Bach can change your life…

Five years ago, I made a bucket list of works I wanted to have conducted – in five years. I can only say that I had no idea what it would cost me to realise those musical ambitions – and if I had, I’m not sure I’d have kept that dream alive.

But this week, with my completion of my first-ever Bach passion now ticked off – despite a smogasbord of challenges that some of you could never believe – the fulfilment that I am now experiencing is hard to describe in words. But I’m not writing a happy-go-lucky post to say how wonderful it is to achieve goals and dreams.

I’m saying that it is only after you have completed what you set out to do that you truly discover if this was what you were supposed to be doing. And as an increasingly popular modern saying has it: we can spend our lives climbing a ladder only to discover that we put it up against the wrong wall.

Wrong wall? Or wrong ladder? The intrinsic semantic specificities of that analogical framework are not our concern; I’m sure the point is made. For me, Bach has become something of a father figure as I look to grow who I am and how I want to work as a musician. Unlike his predecessor, Kuhnau, who was incredibly erudite and well-educated on a scary number of levels, Bach had an excellent formal education up to his late teens – but nothing beyond that. Having enjoyed more academic opportunities than many people – and being part of an ethnic minority community where ‘education’ is a passport to the promised land – what I call ‘Middle England’ (to be precise, I am referring to middle-class Anglo-Europeans) – I can see how all of that is supposed to work, but for my entire life I have looked at how people from all sorts of minority communities have used the letters after their names to demand status, and I am more appalled at this than I can say.

It gets worse – because this ‘worship of letters’ is all over the church. We should know better, but…

How does this relate to Bach? Well, he never really fit easily and comfortably into any of the places in which he found himself, and that astonishing period from 1723 to 1730 will remain an enigma forever as far as I am concerned. Kuhnau made an outstanding contribution to musical life in Leipzig and was a darling of the establishment for the rest of his life. But Bach was far, far too much for the ecclesiastical authorities, and despite the fact that his goal was nothing more than to write a ‘well-appointed church music’ – I am now going to make my own assessment of the reality – Bach’s music pointed to a God who was and is far bigger than the sanitised deity that archetypal liturgy had gotten used to. And those two monumental passions that remain will challenge conductors, soloists, chorus members and instrumental players for a very, very long time as yet.

Preparing to conduct the St John Passion has been the most formative experience of my conducting career to date. And it has changed the way that I think and work. It has forced me to confront the areas of my musicianship in which I am not as disciplined as I need to be if I’m going to work at the level for which I am striving. It has shown me that whatever I think I can bring to music and to early sacred music as an interpreter, I will receive more than I give if I am willing to accept that and be genuinely humble about it. It has shown me that my desire to make a difference inside the church walls is well and good, but the church is not about to become a more open and safe place for honest spirituality that is actually biblical – which means that the pursuit of truth in music will have to take place outside its walls. Bach is better loved, better understood, and better served by musicians who have no interest in confessional Christian faith, and I have one word for that:

SCARY.

It means that as a church (and this in the broadest sense of the word) we still don’t get it after all these years. I literally came apart at the seams trying to fight for better musical standards in my own church, and not understanding why God couldn’t just make it happen. But after conducting St John, I understood why God has let that door close.

The story of how this performance came off the ground is itself entirely epic. If it had not been for my best friend and project co-conspirator, it would never have made it. That person understood what this was better than my own parents who – 48 hours later – are beginning to realise just why I have refused to accept the standard and the attitude of church music-makers. My mother has believed for a long time that I have set my expectations too high, but the truth is more devastating – they weren’t high enough! And only in raising them have I now discovered more about who I am and how I am going to work.

This is not an end. This is now the beginning. And every single challenge, obstacle, doubter, hater, critic – and more – is something for which I want to publicly give thanks for. I have not become who I am because my life worked. I have become who I am because my life did not work and has not worked in more ways than most people can ever and will ever know. Sure, Bach had it worse than I did. He was orphaned by 10, lost his first wife, and buried ten of his twenty children. I’ve only lost my sister – but bereavement is bereavement and we don’t trivialise by reducing emotions to numbers.

My Evangelist was very, very unwell on the day of the concert, but by God’s grace he made it almost to the end. But his being indisposed at that point meant that I had to decide how we were going to end, and so I seized my vocal score (which I’d kept to hand on my stand just in case – previous experience) and read the final recitative – and the emotions I felt as I read those words were the most profound experience I’ve ever had onstage in a public concert. In that moment I was determined to become a better person. A more faithful Christian. A more exacting and disciplined musician.

Bach has changed my life. And now, I want to conduct (and hopefully record) as much of his sacred music as I can. But I’m more than a classical musician. I’ve always wanted to write a contemporary passion setting of my own but I knew I wanted to wait until I’d conducted one by J.S. Bach. And now that I have, I am inspired in ways I did not think possible.

But the only people from my own church who were present were my parents. And that’s okay. They now get it more than before, but the truth is that other people believed in me as a conductor and I had to somehow choose to leave doubt, fear and ignorance behind to press on with this journey of becoming a conductor. Last night I popped into a church to see if they were having a Bible study or something. Thought I might say hello to a few folks. But there was a choir practice taking place, and I just listened to it from a position where I could not be seen. 20 minutes later, the exact same verse had been rehearsed several times and was no better than when I had arrived. In the past, I’d have thought about trying to assist – particularly as I know the folks involved. But I left, knowing that having been very badly burned in my own church community with regards to music ministry, I cannot help these people anymore. I want to help – but they want the kind of help that takes no real regard for musical truth, and so it will never sound better. It will never be musical. After all the years of trying to inspire a higher standard of music-making, I know that what I did with this Bach performance eclispsed almost everything that I have ever managed to achieve with church people. And that’s one reason why Bach stopped writing sacred music – God was not less glorified in a second book of Preludes and Fugues, but only musicians can ever really understand how that works…

The greatest joy is ALWAYS as a consequence of the greatest sacrifice. This St John Passion project cost me – but it was worth it. It has been worth it. Oh, how it has been worth it. I hereby thank God, and everyone who played a part in helping this to come to fruition. And now, time for the next level…

As JSB himself would have said: Soli Deo Gloria!

Talent is NOT where it’s at…

….but you’ll have to keep reading in order to find out how that sentence ends!

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This is my first blog post of 2015 – on any site. My mother has been a cancer patient and the last several months have been entirely epic. But I am delighted to be able to announce that she did decide to take chemotherapy and that the evidence suggests that it is working. Many prayers and sentiments of goodwill have been offered by a great many people, and I want to acknowledge that here on what is the most well-read of my blogs. THANK YOU, everyone, and God bless you all.

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Now, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the fact that it was four years ago this month – February 2011 – that I ‘picked up my pen’ and began to write in earnest here on this blog.

When I learned about blogging about ten years ago, I was excited about trying to build a community of my own here at the theomusicology blog. I dreamed of the kinds of interaction that seemed to happening all over the place.

So it was in fact August 2008 when this blog actually came into existence, and I had the idea that God wanted to do something different in my life and something with this writing business. But quite what, I didn’t know. But I was SURE that building a little community around these most emotive subjects was part of it.

Some readers of this blog know the story: I wrote a number of blog posts, invited LOTS of people and sat back and waited for people to engage. And…only a tiny handful did. I got upset, confused, and then decided that if people were not going to interact with this blog in the ways that I had seen them doing elsewhere, then perhaps I had gotten the wrong idea. Perhaps my deranged ego had gotten in the way and I’d failed to hear God properly. Either way, I decided that it was not working and gave up writing.

Now, I have written about quite a number of life-changing ‘gear changes’ that I have experienced here on this blog. I have referred to things that have had to go ‘on the altar of sacrifice.’ One of the things that I always believed was that once you had identified your calling, things would just fall into place. I was well used to archetypal Christian clichés such as “all His biddings are enablings” and so if things didn’t work really easily, then God could not have wanted it.

Lies.

Weak, under-powered theology and wholly inadequate Bible reading will get you to conclusions like that.

In February 2011, after a period of fasting and prayer, I was sure that I had the mission statement for my life, and now things were gong to fall into place…right? Some of them did, but it is time to raise the stakes more publicly about the fact that the sheer range and depth of traumas in my life sent me into depression. Now, how does a lifelong Christian who has just received a huge answer from God then fall into depression? That’s not something for which there is any sort of quick answer and I will not trivialise that story by attempting to answer that question here. But integrity to this blog post demands that I tell you what I have, and as such, 2011 now ranks with 2001 as the two worst years of my entire adult life. Those were the two years where I came closest to abandoning my faith – and this is not exaggerated rhetoric, I assure you. It is why when I re-examined the precise reasons for the precise nature of my religious beliefs, I had to find something deeper and more enduring than almost everything that I had been taught in standard church attendance. It’s why I am increasingly committed to both philosophy and theology. It’s why I read six Bible translations as I prepare to study Biblical languages for myself. And it is also why I write for a readership that is wider than the church.

It is exactly why I write in the first place.

I wrote a LOT of words in 2011, and perhaps most of them will never be read publicly, because they were for my devotional journal. But a lot of them were on this blog, and some posts were about far more than just ‘theomusicology-related’ issues. What I found was that as I stopped worrying about getting feedback and interaction and just concentrated on writing, people began to seek me out off the blog and tell me that they were reading and that I should continue writing. And a great number were people who do not share the fundamental religious presuppositions that govern the writing on this blog, but they offered real encouragement.

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Now, some people who are unfamiliar with the posts on this blog will be wondering how a brother has gotten to 800+ words and still not yet made his point. Sorry, it’s not that kind of blog – please keep reading!

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So back to four years ago. I’m writing away and I am sure that God has given me a talent for words as well as music. I want to use both as well as I can. But I am STILL labouring under a phenomenal misapprehension, and to help you get how this works, I need to take you to Ephesians 3:

7-8 This is my life work: helping people understand and respond to this Message. It came as a sheer gift to me, a real surprise, God handling all the details. When it came to presenting the Message to people who had no background in God’s way, I was the least qualified of any of the available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities (The Message).

Some people who have known me for a long time – not just my ‘friends’ by any means – did their best to encourage me to not play as many instruments as I once did. What some knew better than others was that I was desperate to identify the instrument for which I was most naturally suited. In hindsight, I was literally obsessed with the idea of finding the instrument that was a perfect fit. This was where being particularly skilled in certain types of analysis has become a weakness as well as a strength.

I rejected the piano because my technique was not ever as naturally fluid as that of other piano players who were undoubtedly less musical. That was my first instrument, but that was not the one as far as I was concerned. [And if it had not been for certain amazing events, I’d STILL be thinking that today – more long stories…]

I rejected the clarinet because I didn’t have the kind of emotional connection to it that I deemed (in my ignorance and folly) was necessary. When I realised that this was false, I was so far behind technically that I decided I’d never catch up and despite massive encouragement from numerous gifted players, I lost faith in my ability to offer something great with this instrument.

The story of my love affair with the saxophone is complex and requires its own post. Suffice it to say that my original reasons for taking it up were pragmatic – and then I fell in love, totally and completely. Problem: of all the instruments I have ever wanted to excel at, on no other instrument has so much practice led to so little improvement. No other instrument has ever caused me so much grief and pain – and if I had to re-run the last twenty years, I would NEVER have taken up this instrument.

And as for the double bass…I never had the faith or the courage to really go for it, despite having a level of natural musicianship on this instrument that was pretty rare. I was good enough to be able to play sometimes, but never consistently good enough to be the kind of asset that professionals need with them on-stage.

Those are the four which many people know about. But there were other instruments and other (ultimately vain and futile) attempts to find the instrument on which I would make my name. I was convinced that God would never call anyone to something for which they had no natural abilities, and terrified that I wouldn’t find my destiny. And my desire to be a world-class musician and a Christian witness meant that this was only going to work when I found the instrument that was my destiny. I figured that God had provided the talent and my job was to find it. Ten years ago I even prayed over a period of weeks and asked God to show me how best I should spend my time and what I should give up musically. I got no answer and there was a reason. But that particular story is too big for this post.

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The home straight started when I sat in the office of a professor of composition at a UK university who discerned that I had a real facility for language and ideas, but that somehow I wanted to find something deeper. He then expressed his belief that writing music was in fact harder than writing words.

Until he reads this post, he may not know the true effect these words have had on me spiritually. But from that moment I began to let go of the idea that God is only interested in using us in the capacities which would seemingly be determined by our ‘natural’ skillsets. Don’t get me wrong: I knew that God uses people to do things which they didn’t think they could do. I never thought that I had anything to ‘offer God.’ But I did think that I had to be at my best – which to me meant the highest level of skill I could obtain – for God to use me in amazing ways. And I so badly wanted to do something seriously good for God.

I didn’t know it – I couldn’t know it – but I had fallen into the trap of a type of perfectionism (religious and psychological) and this type of perfectionism is in fact tantamount to self-abuse of the highest order. It is no wonder that in certain ways my mind and my emotions came apart at the seams!

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Now, I have been putting these pieces together for some time, but as I am now less than a month away from conducting my very first Bach passion – St John – I see that the incredibly difficult journey to become a conductor of classical music (which I have posted about here) was all about being moved away from my ‘natural strengths’ as a gospel choral director and being taken to a place outside my comfort zone and ‘natural’ talent space PRECISELY so that I would be less predisposed to defaulting back to my ‘natural’ talents and forgetting God! This piece has changed my life, but this would never have happened if I’d remained in the area of my ‘talents.’ And so when – in the early hours of this morning – I came across this text in my devotional, I realised that it was time to ‘take up my pen’ and write this post – firstly as a devotional activity in and of itself, and secondly as an action of ministry in which I reach out and share with whosoever will.

Paul was enormously gifted, but his calling was about something more than his ‘natural abilities.’ Today, I am publicly putting my desire to be outstandingly gifted on the altar of sacrifice, because what I also hope to do for God has – in the final analysis – NOTHING to do with my natural abilities, and as I consider the years spent searching for the wrong ‘Holy Grail’ I very much hope and pray that whoever you are and whatever you believe, that you could take a moment to think about whether you may also have placed more strain on yourself by focusing on what you can ‘do’ as a person with talents (we all have something) and less on who you can ‘be’ as a person. Talent is totally NOT where it’s at – because each one of us is worth far more than our skills and abilities and God did NOT die for our sins just so that we could pay Him back by being amazingly gifted.

Talents are wonderful, but to be a good human being is worth more than what the world calls ‘talent.’