Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Church Musician: On Music, Identity, Writing, and Drive

I cut my creative teeth on church music. I was reminded of this today when my mom directed my attention to this article and name-checked my piano teacher, Mrs. DeVries.

Mrs. DeVries was the church musician for my baptismal congregation. For the first seven or eight years of my life, we worshipped with a medium-sized Dutch Reformed congregation (my mother emigrated from the Netherlands). My parents pushed each of their children to take piano lessons. I started in 2nd Grade and took lessons until 8th Grade.

Mrs. DeVries taught us piano using standard piano books - John Schaum's color graded series formed the backbone. But she also made us play hymns. I clearly recall trying to steadily but smoothly play those blocky four-note chord structures at our yearly recitals. And we didn't just play the hymns for others' enjoyment; we played so everyone could sing.

Most musicians will tell you that playing your own song and playing for others to sing are two very different experiences. When playing for others to sing, you must be both musician and conductor. You must drive the beat while also listening to those singing. You must play loud enough to keep rhythm and pitch and soft enough so that the piano does not overwhelm the vocalist. This is a delicate balance.

I realize now that most of my musical background has been as an accompanist. After 8th Grade, I never took up formal training for any other instrument, save for my voice, and even then as part of a choir, not as a soloist. In high school, I worked as an accompanist for vocal lessons and served as part of my church's contemporary worship band. In college, I moved into the role of coordinating worship for our weekly chapel services. Since then, I have served as a musician or lead musician for a variety of churches, youth groups and new worshipping endeavors.

I dabbled in more performative pursuits while in college, recording two short CDs of my own compositions. But I have never felt confident being a "stage performer." I once attended a workshop with Sandra McCracken. She talked about her struggles moving from between being a singer-songwriter and a church musician. She realized she had to write her songs differently so others could sing them. I've never had that problem. I've always been more of a worship facilitator. I play so everyone can sing. My favorite moments in musical worship come when the instruments drop out and the vocalists step away from their microphones and the voice of the great congregation swells to fill the room.


Tonight, while looking for a folder containing an article I scanned and printed for reading, I stumbled across my college senior portfolio. I graduated eight years ago with a double major in Religious Studies and English, with a focus on creative writing. My portfolio was, perhaps pretentiously, titled "Meditations." It contained an equal amount of quasi-scholarly papers—about theodicy, John Donne, and, in one instance, an ambitious interpolation of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Søren Kierkegaard—and creative writing—mostly short stories, with one poorly written one-act play and, surprisingly, no poetry.

I flipped through the pages with a mixture of caution and anticipation. Wow, I used a lot of really long block quotes. That metaphor doesn't quite work. How did that sappy piece win second place?

Then came the realization: I miss this.

I miss staying up until the wee hours of the morning because the urge to write shot through my bones, giving me a buzz stronger than five espresso shots. I miss hearing a character's voice in my ear. I miss tweaking sentences because I knew the words on the page were a poor shadow of the world in my heart.


My writing mentor in college, Dr. Vivian, reminded every one of his classes that writers were addicts, obsessives. Real writers wrote out of need. Writers in it for the long haul wrote for themselves, wrote no matter what because they couldn't not write.

I've never felt that way. The urge would come and go. I wrote toward deadlines and assignments. Once those deadlines and assignments, the excuses of creative writing classes, faded away, so too did my writing. I remember a particularly painful (for me) conversation with Dr. Vivian, during which I realized that I wasn't obsessed. I wouldn't be a writer.


When I was younger, the horizon of my vocational aspirations was dominated by three possibilities: writer, pastor, professor. The writer in me died some time around that conversation with Dr. Vivian. The pastor in me died during my first year in seminary, after I realized that I didn't really care if I never baptized anyone, never presided over communion, never sat by a hospital bedside. I could do all of these things. I can preach. I can lead meetings. I grieve when others grieve and rejoice when they rejoice. But the specific things that pastors do that others don't do? I didn't feel the drive to do them. Just like I don't have that strong drive to write.

When the last pile of dirt was thrown over the graves of Marc the Writer and Marc the Pastor, Marc the Professor remained, though it took me nearly three years to admit that he had survived and every day I still wonder if he's not barely clinging to life, strung up to a thousand machines piping every drug into his body just to keep his heart pumping and neurons firing. After all, he's the only one left and if he dies, who am I? And now, eight years later, sitting in bed next to my sleeping wife, a stone's throw away from my sleeping newborn, down the hall from my sleeping toddler, I'm finally grieving Marc the Writer and Marc the Pastor—the dreams that died. I miss them. Some parts of them are still with me.

And then I look to my left. Who is that? Oh. Marc the Worshipper. Right. The Church Musician. Never studied choral directing, music theory, orchestration or organ. Doesn't really have the chops to head out on a solo career, especially now that he's 30 and has a family. So he could never be a professional performer or even a professional church musician, at least not in the traditional sense.

But somewhere, in his core, lies the key to my discomfort with Marc the Professor. Because I've never been one to show off. I've never been a musician just for me. I dabbled in it. Couldn't do it. Most of my life, I've been a musician whose primary passion is making sure others can sing. Specifically, making sure that God's people can find their voice.

Which may be why Marc the Professor is on life support, but not dead. Because I'm at the dissertation stage. And that's mostly a solo act. And I'm not sure I like the sound of my own voice. But I love listening to that great cloud of witnesses. Which is why I love to read and to talk with others about what I've read. Which is why I want to teach in seminary, to help pastors find their voice, to help them join their voices with saints worldwide and saints long gone, to help God's people worship. But I'm being pushed to create something that puts my voice out there. And I'm finding it hard to sing. I'm having trouble negotiating the listening and the beat-driving. So I struggle to play. My fingers fumble. And the silence is deafening.

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