sound surging through the valleys like floods in the desert. I see trees on the hillsides growing and producing ripe fruit as soon as the blossoms and leaves emerge. I see fields of ripe wheat waving in rhythm and sunlight piercing through dark blue-grey bruised banks of cloud. I fly over the earth like I am riding on the wings of an eagle.
I am carried away by the sound of the most marvellously beautiful symphonic music I have ever heard. In the dream it seems to last for hours. I ride on the wings of song played by a thousand instruments. I’m sailing over mountains and coastlands, forests and oceans, gliding through waterfalls and mists over mossy green islands.
Gradually the instruments drop out one at a time, like the droplets in a heavy downpour diminuendo from summer downpour, to shower, to sprinkles. I have been so immersed in the music, trying so hard to remember the themes that I have completely forgotten about the woman in the TV studio. As the music simplifies I hear the violin fade out, the guitar stop and I am again in the studio. The composer is left performing a duet with the woman who has her eyes shut in concentration. Her mouth is still open. She is still singing the three notes, catching up to composer’s rhythm after taking a deep breath every once in a while.
The entire symphony was composed and played around her three notes.
He ends the song gently, quietly, sweetly, and she opens her eyes in amazement.
The woman and I both gasp. We recognize him. It is the Master Composer. The great conductor. The Creator of all things. He turns and looks at me kindly. He disappears.
I wake up.
I rush for a pencil and manuscript paper but when I sit at the piano to write the music down, it disappears like a vapour of memory.
For hours I want only to go back to sleep so I can enter the dream again, but both sleep and the dream elude me. I pace around my house in frustration.
Later I call my friend and tell her about it.
“Do you think the woman represented me? If that was me what are my three notes?”
I no longer have the voice I once had. I know the great arias, I sing them in my head, but when I open my mouth the sound I expect to hear is not there anymore. I used to be a coloratura soprano. Nothing was too high or too ornate. I had great reviews, ovations, attention, “so much potential.” I thought my voice was my ticket to earning a place of respect in this world; it made me feel strong; it made me feel like there was some little piece of beauty in an otherwise plain person from a poor family. I studied for years –then my health failed, and my voice failed with it. Now…it’s better after people prayed for me, but, it’s just not the same. It hurts to think about singing in public, or even in private sometimes. Letting go of my identity as a singer took years of mourning.
I said to her, “Tell me, if I have only small range left what do you think my three notes are?”
She didn’t hesitate. “He has shown you, O woman, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” ( a paraphrase of Micah 6:8)
I know she is right.
Jesus Christ is the great composer. He takes what we can give and multiplies it into something way beyond our imagination.