MUSIC: The Piece You Thought You Would Never Play by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

The Piece You Thought You Would Never Play by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

Can you think of a piece of music that you did not like when you first sought to play or sing it, but now it is one of your favorites?  Sight reading it, you got only half the notes.  There were strange intervals, irregular rhythms, tangled textures, and an obstacle course of technical problems.  If your teacher had not assigned it or your choir director had not chosen it or if it were not required for a competition or a degree recital, that first reading would have been the last of it.  But then you set to work.  You broke it down into manageable parts, playing or singing just one of them at a time, then putting them together.  You took it at a slow tempo and marked in accidentals that you were always forgetting.  You became an athlete in training for the Olympics, only your practice field was your instrument or the choir you directed or sang in.

Then one morning in the shower you found yourself humming several of the main themes.  The music was working its way into you.  It was no longer just marks on a page but song in your heart.  You arrived at the point where the pyrotechnics of the piece had become second nature, and your whole being was focused on the musicality of the piece.

Now, years later, this composition is one of your old standbys, something you play or sing for the sheer joy of it.  This is the piece you hated, the one you thought you would never master – and surely never perform!  What happened?  If I were a neuroscientist who video-scanned your brain each time you attempted the piece and made a running film from the first time you sight-read the music to your final beloved performance, I might be able to trace how cells, neurons, and synapses got activated in new ways as you engaged your whole somatic, chemical, animal being in turning those marks on a page into combinations of vibrating air molecules.  It would be fascinating for us to watch such an account of your music-making.  But in the end, the most thorough scientific account possible would still not explain the sheer joy of your music making.  The scans and the physiological explanations would not be able to capture what happened to your spirit, namely, how satisfaction and joy suffused your entire being through your mastery of music that you first disliked but came to love.

As a theologian and musician, I consider such an experience to be nothing less than what it means to grow in the life of the spirit.  Whether or not you are theologically inclined, the experience represents an expansion of your humanity, a deepening of your sympathies for a wider range of sonic possibilities, a broadening of your receptive capacities to forms of expression that had previously baffled you.

Such experience is not limited to those who perform music.  It also applies to listeners, who sometimes have to grow into a piece through repeated hearings.  Those repeated hearings function in the same way as a performer’s repeated practice sessions: they are retraining the brain to expand its repertoire of neurological responses, and in the process are helping listeners to grow in the life of the spirit and expand their receptive capacities.

We need to remember our experience of mastering and coming to love music that we initially rejected.  If we find ourselves baffled by what a performer has programmed, it may be worthwhile to abstain from immediate judgment.  Instead, listen with the kind of attentiveness demanded to learn something that first perplexed but later delighted us.  Of course, there is music that we do not like when we first heard it, and that we never come to like.  But we humans have an amazing capacity to grow, including our ability to expand our musical repertoires – both as performers and listeners – and thus to grow in the spirit.

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