Music has been one of God’s greatest gifts to us since the dawn of humankind. Rudimentary flutes and percussive instruments have been found in many prehistoric archaeological sites, indicating that the artistic spark has been imbued in us since the beginning. And there has always been singing. It would seem music is an integral part of what makes us human, in every culture throughout the world. To many, it is probably the most effective way to worship and connect to God. One can imagine ancient cave dwellers huddling around the fire, singing and playing music to stave off the terrors of the night, deriving comfort from this communal activity and perhaps transcending to something higher.
All of us have different giftings, but if you take a poll, many people list music near the top of their list of interests, whether they play an instrument or not. Many musicians have wondered why that is so difficult to commodify, but that is another subject.
Music is essential to our early cognitive development, and the comfort of a mother singing to her infant is undeniable (though not always foolproof). There was a movement some years back of parents playing classical music for their babies in the womb to facilitate this development. There are studies that indicate listening to music activates parts of our brain, but playing music activates the entire brain. It’s unfortunate that music is one of the first subjects to be cut when a school is under budgetary constraints.
When I was growing up, music was always a refuge for me. As a young child, I was known to fall asleep singing to myself. Apart from children’s music, it was exciting for me to hear songs from my father’s extensive record collection. I cherish many of these records to this day. I began my formal musical education at a young age, and almost immediately began writing my own simple songs. As a teenager, I began to develop my own tastes, and I remember being enraptured by certain songs, despite most of them being secular. I gradually began playing music with others in front of crowds and found the communal aspect of it enthralling. The exchange of energy was quite intoxicating.
This continues in a different form to the present day in my work as Music Director at st benedict’s table in Winnipeg. St benedict’s table uses a great deal of music that has been written by our own musicians and songwriters and is presented in various permutations of groups in a non-performative style. During more normal times, I would often get goosebumps when the whole congregation would be worshipfully singing together. It is in these moments that I’ve felt the closest to God.
The past 20 or so months have been a challenging time for everyone. Our last pre-lockdown service was in 2020, on Ash Wednesday. This service is typically more intimate than our Sunday services, and we were honoured to have Bishop Geoff Woodcroft present with us for the first time. I remember the feeling of underlying anxiety in the air, but it turned out to be a good night.
Our lives changed quickly after that. The first lockdown ensued, and we were reduced to having only three musicians (down from seven), our Priest, and a volunteer to operate the live Facebook stream. We were in front of a camera for the first time at church. This was necessary for the live stream, but not at all in line with our non-performative ethos. Our leadership had to quickly adapt to using new technologies, and there were plenty of technical difficulties along the way. Later, we had to get used to singing with masks on, and for a time we were only able to have two musicians with no vocal harmonies.
Sundays have always been a beacon at the end of a week for me and continue to be. At the beginning of the pandemic, things were a little bleak, and the goosebumps were harder to come by. But we adapted. It was gratifying for me to watch the services afterwards and see the comments knowing that our music was helping the congregation cope with the pandemic. During the long lockdown periods, Sunday services became even more important for our well-being. Sometimes it felt as though this service was the only thing on the calendar for that week.
More recently, st benedict’s table has been able to have a growing number of people attend on Sunday. We have a modified Eucharist, and though things are not exactly back to normal, it is a lovely improvement. We are looking forward to Advent and to playing the songs of watching and waiting. At Christmas, it is our parish tradition to use the big organ at All Saints and celebrate with sherry or cranberry juice and baked goodies. The organ is still happening this year, but the food and drink are not.
As of this writing, COVID numbers are rising significantly in Manitoba. Though there may be more setbacks, I feel that we can see this through to the other side. I pray that music will continue to help.