A photo of the interior of Saint George Orthodox Church's chapel.

Surprised By Beauty

I’m constantly met with the thought that music is just an extra, an add-on, outside of the “core” of classes that every student needs to build on for success. On the other side, it seems that every article I read on the contrary is about how music is good for ____ <you fill in the blank>: psychological health, memorizing, body awareness and control, overcoming learning difficulties. And, to be honest, both approaches just don’t ring completely true with me. I am convinced that music is no add-on. I do love the measurable, scientific benefits of music— but that is not all of why I think music is so important. Benefits are not why I teach. They cannot be. I’m also fairly certain they are not motivation for anyone to go off and spend a life in study and practice.

I think that my love of music is something about getting so close to Beauty that we can’t help but be changed— not in an outward “now I can do this!” sort of way, but in a “now I feel this” sort of way. Music is a way we can get so close to Beauty that we can create beautiful things. Often I have seen this in the shining eyes of students who forget about the rest of the world for a few minutes while we sing in one voice the longing tune of “Wild Mountain Thyme” or beat out a few hilariously rambunctious strains of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” The humility and joy that come from such an encounter give them the strength to feel the reality of Beauty, and to remember it while living in a world of ugliness.

Perhaps this is why I faced one of the hardest decisions of my life last week: who in the lower grades should sing the solos for the Christmas Concert? This problem is something I haven’t approached in seriousness thus far in my teaching at St. Constantine. Usually, there are the few students that are naturally gifted and stand out among their peers. What a wonderful surprise to hear child after child sing the old words clearly and well as we had our in-class “auditions”!

Why did this happen? I’m sure that a factor must be that so many of our students have begun to learn what it means to step aside from what they think is “acceptable” socially and instead bravely put themselves forward to try their best for an imitation — a performance — of this music that they have come to know and love and admire. When I hear children singing, it never fails to make me stop and wonder at the beauty of it all. They reach for joy and find in a selfless musical performance, something that is worth the trouble — something that if you touch it, even for a moment, it will remind you of heaven and home and all that truly IS.

In our Prophet-King David’s Choristers lately, we have begun a careful listening of ourselves as we sing, to pinpoint any moments of disharmony. It is always a challenge for the students to sing with a listening ear throughout an entire piece. The amount of focus and humility a child needs to recognize when they are the one who is more dedicated to their own singing or feeling or plans than to the smooth harmony of the whole is incredible. In recent rehearsals, more and more I hear a snippet of one voice that then blends back into the melodic line before another rises to break the moment as our choristers evaluate and fight with themselves to find that place of selfless searching. This is hard even for us professional musicians! So often I find myself playing a sonata with too much of myself and not enough of the search. Selfishness  destroys Beauty in an instant.

It seems that even our incessant study of music theory can do more for us than to simply give us literacy. As we study music theory, I am ever blown away by even the most basic tendencies and functions — and  just the fantastic logic of it all. I will always remember the first time I sat in an organ recital, and the previously-interminable fugue became an exciting string of possibilities that had me on the edge of my seat, culminating in the exultation of the final pedal point and subject statement. The lessons my years of study in music theory had taught me were brought into one glorious moment of Beauty: that incredible moment when you realize that what you were listening for has been there all along. Our students only begin to grasp this, as they slog through the grammar of basic intervals and rhythm, but how I love the thought that someday we will marvel over symphonies and operas and fugues together!

Music demands so much of all of us. We must continue to challenge both our students and ourselves in the faith that Beauty matters, and in the process be continually surprised by the unexpected things that happen when we learn to dedicate ourselves to this worthy cause.