Friday, April 13, 2012

Music and my mind.

This is probably one of the most sensitive topics when it comes to discussing my faith. It played a key part in my breakup with a college boyfriend and to this day it confounds me.

So I was talking with my cousin the other day about the maze of music today that is s=Sacred. I learned some very interesting things from her (she's all music'd up in the degree department) about hymns, the Reformation and the changes in sacred music in the West. The most interesting probably being the recent rebirth of the hymn through artists like Keith and Kristyn Getty. That conversation got me thinking that I need to at least start talking about this.

My introduction to sacred music ran in synch with the rest of my life. An indelicate blend of Southern Black American and carefully tempered White Southern Baptist. Songs like the one above mingled with Kenneth Copeland, Sandi Patty and the big favorite of my brother's and mine...the Prism Series (Red was the best...I don't care what anyone says). day the pastor of the church I was born in died and things changed. A new pastor came in and everything was different. The music, the marked an enormous loss of innocence in my life...and the soundtrack? Modern Praise music. At first, I simply disliked the sound. Kirk Franklin sounded distinctly disrespectful to ears that missed the reserved Yield not to Temptation. After a while though, I began to associate it with loss, corruption, deceit, scandal and the disintegration of the safe and warm church home I once knew. Though I do love some of the chord progressions, I still dislike the general style of gospel music and vocals, so it's hard for me to sort out the scars and my personal preferences.

In high school I played handbells (don't laugh)...and when I say I played handbells, I played HANDBELLS. By my senior year I'd been playing five years and had the distinguished title of "soloist" and co-president. We performed every year at EPCOT's Candlelight Processional during the Christmas season. If you ever get a chance...go. A series of stars every year narrate the story of Christ's birth, accompanied by a mass choir and full orchestra. (I saw it  this year with Blair Underwood and it was amazing). I'll never forget the first performance. Every show ends with the Hallelujah Chorus and, as custom dictates, the audience stands. Apparently they didn't want to write handbells into the arrangement, so we always just stood and looked onall that was Disney that lay before us. I remember looking out into the audience and seeing tears. One woman in particular...crying. I'd never seen music do that before. It was the first time I really understood.

A few weeks later at our high school Christmas concert, our choir mixed up their traditional repetoir with the modernized version of Handel's work. I was offended. It's such a grandiose and uplifting piece and I felt all of that had been lost in a sea of repetition and...volume.

In college I dated...guess what...a gospel singer! He had a gorgeous voice, LOVED his choir...the music, the people, the lifestyle. I went along to some performances...I was trying to open myself up and after all, I was a Christian, I should be able to appreciate it. Each performance felt like I was reliving some quiet trauma. Even the people themselves I found off-putting. He loved the music though...constantly trying to get me to appreciate Donnie McClurkin while I was busy exploring the worlds of Mahler, Maxwell, Mystikal and Queen.  I heard more of the beauty of our creator in Freddie Mercury's "All God's People" than I did in Gospel songs sung straight from the scriptures. I think that's when I realized exactly how jaded I had become.  Not that I SHOULD have liked the music, but I just didn't understand why the personal experience of songs like Amazing Grace didn't seem to exist anymore. I felt lost musically as a Christian.

I then I tried Christian rap...yeah.

A few years later, I took guitar lessons at a community college. Our instructor, Bill, was working on his degree in jazz guitar and played at his church. The man played an amazing lead. He asked who I wanted to emulate as a guitarist. When I said Brian May, he stretched out his hands and gestured for my guitar. He immediately started to play in May's distinctive style. I felt a shock run through my body at hearing my little strat belting out the string of jaunty chords. May's music is full of laughter, pain, intensity, happiness, frivolity...I've never heard his emotional range anywhere else and there was no one else I wanted to sound like. I asked what, technically, made it so special. In all of one minute, he explained to me what made the sound unique (beside the self-made guitar) and showed me how to do it. It was so sweet.  Bill is one of those people who makes you feel more musical just by talking with them. One afternoon after class, he sat with two of my best friends and joked about how he, being White himself, never quite understood why his racial brethren clapped on 1 and 3, and then had such a hard time doing so...and then were so happy when they did it. I heard God when Bill played.

I am still...very confused. Perhaps more than ever. If you ask me what sacred music I like, I can tell you old things: songs from old Black folk like Lonesome Valley above that can make me wail with a pain I've never known...but not much new that officially counts as "Christian".  As my cousin explained when it comes to church music...everyone swears their way is right and there probably isn't anything more personal when it comes to the worship experience.


  1. Emotion and music. Yes.

    I have an...emotional tie to certain music. The other night Amazing Grace rotated through on my I-Pod as I was ramming through a set of sit ups. I broke out in tears.

    Amazing Grace was one of my grandmother's favorite songs and we sang it at her funeral. It is played on the bagpipes at all police officer's funerals, and unfortunately, I have been to way too many of those in the last two years. The lyrics ring home for my current goals. I could go on for days.

    Do you still play the guitar? Also, do you listen to percussion music? You might enjoy Evelyn Glennie, who is a deaf percussion artist.


  2. Oh gosh...Amazing Grace is TOTALLY one of "those" songs. I've honestly only heard Amazing Grace on movie police funerals (Infernal Affairs to be specific), but even then it got to me. My family usually marches in to funerals to "This Little Light of Mine", so that one kinda gets to me.

    I don't play guitar anymore sadly. Lead guitar was one of my big life goals, but I found it somewhat frustrating to learn after years of decent proficiency in piano...having to fight through the pain of a C scale and finger exercises was harder on my ego and will than anything else (worse than jiu jitsu if you can imagine). I had to make a choice about guitar...since I'm not naturally musically gifted, it would require very regular focus and practice on my part, and I had/have other pursuits to explore. I'm always wary of the "jack of all trades, master of none" label, so while I still work on quite a few different interests/skills, I had to drop guitar if I were to give the others due focus.

    I never really got into percussion...which is probably why I was always so bad at keeping steady time. I'd never heard of Evelyn Glennie, but just listened to one of her marimba concertos...crazy.