Reflections of an Aging Musician


"To Music"

                O art that I hold dear - how often, in hours of gloom,
                when life had caught me in its savage toils,
                you ahve kindled warm love in my heart
                and have borne me to a better world!

                Often a sigh from your harp,
                a sweet sacred chord from you,
                gave me heavenly visions of happier times.
                O dearest art - for all this I thank you.

                                                                (Franz von Schober)

        Now that my wife, Kathleen, and I have survived a combined hundred years of music ministry in the church, I look back in wonder at the "labyrinthine ways" that have led us to this point in time. Most people, including church musicians, well into the journey through life can relate to Longfellow’s poem, "Excelsior," in which a youth braves the rough Alpine terrain, sometimes facing hostile avalanches, mountain torrents and drifting snow. He struggles to keep his banner aloft till the end. It bears but a single word: "Excelsior" - onward and upward!

        I think of my mother, who made me practice the piano when I didn’t want to. From time to time I would glance at my baseball mitt out of the corner of my eye as I practiced my scales. And I thank God for her and all parents who have sacrificed time and money to give their children a musical experience. I once heard Isaac Stern decry the fact that so many children are deprived of the unique thrill that music alone can give. I do not demean the baseball mitt. Sports can teach a child how to win graciously and how to lose equally graciously, how to be part of a team, how to share. But we all know that sports are rife with pitfalls and in need of constant monitoring to ensure civil behavior.

        Positive musical experiences, for their part, can broaden our sensitivity and add a whole esthetic dimension to a child’s life. Some of the "music" to which our children are exposed today, unfortunately, does just the opposite. Like much of today’s entertainment it can be angry, vulgar and desensitizing. It is hard to conceive of such unrefined noise ever raising a child’s thoughts to noble ideals or enriching the soul. This saddens me.

        My earliest church music experiences were during elementary school when I played hymns at Sunday school in our local Methodist Church and Latin hymns for Benediction at St. Mary’s Catholic Church – a good ecumenical experience that I still find of great worth today. Early keyboard and church choir adventures led Kathleen and myself to an eventual immersion into a life of music ministry that would remain with us until today.

        Philosophers tell us that we need to take the time to care for our souls and then remain open to the possibility of those peak experiences that may occur in our lives. Scripture warns us that we can have "eyes, but not see; have ears, yet hear not."  Blessed are those parents who help their children to see and hear the beauty around them, to savor the world in its grandeur, to be in awe at the work of human hands – art, music and literature.

        Throughout our lives we all strive, in one way or another, toward what psychologist, Abraham Maslow, refers to as "self-actualization." For Maslow, this is our greatest need: the fulfillment of one’s potential as an individual person. To achieve this we must struggle through life to keep ourselves open to God, to others, and to the beauty of the world around us. If we become closed we cannot grow. So we care for our souls through study and contemplation in order to be receptive and ripe when those peak experiences come our way. They help us to grow. We must be vigilant lest these moments pass by unnoticed. As the Romans said, Carpe diem – Seize the day!

        We all can recall our peak experiences. For instance my wife, Kathleen, could be transported while singing the Verdi Te Deum with a full orchestra at the Pius X School of Liturgical Music or suddenly overwhelmed at a first glimpse of the Mont Saint Michel. Yet not all peak experiences need be of awesome proportion. Some may be magnificent miniatures. During my years of study in Europe I heard some mighty organs peal in the great cathedrals. But I also studied Gregorian chant many years at a Benedictine abbey in Belgium where Sunday vespers with the monks would lift me to another dimension from which it was difficult to return.

        Spectacular music performances can be overwhelming. But I once spent a week in a tiny Black Forest town in Germany in the 50’s when the townspeople still came to Sunday church in their local costume. The entire congregation sang everything in four-part harmony and raised the roof. Later, on a remote island in the Atlantic off the southern coast of Brittany, I heard rough lobster fishermen sing the Latin mass and Sunday vespers boisterously in a hardly recognizable Gregorian chant. I’m sure they didn’t understand the Latin but they were certainly making a "loud noise to the Lord." And the melancholic Breton songs of these hearty Celts moved me to the core. The men in those days did most of the singing and the women tended to listen stoically.

        There is surely no sound on earth more pleasing to God than that of an ordinary congregation singing its heart out. For, at worship, it is God who is the audience, not the congregation. This is why it is still sad for me that after years as a church musician  some people still chose to remain silent spectators in our churches rather than active participants. Anyone who can sing "Happy Birthday," "Take Me out to the Ball Game" or "Auld Lang Syne" can sing a hymn.

 As Kathleen and I complete our first hundred years of music ministry we treasure our experiences. Thank God for music. We hope you will treasure your own peak experiences as well. As Ned Rorem has written, "No moment is wasted that makes a memory." *

Richard E. Cross

* Ned Rorem in The Final Diary