Thursday, July 26, 2007

On Practicing as a Work of Praise

In a post a few days ago about the epidemic mediocrity in Catholic sacred music, I mentioned something that caught the attention of one of our more astute readers, who wished to expand upon the point, i.e. the idea of practicing music as an act of praise of the Almighty.

It might be best to begin by meditating on some lines from a famous Lenten hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great:

The fast, as taught by holy lore,
we keep in solemn course once more:
the fast to all men known, and bound
in forty days of yearly round...

More sparing therefore let us make

the words we speak, the food we take,
our sleep and mirth, -and closer barred
be every sense in holy guard...

Blest Three in One, and One in Three,

Almighty God, we pray to Thee,
that this our fast of forty days
may work our profit and Thy praise. Amen.

From these selected verses, the reader can see the tradition of understanding fasting and sacrifice as something we do not only "for our good and...of all His Church," but also for "the praise and glory of His name." This is true for all spiritual exercises.

But how does practicing fit into this? Is it not a self-centered act, only meant for the "elitist musicians" who wish to show off in front of everyone else? How could it be an act of sacrifice on the part of the musician? Moreover, is not the final performance the sacrifice of jubilation, and all else merely preparation for that moment?

The process of learning a piece of music is an organic one, much like watching a plant grow. So, to say that only the "finished product" is capable of rendering praise to God is a bit like saying that a child cannot praise God, but his father can. Or it is like saying that the beauty of a sapling does not praise God even if the beauty of a tree does. Without saplings there would be no trees; without children, no fathers. Without the daily effort of practicing, there would be no musical performance worth listening to.

It seems to me that practicing and performance are all a part of the same work, and so the act of praise begins the moment the musical score is cracked open for the very first time. It is not the mistakes and the bumbling around that take place during the practicing that offer praise, but rather the persistent daily effort to attain the ability to sing or play a piece of music in a manner that is truly worthy of divine worship. It is an act of devotion that comes from the musician's awareness that God is deserving of the very best.

Sacred music is a sacrifice of jubilation, as the Psalmist called it, and not a self-serving act of showing off. Like every sacrifice offered by mere mortals, it is never perfect. The inability to achieve heavenly perfection should not give us cause to be complacent, however, and it especially should not lead us into presuming that all sacrifices are acceptable to God. Too often, those who sing in church operate on the assumption that since the music is for church, it's okay if it stinks. This does not make sense. Every wrong note, every mistake that is the result of a lack of effort or vigilance takes away from the dignity of the sacrifice which is offered through music. When we allow this to happen we are like the poor servant who buried his talent.

We musicians should therefore resolve not to bury the talents we have but to nurture them each day and to keep in mind as we practice that what we are undertaking is no mundane, purely necessary task, but rather the first whisperings of the loud praise we shall later offer at the altar of God.

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