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Music is not a Spectator Sport

February 26, 2018 10:26pm
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I often complain that our culture has turned music into a spectator sport. We pay a lot of money to see professional musicians, and we've been brainwashed to think that "the rest of us" aren't good enough to do it.

I say "hogwash" to that brainwashing.

Spotlight on a microphone

Music is a dangerous thing. It gives expression to that which is the stuff of stories, dreams, and revolutions. And it sticks with you! It's a scientific fact that words set to music are more easily remembered and retained than words alone. Even poetry, with its lyrical beauty and its musical quality of rhythm, can't quite compete with the marriage of lyrics, rhythm, and pitch (notes). It's dangerous because it allows us to express ourselves in ways that we otherwise couldn't, and because it can now spread so far and wide (and quickly) that it can take hold among more people more strongly than any other form of communication.

But we've tamed music in 21st-century North America. At least,  we've tamed it in much of 21st-century North America. We've tamed it by turning it into a spectator sport.

In my university days I was a huge fan of Great Big Sea. My now-wife (then friend-turned-girlfriend-turned-fiancée) and I loved going to see them live and did so every chance we got. Yes, they were (are) great musicians. But they were just carrying on the tradition of the Maritimes in Canada with truly "folk" music, that is, truly music of the people. The concerts felt like you were in their living room, and uncle Alan had just been thrown a guitar and cousin Sean had picked up a tub to drum on. It was a big party, full of songs to sing along to and music to dance to. These concerts were participatory, not just in the fact that we could go and see them play, but that we'd be singing along, and dancing, and just generally enjoying.

In contract, we have what I would call the "over-the-top production" concerts. I've never really resonated with these kinds of music productions. These are the Super-Bowl half-time shows. These are the arena rock shows where the point isn't to sing and dance along, but simply to appreciate (worship?) the performers who are the ones singing and dancing. Sure, they're fun to watch. Sure, they're a spectacle. Sure, the performers are uber-talented. But these kinds of shows are all about us and them, not we. These are shows meant to remind us that there are a select few worthy of doing music, and all the rest of us can do is watch. Sure, we could sing-along, but that's not the point.

And this is leaking into the church. As a long-time church musician, I long to have our churches be places where the music, centred in the Gospel and full of praise of God, is about we, not us and them. Congregations that are joined together in song are participating in a sacred thing. We're connected to one another not just in the sanctuary of the local church in that time and that place, but across the world and with the whole company of heaven. (Read just a bit about it in Revelation 5:6-14!)

Yes, church music needs to be led by competent musicians. But they are there to give voice to the congregation's song. They can do that from the front, or the side, or the back. That doesn't matter as much as their servant hearts leading well for the sake of the congregation's musical expression. Where they lead from isn't nearly as important as whom they're leading for.

We've turned music into a spectator sport in our culture. Not just in the church. And not just in concerts. We're cutting arts funding in schools and making the making of music ever less-accessible to "regular people". Yes, the consuming of music is becoming more accessible. And technologically-speaking, it's becoming ever easier to make music. But our culture is teaching us that there are a select few who are worthy of music-making, and the rest of us should be happy to bask in their overwhelming talent.

Hogwash. We need to reclaim the beautiful idea of "folk" in "folk music". But that's not just a musical genre; it's a worldview. We need to teach our kids the intrinsic value and beauty of music in their lives, not just as a potential career, but as fundamental to the well-being of their culture and their own lives. We need to teach our adults that they are capable of being involved in music - singing, writing, playing, whatever - themselves, not just as patrons of the uber-talented. In the church, we need to help give voice to the people gathered together, not simply to show them how nice it sounds to listen to the leaders' harmonies.

Time to get out of the stands, folks, and into the choir.

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Colossians 3:12-17


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