Thoughts about concerts, singing hymns, and the therapeutic value of music

orchestra conductorLast night I attended a concert by the Cleveland Orchestra.  Joshua Bell was the soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto and then the Orchestra played the Symphonie fantastique by the French composer Hector Berlioz.  It was probably one of the most amazing musical experiences I have had in my life and during the intermission I posted a comment about it on Facebook which ended by saying “Life is good.”  Afterwards, I was reflecting on that and I realized that this may be the first time in over two and a half years, since our son’s death, that I had even a brief time where I truly felt that life is good.  Such is the power of music!

I remember when I was teaching band and general music in central Illinois right after graduating from college, one of my sixth grade students asked me during a general music class, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?”  In his mid-west farming culture there didn’t seem to be much value in the intricacies of  sound for pleasure. I didn’t have a good answer for him then but if he asked me now I would tell him about last night.  About the ability of music to transport us emotionally to a better, happier place, even for a little while.  I am grateful for the many music teachers in my life who helped me become a better performer and also helped me be able to appreciate the beauty of what I experienced last night.

I have for quite some time been meaning to write about how therapeutic music has been for me these past few years – how much I value the art of it as well as the way that it can be a vehicle for the words of my faith. A few months ago I was reading something by Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, and she had a paragraph about singing hymns that really rang true for me. She writes:  “The hymns are bigger than any mistakes; you fumble around with the hymnal and sing the wrong words – you’re on the wrong verse but the hymn expands to make room for all these voices, even yours. We speak as a body; we have set the intent together, so rather than individual shrill cries or the drones of one crazy person, it’s a braid, stronger than each strand, something modest and plain, yet beautiful beyond words.” (Anne Lamott, “Some Assembly Required”)

It is the beauty of music that it can braid us together into something stronger than we are separately.  It is one of the reasons that I enjoy congregational singing. It is one of the reasons that sharing a musical experience in a filled auditorium with everyone literally holding their breath, straining to catch every note, can be such a wonderful experience. We are for a moment joined with one another, the  musicians, and the composer in a transcendent experience that really cannot be described. But it does the soul good.

And so, in the midst of a season of life in which I find every positive experience qualified by the grief that I live with, for one moment in time I was released from this present darkness and I could truly say, “Life is Good.”

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