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    A View from the Pew

    Playing the prayer: the art of creating pastoral instrumental music 

    Playing the prayer: the art of creating pastoral instrumental music

    Many years ago, my brother Marc and I provided music for weddings in both sacramental and secular contexts. Because I sang, I received the accolades. Inasmuch as I believed in my craft as a singer, I became concerned when my brother’s instrumental music seemed to go unnoticed by the listener, who only complimented me, the singer. When I asked him if that bothered him, he smiled, shook his head and explained. “No. I know that I provide what you needed to sound beautiful and inspire you to do your best work vocally and emotionally. When people compliment you, they really compliment us both. I don’t need the compliment. I’m just happy that somehow, what we created together resulted in a good outcome that moved them.”   His insightful response completely changed the way I approached music as a 25 year old singer and later as an instrumentalist. I never forgot the epiphany of that moment or a valuable life lesson learned by a truly humble musician who knew his art and delivered the goods every time.

    How do pastoral musicians craft prayer through the instrumental music that they create? Whether you play piano, organ, guitar or a woodwind, string or percussion instrument, how do you skillfully support an assembly at prayer? Does God’s creative Spirit breathe through your instrument to “give voice to praise and prayer?” (Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, 81) If the language of instrumental music gives “voice to the sentiments of the human heart” (STL 91), how do instrumentalists know if their musical efforts prompt the prayer of an assembly, a presider, a cantor, choir, liturgical ministers, all those people who rely on instrumental musicians to prompt prayer in a way that sung prayer does not? Creating holy music through an instrument requires specific skills. “Even instrumental music, specifically when it is improvised, should be carried out with a sense of “holiness.” (STL 43, 92) That’s a tall order. How do we make it happen?

    Practice makes perfect. Vladimir Horowitz warmed up by playing piano scales for four hours a day before he began to practice a piece of music for another eight to ten hours every day, seven days a week. That’s why he was Horowitz. How many pastoral musicians can say the same thing? Do you practice?

    Learn the music by heart. A wise teacher once told her students that no one can really ever play a piece of music from the heart unless they committed the piece to memory. Once memorized, a piece of music can take on elements of true prayer because the player allows the Spirit to creatively move the music in unexpected ways. When that happens, an assembly knows. When was the last time a member of your community told you that something in the way you played a piece moved them to a place of deeply reflective prayer? Do you own the music or does the printed page own you?

    Pray and reflect about a piece of music before you play it. To implement ‘holy’ music involves spiritual dimensions and considerable theological reflection on the music we issue. If we don’t play the prayer, who will pray? The art of creating prayer and beautiful pastoral instrumental music requires work, like anything else worth doing. The health of someone’s prayer life depends on your own praxis of these three principals.  Your own creativity will grow as well as your spirituality. I believe we call that the grace of God.

    Until next time,