A few weeks ago, some fellow church musicians and I went to lunch following our Sunday morning service. The sermon that day had centered on Romans 12:4-8, a passage discussing various spiritual gifts and encouraging believers to use their gifts in service to the Body of Christ. I had been thinking about the sermon while waiting for my friends to arrive at the restaurant. When they joined me, we talked, as we do on most Sundays, about the music in that day’s worship service. What went wrong, what went right, what we could do better next time, etc. We always tend to pick our performances apart, as we’re all perfectionists in our own ways. But the music had gone really well that week, with fewer glitches than usual (not that we ever have big mistakes, but like I said, we’re perfectionists). I was flushed with satisfaction and gratitude, and still considering the sermon’s emphasis on spiritual gifts, I burst out with, “Isn’t having music as your spiritual gift the very best gift you can have? I wonder if people with other gifts wish they had the gift of music – or are they just as happy with their gifts as we are with ours.”
Looking back on that question, it seems more than a little immature to me. As the Bible clearly and consistently points out, we’re not to envy or covet each others’ gifts, or roles in the body of believers. The Message (paraphrase version of the Bible) puts it like this: “Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.”
I try to take that message to heart – to avoid envy or pride. Still, I consistently find myself rejoicing over the fact that God granted me the gift of music. The process of rehearsing and performing with the church choir, or practicing with the praise band, fills me with satisfaction and gratitude. The words of the songs are energized by their musical context, and they fill my heart with joy and with a deep sense of fulfillment. With repeated rehearsal, the lyrics settle themselves into my heart and mind and become a very real part of who I am and how I think. But the process of practicing involves more than just the words of the songs – the melodies, harmonies, phrases, and interludes speak their own mysterious, whispering messages to my soul.
This may sound really strange to some people. I would guess that most people would assume that practicing would be tedious, repetitious, even boring. Occasionally that may be true, but only infrequently, at least in my experience as a church musician. What, if anything, lifts the rehearsal experience beyond the pedestrian and on to the level of transcendence? Beyond that, why is the experience of performance, of mutual music-making, so exhilarating, so much pure fun?
A few days after the conversation at the restaurant, I read a review of a new book titled Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson. (Read the article for yourself here.) The author’s project in this book is to explain the neurobiological, physical, bodily implications of love. As I read through the review of this book on one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pickings, some of the reviewer’s remarks sparked some connections in my brain with the thoughts on music I had been exploring earlier in the week. Allow me to share some of these connections here.
Fredrickson states, “Perhaps counterintuitively, love is far more ubiquitous than you ever thought possible for the simple fact that love is connection… The new take on love that I want to share with you is this: Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong.” When I read this, I immediately thought of the shared positive emotions experienced, for example, during a typical choir rehearsal. We laugh together; we sing together; we strive for improvement, if not perfection, together. We hear each others’ voices, strong or weak, and we share the task of blending our voices together, in harmony or unison, to make pleasing, even beautiful, sounds. We definitely fit the definition Fredrickson provides: a group of people connecting over a shared, strong, positive emotion. If we accept her premise, then what we experience when we sing together is nothing short of love itself. We feel love, we share love, we are immersed in love. No wonder we leave the rehearsal space feeling better, more alive (although maybe more tired) than when we entered.
Frederickson points out the fact that in Western cultural traditions, especially the American cultural tradition, individuality is valorized above almost any other quality. According to her, this emphasis on the individual experience causes us to view emotions, including love, as something felt personally, rather than something shared – “my anger,” “his devotion,” “her despair.” Fredrickson would have us re-think this perspective, widening our horizons to consider the impact the feelings of others have on us. She uses the term “positivity resonance” to explain the shared, mutually interactive feelings that come into sync when people experience love, whether as partners or in a group. She explains: “Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belongs to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections.”
When I first read this, I was immediately struck by the implications this theory would have regarding my ruminations on my music-making activities. What could be a more positive shared experience than that of making music? What could be a more perfect conduit for reverberating connections between people than the blending of voices, the most personal of musical instruments, in the act of singing? Add to that heady mixture the emotional intensity of expressing faith through praise, in songs that relate the truths of the Bible and meditate on the qualities of our God.
I realize, however, that this “positivity resonance” is not exclusive to church choirs or church musicians. My daughter and several of my friends sing in a community chorus that practices every Thursday night. Most of the members work a full, eight-hour day, and then spend an additional three hours in rehearsal. You would think that these chorus members would come home exhausted and ready for bed, but this is not the case. They are full of energy, hyped-up and euphoric, and have trouble settling down and preparing for sleep. In fact, my daughter and some of her friends have dubbed this condition “Post-Chorale Syndrome,” in recognition of the heightened state of awareness and vitality they encounter each week, both during and after chorale practice.
So. To what can we ascribe these seemingly contradictory and confusing events? I believe that the excitement, elation, and euphoria experienced by musicians during rehearsal and performance can be seen as the result of the simple fact that these people have experienced love. They have shared intense, positive interactions with like-minded fellow musicians who mirror their own personal, musical expressions. Instead of a private, individual emotion felt only in the interior of one’s heart, this kind of love expands the boundaries of fellowship and brotherhood to encompass the entire group. Fredrickson explains this phenomenon: “While infused with love you see fewer distinctions between you and others. Indeed, your ability to see others — really see them, wholeheartedly — springs open. Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself.” In light of this promise, I can only give thanks for the beautiful, powerful, amazing gift of music in my life, and my heart longs to sing, “Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.”