Last week I rhapsodized (a bit) on the irreplaceable value of live music as the means by which we experience the personality of the performers. In a good performance a bond is created between listener and performer, binding them together in the act of mutual meditation through communication on a particular theme or subject. The performer gives something to his listeners and the audience receives that gift, reflects on it, and augments it with a responsive understanding. At least, that’s the way it is supposed to play out in a perfect world. But what are we supposed to think of all those sub-stellar performances we have been forced to sit through? Anyone who has played an instrument in junior high knows what I’m referring to as he or she not only sat through such a performance, but also forced a certain aural martyr-hood upon his or her parents.
I had the opportunity the think through this issue at the Alliance of Christian Musicians Pacific Northwest Young Church Musician Recital Competition (a mouthful, to be sure). The recital gives young church musicians the opportunity to showcase their talents before an encouraging and appreciative audience (mostly parents, as well as church members who have taken upon themselves the unenviable but visionary role of patron of the arts in their congregations), receive instructive feedback from a panel of judges, and compete for cash prizes to further their education. Such a competition is bound to have mixed results with some students superbly prepared and others terrified by the lonely high calling of the stage. Add to that the eclectic programming due to the various abilities and interests of the students and the listener is hardly able to enter and remain in a world of sound, music, and art for the hour of performances.
As difficult as it was to listen to certain unrhythmic and stuttering renditions of the romantic music of Debussy and Chopin, I discovered that there is a beauty in the act of communicating quite apart from the finesse of the communication itself. These students were sincere in their presentations and expressed the yet unformed material of their souls in a quite honest and transparent manner. Given the pressures from peers and youth-culture-at-large to conform to a certain image and hide those incomplete or unlovely parts of yourself, I was amazed that these students would put themselves in a situation where pretense must be dropped and their true selves would be exposed in the glare of the spotlight. This willingness to try their hand at communicating difficult emotions, ideas, and themes to an audience allowed us to catch a glimpse of the mechanics of communication, separated as it was at times from the message it attempted to convey.
Again, the performances of the students allowed an appreciative audience to see and imagine what future beauty might yet unfold from the immature and youthful gardens of their hearts and minds. These students are still learning the meaning of love, passion, grief, joy, and peace and their interpretations of the mature musical reflections on these themes is bound to be shaky. Yet the contours of their own understanding could be traced in the rise and fall of their melodies and harmonies. The bond created between audience and performer was not the lifeline connecting a listener to the meditations of a virtuosic soul, but a bond was created that inspired the listener’s imagination to consider the student in light of his present performance and the yet unripe fruit of further development.
Good performances bring the listener and performer to a common understanding of a musical subject, but poor performances allow the listener to meditate on the value of interpersonal communication. By stripping away the veil of beautiful sound and emotional response, we are able to see more distinctly the person behind the veil and the beauty of the human soul undergirding and making possible the descant and variation on the central theme.
And for the record, some of the young musicians in the Pacific Northwest are remarkably skilled. I’m thrilled that groups like the Alliance of Christian Musicians are promoting excellence in church music and think that the present investments will pay great dividends in the future.