There is a quote running around ascribed to either Plato or Socrates claiming one of them said, "Books will be the end of all learning," or "Reading will be the end of all learning." It usually gets a chuckle, as it makes the point that we tend to remember less of what we have written down. The context today is usually a reference to the internet and our various "memory saving" devices. Supposedly they are making us dumber. I'm not sure if our memories really are worse today, or if it is just aging folks like me blaming the internet rather than accepting the decay of the flesh. What I do know is that I couldn't find a source for the quote.
But the comparitive merits of rote learning and literacy is an interesting topic, and FINE TUNING here brings it up because it relates to topics extremely relevant to church music: learning by ear, learning through a score, interpreting a score, folk music, and playing by heart.
Many of us learn very little music by ear, and yet this is how most parishioners do learn music. Sure, the hymnal is a great aid to them - if it is used. But take time to discover how many of your choir members just look at the words on the music you pass out and ignore the score and you'll get a better estimation of how the congregation uses the hymnal, especially in this age where the current and previous generations received much less choral training in school. And yet even as they don't learn as well as they could or they should, they do learn. And perhaps sometimes in the process they listen more to the music than some organists listen to themselves!
Which leads to learning through a score. I think it is great, but it readily because a substitute for LISTENING, and herein lies the problem alluded to above. So many church musicians are glued to the score. I've even seen proud posts on YouTube of intellectual church musicians posting what they think is great music - but the great music is left on the score and what goes out into the pews or across the net is just not something the listener will want to embrace. And so people get the idea that they don't like sacred music....or classical music....or traditional church music......or organ music, because they haven't heard performances worth listening to. In other words, the musician is just broadcasting the symbols on the page, but not interpreting the score so that the music is inspiring, convincing, beautiful.
This is why the folk/pop musicians in the church often attract more followers in the parish than the trained musicians. The music may be simple, but it is well-played. There is lyric expression, harmonic logic, textural clarity, and rhythmic vitality: the hallmarks of good music in any genre. It is unfortunate that many "learn by ear" musicians today - even some very talented ones - are wedded to a very narrow range of music and are so focused on making what they do sound just like the recordings they hear. For in this way they too lose the muse, becoming as focused on sound imitation as some traditional musicians are focused on playing notes that they are not longer true folk musicians but just "play by ear" musicians. A true folk musician does play be ear, but also INTERPRETS and makes the songs he hears his own. Yes, the "play it like the record" crowd often plays well, nailing the tune and the chords and the rhythms such as I outlined above, but it isn't authentically theirs. They may successfully recreate approximations of performances that have inspired them which have also inspired people who listen to this music on the radio and so go to contemporary worship services, but it fails to connect with the assembly just as much as the automaton organist who hits all the right notes.
The answer for all musicians, whether a score is used or not, is to play by heart. I think this means more than memorization, though knowing something "by heart" certainly suggests a good amount of memory is involved in the process. This means that the classically-trained musician listens to what he is playing so that he is able to interpret the score so that it is a means toward enacting music in a given space, for a given assembly, at a given time in a way that connects with the hearers. In the same way, the musician who learns by ear has to move from replicating an inspiring performance he wishes to copy to interpreting that music in a way that sounds best on the instrument being used, in the room in which it will be played, and with the other musicians who will join in playing the music - again for the purposes of connecting with the hearers. This process of interpretation is only possible when the musician listens to himself, for it is the process by which a performer truly owns the music.
This is the key to inspiring the congregation, no matter what music you are playing. As Vladimir Feltsman so aptly stated, "You cannot give something away you don't have."
The "end" of all learning can have a better meaning: the purpose of what we do. The end of our learning as church musicians is to inspire people with music that magnifies God's Word, that evokes the Gospel, and summons the song the Lord has placed in their hearts (Ps. 40:3a). Listening is the key. May we move beyond the score and beyond the recording, and use our musicianship to make authentic music for and with our congregations, for the sake of the world God so loved.
The Holy Word of God Endures Forever - This text was commissioned by CPH for the release of The Lutheran Study Bible, a hymn on the Word of God for Reformation five years ago, in 2009. Stanza 1,...
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