Lent


“I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever.” (Ps. 89)
So the Psalmist promised.

There is something in the human spirit that wants to sing.

Listen to the voices. On the picket line, they’re chanting their message. At the work bench or in the kitchen, folks are unconsciously humming a familiar tune. The radio and TV sell products by singing about them. As she plays in her room, the little girl sings a nursery rhyme, and as her older brother drives to the store, he’s singing along with the latest hits, careful to keep the windows rolled up.

And, of course, faith is to be sung. The psalms sing of the steadfast love of God. As Jesus and his disciples depart from one another for the last time, they sing a hymn before they go. And we modern disciples can hardly gather for any church activity without singing a hymn of praise or commitment. Many years back, when Joan and I visited with our friends the Williamsons in Montreat, NC, we shared a CD of our Vermont congregation singing its favorite hymns, and in return Lamar and Ruthmary, former missionaries to Zaire, played a recording of African seminary students singing their favorites.

There is something in the human spirit that wants to (or needs to) sing.

Someone at a Montreat music conference pointed out that music is such an integral part of our faith that we can hardly express the faith, tell the story and embrace it, without a song. How can we speak of Easter without singing a rousing resurrection hymn, such as “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” What would Christmas be without its carols? From the beginning, the gathered Church has sung its songs to praise the God who planted the song of God’s steadfast love so deep within us.

Do you remember the TV show about that fictional Boston lawyer Ally McBeal? An associate at her firm suggested she see a therapist, and that therapist prescribed a personal theme song. Adopt some song as your own, the counselor said, something to center on when you begin to feel unsettled or anxious or lonely. The assignment was to choose a song she could play back in her mind (or in her heart), listening for that special healing lyric and tune as someone more religious might listen for the voice of the Spirit.

As a radio producer/host, I had several theme songs (back when radio had actual recordprograms!). One of the first songs I used to close my program was called “Soul Coaxing.” Another was Larry Carlton’s “Smiles and Smiles to Go.” For my jazz show, “The Swinging Shepherd Blues.” But that was for radio. What song would I use for my life?

What about yours? It’s not to be your favorite song, necessarily. Or, one that holds special memories. It’s to be a song that reflects something of who you are, your ego, your spirit, your gifts, maybe your deepest needs, or the very best you have to offer to the life of the planet.

I’ll tell you the first song that came to my mind. The Thomas Dorsey spiritual, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” We sang it at Montreat one summer, a powerful prayer, 600 voices strong, filling every empty space in my heart. Yes, that’s the one: my theme song.

When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

And yours? You needn’t respond in the comments section; it doesn’t have to be public.  You’ll have to think about it. Audition a few songs in your heart, and choose just the right one.  And remember, it doesn’t have to be “religious.” It might be a hymn, of course, but it could be from a Broadway show, an operatic aria, something “country and western,” or an instrumental piece without words.

If there is a theme song for the church, what would it be?
If there is a theme song for the ministry of Jesus, what would it be?
If there is a theme song for the teachings of Paul…?

Back to your own theme song. What music will best express (and remind you) who you are as a child of God?

The Psalmist promised, “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever.”

James Luther Mays says that the Psalm book is Hebrew poetry at its best. “In Hebrew, the lines were composed so that they could be chanted or sung in a rhythm.” [Mays, Interpretation, Psalms, p.5] Psalms require “an imaginative, open, evocative reading that involves feeling as well as thought.” And it is the feeling part that leads to music in our hearts and in our voices.

One more thing: while you may stick with your personal theme song for quite a while, it’s OK to let it go and move on to another. Life goes on, and so does its music.

 

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One of the highlights of my college choral experience was “A German Requiem” by Johannes Brahms. It was his longest work, and according to an NPR website:

Appealing To The Masses: Brahms’ Requiem With its German text and emphasis on consoling the living, Brahms’ decidedly non-Latin Requiem was unlike anything that had come before it.

For me personally, as a college kid experienced only in the standard repertoire of church choir anthems… yes, this major work was “unlike anything that had come before it.” We were more than 120 voices strong in that college Vesper Choir, and when the choir director and Professor of Music Clarence (Clancy) Martin distributed the intimidating gray book containing the seven movements of what has been called Brahms’ magnum opus, I thought this might be too great a challenge for me. I didn’t read music well, I’d never sung a requiem (our Presbyterian church didn’t expose us to many of those!), and it was long.

With solid soloists, and a chamber orchestra, and the magnificent new Moeller pipe organ in our college auditorium Mr. Martin knew the result of the choir’s hard work would be a stunningly beautiful performance. We in the choir didn’t know that, of course, but page by page, movement by movement, we were realizing the power of this glorious music. One thing we didn’t have to contend with in “A German Requiem” was the German part. We sang the work in English.

I know that in years since I sang the bass part, I’ve heard many admirers of the work call the language choice a cop-out. The text was written in German; it must be sung in its original language they say. But I think there is a legitimate reason for singing the Requiem in English, and not just because it might have been a reach for the average (or even above average) college choir. Brahms chose to use a German text rather than the traditional Latin texts, using the so-called “Luther Bible.” He wanted this work to be in the vernacular, the language of the intended audience (I am told; I didn’t know him at the time).

As I grew up and even through my seminary years, we Presbyterian types understood that if our choirs did sing a Latin text in our worship services, the English translation was always to be included in the worship bulletin so that the words would be clearly understood by the listeners. Singing French or Spanish or German or Latin texts without a printed English translation meant the congregation might be spiritually enriched by the music but wouldn’t have a clue about the meaning of the lyric.

I read that Brahms had even considered calling this work a “Human Requiem,” with the implied desire that its message of hope over despair be universally understood by the masses. Thus, if any audience best understands the text in its native tongue, we may sing it in that language, not Latin or German,  and Brahms might indeed smile on that effort, assuming that he smiled at all.

One of the movements I have most enjoyed singing through subsequent years is “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” based on Psalm 84. (There are several versions on YouTube.) In addition, Joan and I have sung the entire work whenever the opportunity has arisen. I’ve joined choirs just to sing that masterpiece, and then deserted those choirs to await the next invitation. (No one complained about my fickleness; I’m expendable as a singer.) Admittedly I’m more prone to sing the English version, but having taken some German in college, I could stretch my comfort zone just to sing Brahms in his native tongue!

I regret that many solid church choirs have moved away from the discipline of learning and performing such masterworks. Yes, the music has its challenges. Yes, great commitment is required. But the reward for singer and listener is rich and lasting. In this Lenten season, how inspiring it would be to hear the text from 1 Corinthians that affirms the Easter message:

In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…  the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
. . . then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

But Brahms or not, we are getting ahead of ourselves, are we not? It is still Lent.

 

{Lenten “notes” refer to notes of music, with music being my theme for an almost daily discipline of writing during this forty day season. We continue…}

A couple of Sundays ago, our pastor Rev. Pat Raube mentioned an experience she had with conferees at the Presbyterian Mecca: Montreat (NC) Conference Center. The gathering was in one of the larger meeting spaces there, appropriately called “The Barn.” The story of the Prodigal was being shared via the reading of scripture. When the verses reached the point of the Prodigal being welcomed home by his father, something startling happened. Here’s Luke’s description and the surprise:

 ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet.  And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast,  for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

Pat said that as soon as the words “So the party began” were spoken, almost half the people gathered there suddenly stood up, a blue grass band started playing, and the room was filled with dancing, and not only dancing, but clogging. After all, Montreat is in the Smokey Mountains of Western North Carolina, and clogging is a thing there! So, bluegrass music, the rhythmic and loud clunking of clogging shoes on the wooden floor, and the whoop-de-dos of celebration made sure everyone knew a party was in full swing. The scripture’s classic story of grace, forgiveness, and restoration came alive. The Word made fresh through music, lyric, and action.

Since I’d been in the presence of Montreat’s square dance Caller-in-Chief Glen Bannerman, and had experienced first-hand the creativity of the school* where Glen taught recreational ministry and I taught media courses, that account of the Party for the Prodigal brought a broad smile of recognition.

And a reminder of another time when music, Word, and action combined to enrich the biblical story. Richard Avery and Donald Marsh were the ministry team at the Presbyterian Church in Port Jervis, NY for many years. Avery was the pastor and Marsh the church musician. Together they wrote music for worship in a contemporary vein, decades before so-called praise music or “contemporary Christian music” became popular. Many churches still sing their songs, such as “We Are the Church,” “Every Morning Is Easter Morning,” and “Love Them Now (Don’t Wait ’til They’ve Gone Away).” One collection of their songs was called “Hymns Hot and Carols Cool.” They even had a calypso version of the Doxology.

Our school invited them to lead a continuing education event, and during one service of worship at a local church, Avery and Marsh used not a hymn of their own, but the somber Holy Week hymn based on Hassler’s “Passion Chorale,” “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

Sadly, some of those powerful hymns of old are so familiar to worshippers that we sing them almost matter-of-factly, as if they are just another piece of business we need to accomplish before moving on to the next bit of ritual. But this hymn is so profound in lyric and music we do ourselves a disservice if we treat it as routine.

O sacred head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down;

Now scornfully surrounded With thorns thine only crown…

The words of the hymn are attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, and if not actually written by him, the text surely reflects his theological thought. The harmonization of Hans Leo Hassler’s tune is by Bach, a far cry from the lighter musical fare of the Port Jervis team. But what we witnessed that day in the chapel of a Richmond church was so profound the image has remained with me decades later.

The first thing was to sing the hymn slowly. With depth of feeling and sensitivity to the text. Ponderous? Why not, if one is actually pondering the meaning of the words as they are sung. The four part harmony helps.

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered Was all for sinners’ gain:

Mine, mine was the transgression , But Thine the deadly pain.

Avery and Marsh had recruited four or five volunteers to enter the chapel as we sang. One pantomimed carrying a heavy cross, while the others pretended to bear whips, violently lashing at the stumbling, suffering cross-bearer. Marsh was into drama as well as music in his life in theater and television prior to his church work. So the pantomime was no quick trick; the volunteers took their roles seriously and were no doubt deeply  affected by the hymn as it was sung. The physical movements of the actors brought tears to us singers, so powerful was the union of music, text, and actions. Lashes, nails, cross planted, Jesus crucified.

When the last verse was completed, the tableaux remained in place, the worshippers remained silent.

O make me Thine forever; and should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never, Outlive my love to Thee.

(I’m trying to remember if Marsh had added an actual hammer and wood to this scene. The wordless, prop-less actions might have had the addition of that one disturbing sound of a hammer slamming into a board just before the actors lifted their Jesus from the ground to stand with arms out-stretched before the singing congregation. One would think I’d remember that more clearly.)

Through the ages the Church has communicated its stories through drama. Mystery plays, morality and miracle plays, passion plays — in village squares and church sanctuaries the drama of faith has been enacted and re-enacted, with lessons embodied, and new meaning made clear.

Sometimes, it is enough to sing. Sometimes, enough to read. But sometimes adding some movement, some theater to our stories and hymns would remind us that the Word is most alive when it is put into action.

  • The Presbyterian School of Christian Education was a graduate center for educational ministry in Richmond, Virginia. It was absorbed into Union Presbyterian Seminary a few years ago.

 

[I’m writing some Lenten season reflections, mainly for myself but you are welcome to read of course. These are centered on my love of music, and may or may not have anything to do with the season.]

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At the Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, we were bathed, showered, verily drenched in wonderful music. It was the late 1980s to early ’90s when I was on staff there as Associate Pastor, but our family had been part of that church family for many years before my official role there. And one of the great gifts of that church at the time was its music.

In no particular order, here are some of the gifts that enriched our worship and contributed to the life of the Bon Air community:

There was Francis Church. Francis was a music critic for the Richmond newspaper, back in the day when newspapers had such local writers. He was an advocate for all kinds of “good” music, that is, every genre of music played well by talented musicians of every stripe. (He was even a fan of my jazz radio work, and I remain sincerely appreciative of that support these decades later.) Francis was also an accomplished cellist. And when he and his daughters played together (cello, violin, and viola?) in worship even those who were not into “classical” music found the sound inspiring. Nothing wrong with a touch of class in worship.

The choirs tackled some challenging music as well as some more “accessible” music in the contemporary vein. I sang in the adult choir there for awhile, and enjoyed the fellowship as well as whatever music we could master over a few weeks of rehearsals.  At that time, we had two children’s choirs, the younger ones and the older youth. The music from young voices accomplished at least two things: it certainly added to the vitality of Sunday worship, but it also provided an educational experience for some that might be budding musicians.

Over the years we were at Bon Air, the church was gifted with talented organists too. When we first visited the church, it was using an electronic instrument that had been installed when the sanctuary was an all-purpose room. With folding chairs removed after worship, the congregation used the room for dinners, for square dancing, and even volleyball games. BAPCOver the years, as the aging electronics wheezed and coughed, the church replaced the old instrument with a pipe organ, and volleyballs became a threat to the pipes…so the games ceased. But the appreciation for the rich sounds of that new organ grew and the music ministry of the church was enhanced.

Two quick stories about one of the organists there. When worship concluded one Sunday, and the congregation was noisily taking their leave during a postlude that Grace Chandler had worked hard on, Grace abruptly stopped playing and spoke into the din of departing voices, “Well, if you aren’t going to listen….”  She promptly left the bench. And once when the pastor, leading a wedding rehearsal, suggested that Grace “diddle” a little musical something while the wedding party moved from one area of the chancel to another, Grace suggested that maybe the pastor could just mumble a few words instead and accomplish the same thing. We loved her.

Another musical sound echoing through the halls of that church came from a large classroom where a veteran of the Big Band Era led older children and youth in swing arrangements of the music he had played professionally. These were kids who were involved in the instrumental music programs of their schools, and who thoroughly enjoyed those Wednesday night sessions after the mid-week church suppers. Being a fan of that music, I loved it when the band played impromptu jazz concerts for the whole church. (Might have been nice to have them actually in worship leadership on occasion too.)

And, there were hand bells. I think the hand bell choir was intergenerational, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the children had their own bell sessions, ringers-in-training. One teenaged girl was a solo ringer; that is, she’d play, grabbing the individual bells needed for each note from a table on which the bells were (obviously) carefully arranged. Frankly, it made me really nervous. She’d reach for these two bells, dash down the table for the next ones, retreat to previous bells, bound over to the other end…good grief, she was so good, but I was a wreck by the time the piece was over.

Finally, I have to mention jazz vespers. Not long before I left Bon Air for Vermont, I asked local jazz pianist (and University of Richmond professor) David Esleck to help me lead a Sunday evening service using jazz. He brought along bass player Jocko MacNelly and we shaped a service that centered on “nighttime.” The congregational singing, the instrumental music, the scriptures and brief meditation I chose — all focused on the presence of Light in the darkness.

I’d wanted to read the words of a Psalm while David and Jocko interpreted the reading with piano and bass. When David arrived that evening, he had forgotten about my idea, so I said I could just read it then and forgo the music. “No, no,” David insisted, “we’ll improvise. That’s what jazz does!” So, I read a couple of verses, his piano responded. I’d read a couple more, he’d play. And so on. When the service ended, Ed Briggs the religion reporter for the newspaper (again, when they had such things) remarked that it must have taken a lot of rehearsal to get the psalm timed out right. No, we made it up as we went along, we told him. David then paid me a compliment I’ve never forgotten. When Ed asked how I knew when to come in at the end of David’s improvised lines. David said, “Hey, Jeff’s a jazz guy. He knows.”

Something else just occurred to me. The church still offers a monthly music series to the Richmond community, The Second Sunday South of the James series. One month, a string quartet, the next a gospel choir, and the next some jazz, or folk music, or…you get the picture.

When I left the Bon Air Church for my ten year pastorate in Vermont, I was given a videocassette of music performances by all the church players and singers: the strings, the bells, the band, the organ, and even one older church lady playing boogie woogie piano for me. Plus, oh oh…there was that teen with her solo bells. Just thinking about that recording can bring tears. I think it’ll still play in the old VHS machine.

Good music in a good church makes for good hearts. Thanks be to God!

 

It was 1964, and Dave Cook and I were in his car driving on North Street past the shoe factories, heading toward…well, I’ve forgotten where we were headed. But I do remember what was on the radio as Dave drove. It was “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” And Dave asked me if I’d heard that that song was about marijuana.

The memory is so clear, and whenever I hear the song, admittedly not very often these days, I recall Dave’s question about little Jackie Paper.

The link between music and memories is something our brains are very good at. When I hear the Doobie Brothers sing “China Grove,” I’m back in the Q94 studio with Dave Collins in 1973. He’s sitting at the console, and I’m standing at the Neumann microphone holding my handwritten script. I hear “One” from “A Chorus Line,” and there’s my daughter Wendy in her high school show choir with one of those sparkly bowler hats. The Brahms “German Requiem” has a solo section with the words, “Lo, I unfold unto you a mystery,” and in my mind I can still hear (after more than fifty years) the bass voice of Westminster College music professor Isaac Reid, and I see him with a hand cupped over one ear.

Earlier in what we called Junior High School, I won a music appreciation award from Mr. Schmoll for identifying, among other classical tunes, “March” from “The Love for Three Oranges,” by Prokofiev. Every time I come across that music today, I see Mr. Schmoll smiling as he hands me a check for $5. One more? A song from “My Fair Lady,” recorded by my college girl friend Joan and sent to me on a three-inch reel of magnetic tape prompts a clear memory of playing it for my Mom who exclaimed over Joan’s lovetapely voice. I was on the side porch of the house, a summer afternoon, listening to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” and feeling very much in love!

The people who study this link between particular musical experiences and our recollections talk about “autobiographical memories.” It’s all about neurons, and the right and left temporal lobes, and brain’s processing of emotions, musical stimuli, and memory formation and retrieval. I read about something called “Dispersion of memory:”  where a small reminder can reactivate a network of neurons wired together in the course of registering an event allowing you to experience the event anew.  Further, from an unattributed note I took from a quick internet search (no, not Facebook, but a professional journal): “The right temporal lobe is specialized to process nonverbal memories such as memory for pictures, visual scenes, familiar faces, routes or directions and music...”

When I plotted out some ideas for this Lenten discipline of considering and writing about music, this music-prompted memory idea was on my list to write about. And then we found ourselves on that ship on vacation and the voyage’s “Enrichment Lecture Series” featured a neural scientist who spoke each day about the human brain. And there was this reference to lobes, neurons, memory, and music… just up my neurological pathway.

(One thing that triggers emotional memories stronger than music, by the way, is smell. A particular odor or aroma can prompt a rich memory that may be tied to a time of great joy, deep sadness, or even anger. A certain aroma of burning autumn leaves takes me back to my boyhood, tramping through a vacant lot, carefree and six. Oh, and I can still hear the high school marching band practicing in the distance as I tramp. (See…that takes us back to the music link, too.)

While neurological research into this topic is still fairly recent, the phenomenon surely isn’t. So one wonders whether an ancient sung psalm rang in the ears some of Jesus’ disciples years after that “last supper,” when he washed their feet, broke bread, shared the wine, and left the upper room after singing a hymn. Maybe decades later that same hymn prompted an emotional response we couldn’t possibly understand.

Twenty centuries later, a congregation sings “Silent Night” on a candle-lit Christmas Eve, and tears flow as a man remembers his late mother or a pastor recalls a previous church’s nativity celebration. One can only imagine the memories that occur as “Taps” is played. Somewhere the first notes of a pop song come from a guitar, and a listener flinches and thinks, or prays, “Oh, God, no! Not that song!” Or, a couple are sharing an anniversary dessert and fondly remembering Noel Paul Stookey’s “Wedding Song” performed at their marriage service. Yes, the neural links work both ways, don’t they? Music triggers a memory, and a memory can lead back to a song, especially when an emotional link is evident.

I’m obviously no scientist, no expert in this stuff. It’s just good to know that when a heart sings the brain remembers, though the ship’s lecturer did remind us that no memory is a perfect representation of history or factual occurrences in our lives. Every memory is a mere sketch, not a high definition video recording. But sometimes, the sketch is enough to remind us that we are human, gifted, and recoverable.

This footnote before we close: in an interview, Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary told me, “No, the magic dragon song had nothing to do with pot or any other drug.” Remember that.

 

I grew up with Lent, but not with its songs.

As a kid, I recall those Wednesday night Lenten services leading up to Holy Week and Easter. But, oddly, I don’t remember what hymns we would have sung mid-week. As I look at The Presbyterian Hymnal, the section designated “Lent” has a few hymns I know from my more recent past, but titles and tunes aren’t the best known songs in the book. “Kind Maker of the World,” “My Song Is Love Unknown,” and “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High” (attributed to Thomas à Kempis) aren’t in the league of “Amazing Grace” or “A Mighty Fortress” when it comes to familiarity.

But one hymn, unknown to me as a child, has become a favorite over the years, with words and music and “singability” (spellcheck doesn’t like the word, but I know I didn’t make it up) putting it in my top three Lenten hymns. “What Wondrous Love Is This” is sung to a tune from Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835). The tune itself is called “Wondrous Love.” According to Wikipedia (not exactly my usual go-to source for hymnody), this is

a Christian folk hymn, sometimes described as a “white spiritual”, from the American South. Its text was first published in 1811, during the Second Great Awakening, and its melody derived from a popular English ballad.

A tie to an English ballad about Captain Kidd sounds intriguing, but that reference has been debunked by most hymnologists. The words probably come from an 1811 camp meeting song book, and have a wonderful ambiguity in the repeated phrase, “What wondrous love is this…” See, it’s a punctuation thing. Do we place a question mark at the end of the phrase? Or, an exclamation point. As in ‘wow!’ Or, what a cute baby it is!

What wondrous love IS this? Or, what wondrous love is THIS! I’m leaning toward the “wonder” feeling, though the question mark doesn’t necessarily lend itself to simple inquiry so much as admiring the mystery of such love that moved “the Lord of bliss” to “bear the cross.”

And there is another note regarding the lyric. The panel that included this hymn in the Presbyterian hymnal chose to replace the traditional first verse phrase that referred to bearing “the dreadful curse” with bearing “the heavy cross.” The curse no doubt referred to the concept of original sin or human depravity. The cross reference (so to speak) leads more directly to the road that Lent takes toward Good Friday.

The first verse actually sings not to God (as most hymns and psalms do), but to our own souls. “What wondrous love is this, O my soul…” The second verse begins, “To God and to the Lamb I will sing…” Not right now, it seems, but ultimately. And the choir will include millions. And then in verse three, the ultimate happens, for it begins, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on…” and it promises to be a joyful song throughout eternity.

I can hear the tune beginning so reverently, with quiet awe, but as the lyric builds, the sound of the hymn gains volume as the determined and committed singer insists on raising her/his voice in defiance of everything that would keep the song from being sung at all. I hear echoes of that verse from Luke 19:40. When the Pharisees urged Jesus to quiet his boisterous fans, “Jesus replied, ‘If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers!’” Or, as it was sung in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “…the rocks and stones would start to sing.” The scrappy, obstinate, even rebellious response to all that would hinder our hymn is, “I’ll sing on!” What the heck…give it two exclamation marks: I’ll sing on!!

Because that love is not just flowery or fuzzy; it is remarkably, faithfully wondrous. And my soul knows it.

So there.

[Tomorrow…music and memory.]

 

{So…we’ve been away, and these daily meditations/essays/whatevers have been absent during the past several days of Lent 2019. My intention was to write some notes about music during the weeks leading up to Easter, but that previously-scheduled Panama Canal cruise meant giving up Lent for part of Lent. We resume…}

My wife Joan and I like cruises. As vacations go, they are fairly affordable, and we are at a stage in life when it’s nice to have a linen napkin placed on one’s lap at the dinner table. If that sounds uppity, well, it’s Lent and we’ll repent. Now that we are home.

The ship was full of music. There was the obligatory steel drum player; it was a cruise through the Caribbean, after all. Two violinists played tunes from Strauss to showtunes to soft rock in the atrium, accompanied by an offensive pre-recorded rhythm track. A gleaming white piano provided background music too, maybe using the same pre-recorded tracks as the violins? The lounge/bars had live ensembles for dancing and pop songs. And the ship had a talented group of eight or nine musicians playing for three live evening  shows in the big theater. (Two other live shows were performed with pre-recorded music tracks, presumably larger orchestras for more sophisticated productions, the same show staged on all the ships in the Princess fleet.)

And there was the ‘party band,” playing on the stage near the big pool on an upper deck. That music was frenetic, designed to keep the celebration going, to get everybody into a dancing mood: “You’re on vacaaayyytion!! Let’s paaarrrty!” The party began as the ship moved away from its home port, and continued through the cruise, with the amped-up bass heard anywhere the sea winds blew. That included our cabin’s balcony where I was trying to read. SONY DSC

And therein lies the problem. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE music. Almost all music. But honestly: there can be too much of every good thing. Having left Upstate New York’s seemingly eternal winter, I took full advantage of that balcony, to feel the warm Caribbean breezes, hear the ocean’s complaint as the ship coursed through its waves, and to read (for the first time!) John Steinbeck’s delightful 1960s book “Travels with Charley.” But there was that persistent boomity-boom-boom-boomity (no, I have no sense of rhythm even as I type) invading my sea space peace. I knew enough to not shout it, but I was thinking it: Stop the music!

Sometimes, as much as we appreciate music in its myriad forms and forums, now and then, can we not just enjoy the natural music of near silence? (Good luck finding perfect silence. I’ve been to monasteries, and they ain’t that quiet either. So, “near silence” suffices.) Those celestial sounds from overhead aren’t from heaven; they’re coming from speakers in nearly every public ceiling. Restaurants, stores, medical offices, and, of course, elevators all serenade us with music we didn’t ask for, may not care for, and may even find obnoxious. It’s there to set a mood, as in faster tempos to hurry us out of the fast food venue, and quieter voices to accompany our dinner in that place with the cloth napkins.

And sometimes the volume is so high that conversation is impossible. More than one correspondent has written to “Ask Amy” how to handle that dilemma. Do we have a right to a quiet dinner in a public place? Or, should we be more tolerant so that others can boogie down their filet mignon or Big Whoppers accompanied by the Doobies or somebody known as Post Malone? I understand Amy hangs out at the nearby Queen Diner. Maybe I’ll ask her myself…if she can hear me over the P.A. system. (To be less curmudgeonly, I’m not sure the Queen diner even plays music from their regal ceiling.)

If the music were to stop now and then, we might hear the earth sounds that inspired it. The rhythm of the rain, or of the waves on the shore. Our heartbeat. The whistle of the wind. A bird’s chirp-song, or a hummingbird’s wings, or a woodpecker’s racket. Maybe we could better appreciate the human mind at work in poetry read silently. Or, in my case last week, Steinbeck’s sometimes lyrical phrasing about his and Charley’s adventures finding America. There is music in the air of our breathing, our footsteps, and our imaginations. Even a composer has a hard time hearing that heart-fed tune that originates between her or his ears if there’s not a quiet moment without the assault of the party band echoing from the upper deck poolside.

So…just thought I’d throw this in here before I again write a few words in the Lenten days ahead. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll write about some “Southern Harmony” and wondrous love. Now, it won’t come as any surprise  that I won’t have any music playing from the old stereo as I write. As much as I love music, I can’t write with even the loveliest melodies in the background.

So, now that I’ve written this and you’ve perhaps digested it, let’s feel free to put on some music and paaarrrty! Oh, wait. It’s Lent. Never mind.

 

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