“Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.”
– Steve Sabol, President of NFL Films.
One of the most difficult questions someone once asked me was about what I planned to do in the future to further improve or educate myself musically. I knew the answer existed but I could not then delineate it. A second difficult question was “How do I learn to play with soul?”
About ten years ago a convergence of events and opportunities presented themselves to me. I was musically stuck and I thought I achieved all I could achieve. I was energized for growth but seemed to lack the tools, colleagues and inspiration thereof. I started looking for a new job. I was also working for a cleric who was not a very good human being on so many levels. When we were converting the rectory basement to a youth meeting room the contractor found decaying asbestos hanging from the pipes and he wouldn’t take the job. A new contractor was found for the job and he surprisingly didn’t find any asbestos. Hmmph. Then when we purchased a building to expand our parking lot, there was asbestos found in the basement and the bid to remove the asbestos and demolish the structure was $80,000. The bid from a second contractor who didn’t find any asbestos was only $30,000. Praise Jesus the church didn’t incur any additional expense for apocryphal asbestos removal and, in sixty years when our children develop lung cancer, well, there will probably be a cure. Praise Jesus again. So, who is the greater monster; someone who is, for instance on the sex offender registry for urinating in public (that pervert) or a cleric who discernibly hurt no one? To think major industrial companies got away with these activities for decades.
I was at the height of my then musical skill yet at the lowest in inspiration, I continued working and going through the motions but still did not sense growth. I didn’t know why. I still did my job to the best of my abilities and even have a letter from the Bishop’s office stating that I had the best music program in the whole diocese. Something was still missing. It was then when I gave up my pursuit of music that I began to grow. I had another “cease and desist” about five years later, another about a year after that and I am ascending the precipice of one right now. The less I did in search of soul through discipline and structure, the more I found it. I played the Broadway Tour production of “Les Miserables” and there was an inspirational line sung by the unholy trio of Jean Valjean the convict, Fantine the prostitute and the lying Bishop: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
When you go to college and immerse yourself in books, lectures and study, you come out with knowledge, inspiration, drive, energy and maybe even technique. Much of that is rooted in academia and, it is good.
I then started volunteering answering two suicide hotlines. I would spend hours listening to a caller’s struggle with drug abuse, addiction, homelessness, joblessness, arrest, domestic and sexual abuse. Many of my callers were feeling lost, alone, forsaken, abandoned or ostracized. I quickly realized that these were normal, ordinary people all of us would encounter on the streets, in our homes, in our churches, our neighborhoods or in the stores on an everyday basis. When a caller was reticent to allow me to steer them into their pain, I could keep them on the line and safe from harming themselves by talking about music, hiking, religion or travel; Anything we had in common. It was easy for me to let go of all that pain and stress when I hung up. I would also go home and practice the piano, go to a rehearsal, or study the Gospel readings for Sunday. I would sometimes talk about the pain in the world to my music friends, church friends or hiking buddies while on a trail. It was my form of debriefing and, I would play the piano with the life of others on my mind.
While keeping vigil at a homeless shelter for men, I would sometimes talk to the guys late at night and discover that many of them were once professionals, family men and dreamers. Some of these peripatetics were running from a past, a future, a crime or just wandering hoping for a break. Interestingly, many of them were very spiritual. We would talk of hiking, travel, music, religion, carpentry or plumbing. One once sat at the piano and ripped off some ragtime. Another 20 year old sat in a corner with his guitar, composing a tune. I would then go to my church the next morning to prepare for my weekly recital where I would spend the day alone in the church with music – pondering the many wonderful stories I just heard and shared.
I taught GED classes for about two years. Many of the students were in their early 20’s and dropped out of school because of drugs, gangs, arrest, to be providers to their baby’s momma, or they had unstable family lives and were kicked out of their homes. Most all of them were very smart – such as the drug dealers and gang members and not only in the street sense. Their math skills surpassed mine, especially in the metric system (how drugs are measured). The women who gave birth in their teens had a tenacity, ferociousness, courage and work ethic which could only have been borne out of being thrust into adulthood at an early age, like gold tested in fire. There is an earthy difference between one of those moms as opposed to someone who went to college, started a career, then planned and prepared to have a baby and start a family. A common denominator for all these people was the copiousness of music. It was sinuously networked throughout their life from listening, jamming on a stoop, in a car, in an alley or dancing in the street. They could recite thousands of lyrics because it was how they communicated and communed.
I recently “purchased” through a donation to PBS the complete five disc set of the Ed Sullivan Show and three discs containing footage from the original Woodstock concert. The musicians were young kids, uneducated in music theory, harmony and technique. However, they were musicians with talent and confidence most of us could only dream of achieving in a lifetime. Why is that? Because music was the fabric of their lives. They ate it, drank it and slept it (and smoked it). Music was part of their social landscape. They made music on stoops, in fields, in cars, living rooms, basements, garages, jail cells and to escape their parents. Then one day someone would say “Let’s start a band” and the rest is history. Music wasn’t their goal in life, it was the inspiration thereof. They didn’t have time to study it because they were living it. Their teachers were not professors in a classroom, but practitioners who were doing it. Music then became a tool to educate others about the evils of legislation, war, poverty, persecution, prejudice, dumping of pollutants (like asbestos) . . . every struggle in life which created, BTW, good music. They suffered oppression, suppression and arrest, then they sang about it. A great example would be Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”
The early African slaves sang in the field to pass time, to keep time, to remember stories from time long ago, to pray for salvation and to surreptitiously speak in code right under the noses of their white masters. Early Jews and Christians sang songs around campfires to remember history, impart lessons and share stories of the wonderful deeds of God such as the parting of the Reed Sea and saving the oppressed, the story of Adam and Eve and original sin, The Christmas Story and the death of the Holy Innocents, Noah and the great flood which eradicated evil from the earth, etcetera.
My most favorite church service of the entire year is the Easter Vigil Mass, starting with the magnificent Exultet extolling the power of God, all sung by firelight. Then there are several more stories accompanied by songs again, all by firelight. Done properly and in its entirety, this service could take up to four hours. Most churches cut it down to one and a half to two. Praise Jesus – but not for four hours. WWJD.
At this stage in my life I don’t need to study music as I did in my youth. Despite continuing to do so because there is much I want to do but can’t, I found that there are other things which can improve my “soul.” The music is already in me and around me, under rocks and in the wood. I need to work at being a conduit between instrument, God and people. A trinity within the thin-spaces. It is not enough to study music, to make music or to share music. Music is an expression of life and that is where its growth lies: in the pain, struggle, joy, excitement and transformation of one another. For, out of what we live and we believe, our lives become the music that we weave.