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!

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A spiritual lesson from the life of a choral director

Recently, I have had cause to reflect on the ways in which my work as a choral director continues to shape my understanding of matters that are nothing to do with music or music-making. I have recently had a dfficult-but-necessary choir meeting with one of my choirs at which it emerged that many people were struggling with the way things had been going in recent rehearsals, and not liking nor understanding why I was choosing to rehearse the things that I was rehearsing in the way that I was rehearsing them, and now they had an opportunity to express their frustrations. To their credit, they took that opportunity.

At the heart of the many of the frustrations was the fact that I had been rehearsing small blocks of music in fine detail, but that the motivation to rehearse these blocks of music out of context of an actual piece of music was definitely having a negative effect. They did understand that there had to be some point to the ‘drilling’ but they were leaving rehearsals with a serious sense of non-fulfilment. And this was clearly not a good thing.

The message that came back from a variety of voices was that most members felt much more fulfilled when they had a piece of music sounding good. It was not that they were – and are – not up for some seriously hard work in rehearsal (had that been the case this choir could not even have begun to exist). This was and is a matter of musical ideology – what I want out of rehearsals and what they need out of our rehearsals are not the same thing.

A very tough test for an MD.

You see, I had a very specific aim for this year – 2013 – for this particular choir. My interest in fine-tuning actual repertoire was always going to take a back-seat to my specific aim of taking the entire choir on a serious musicianship journey whereby all of the singers became much, much stronger choral musicians in the mould of the music that we sing (which in the case of that group is almost entirely my arrangements and compositions) and that I would want for us to sing in future. I was not ever close to being a professional sportsman, but I did an awful lot of sport in high school and as seriously as I could. [Had I not lost so many opportunities due to games being played on the Sabbath who knows how much more I might have achieved? But that was never once an option.] And right across the sporting spectrum, and especially in team sports, one word would dominate at times:

SKILLS.

You try surviving in a serious game of football (soccer) while only using one foot. In simpler games, you can just play with your strong foot, but in games with better players who may well also be fitter, you will be closed down much more quickly and you need to be able to control, pass and even shoot with either foot. Try surviving on a basketball court with a limited range of passing and you will become your own millstone, because no-one will trust you with the ball, especially when under pressure defensively.

Also with basketball, team members know each others’ shooting range, so if you are not a reliable three-point shooter and you put yourself out in space where you would normally receive a pass for a long shot, your team-mates will think twice about making the open pass – because you’re not a proven quantity at that distance!

I did not want to spend more time fine-tuning pieces without working on the actual choral-musicianship skills of the choir. Each of them struggles with different things in different ways at different times. So pieces are learnt, drilled and refined, but skills don’t actually build. The choir’s ability to sing stuff collectively improves, but the individual musicianship profiles are not really building. And so if I do something surprising – say, a new warm-up drill, or some other choral exercise, if it has hard intervals, someone’s tuning is getting tested. If it has hard rhythms, someone’s rhythmic ability is being tested. And if it requires a certain ‘feel,’ someone else is trying to ‘think’ the placement rather than ‘feel’ it.

And these are just continuing all the time!

There is a serious point to be made here: this choir is a supreme embodiment of the principle that the total sum is greater than the parts. What they can achieve together is so much more than what any of them could ever do on their own. And we have appreciated this fact. But my desire for each of them is to become more. I’d love to see them overcome more and more of their own individual weaknesses so that the total sum becomes even more as the parts become more.

But if some of them would read this and say that they want this too, I would have to a) question that in and of itself, or b) question whether or not their capacity to espouse the ideal is actually based on a credible understanding of how such an ideal is to be achieved based on actual practical music-and-life realities. Skills are learnt, and applied. Skills are not learnt in the context of playing games. A sporting equivalent of the breakdown in comprehension would be along these lines – a women’s netball team decides that they want to be a better team. But the players don’t enjoy doing training exercises that much. They persevere with them because they know that it is supposed to be beneficial. But they really only enjoy the moments when they can actually play the game of netball in training.

The team may get better, but the lack of emotional commitment to the technical training part of the training sessions will immediately cap the level of prospective achievement. Even if the players don’t love those sessions, if they don’t engage with them with a serious level of personal commitment, they will not get out of those sessions what they would have done, and as such they become the stumbling block to their own development.

And the team will only ever go so far.

In the days that followed this meeting with the choir in question, a spiritual truth hit me like a hammerbolt.

God has his church, filled with those who claim to be his followers. Many Christians are trying very hard to be faithful Christians. They want to do stuff for God. They want to keep it real. They want to reach the world with the saving message of the gospel.

God is not as interested in how much stuff gets done by His followers as He is in them being better people – inside first, then outside. But we have learnt from society about how to think from the outside-in rather than the inside out – and so we are negotiating our understanding of how to better serve God by how our religious actions are perceived by others. God, however, wants us to be better people at the moments when no-one sees us. He wants us to be more.

This is just like this situation with me and this choir of mine. They are serious and committed and they want to do a seriously good job of singing my music as well as possible. And they even understand that I intend to write more serious music that will demand more of them. What they don’t really and truly understand is that I don’t just want them to learn how to sing the harder music collectively and fine-tune our older music that they love. I want them to be better musically so that I can write new and more challenging music that will not bully them into submission while they are in the process of learning it!

I want them to be more.

But they really and truly only want to be able to sing the music together as well as they can. They genuinely want the product, but they want to be more emotionally connected to the journey that will take them there. And so rather than connect to the bits of rehearsal that are not enjoyable, they want the fabric of the rehearsal process to be re-jigged.

There are so many more ramifications on a musical level, but I want to pause on that and join the spiritual dots here. The fact is that the harder music I want to write cannot be achieved this way, so I cannot write it for them. God wants to do more in and through us, but if we don’t want to instil greater spiritual discipline into our lives on a deeper, more fundamental level, then we limit His very ability to give us more!

How is it possible to limit an omnipotent and omnipresent God by virtue of our own choices? No wonder non-Christians think that we are crazy! But this is exactly how it is, and I’m not doing a big theological lecture to bang home the point. I’m going to trust that if you have read this far, then you have followed the flow of this post and grasped enough of what I am saying to get the point.

I’m not planning to give up on this choir, even though I am disappointed that they don’t want what I want. I live in the real world. Instead, I am going to put this to God and let Him direct my path on this. Even though the precise musical challenges that I know I need for me may not be for this particular choir, God has surprising ways of working and I am going to work hard to make the next few rehearsals as enjoyable as possible and let Him work in this situation. We may or may not survive beyond our next gig. Only God knows the future, and I refuse to speculate as to where this choral project will end up. I have too much other work to do!

And by the stripes, I am grateful for the lesson that I have learned and what that has done for my ministry understanding. Even in our disappointments, God continues to work salvation in our lives.