When is a ‘Performance’ not a ‘Performance’?

This article appeared in the August 2021 issue of our parish magazine. Here it is again for you:

Regular readers will know how important music is to me, and much has been said about the importance of music in worship over recent weeks – in a weekly course, in our church services and in magazine articles. It has been all the more poignant for the long absence of music from our worship, and its reintroduction at the end of July.

Many questions have been raised about music in worship, some of which were addressed in Rev Deborah’s interactive sermon on Sunday 18 July. There have also been questions such as “why doesn’t everybody listen to the music after the service?”, and “why don’t we applaud anthems and instrumental music in services?” Considering such questions here is done with some trepidation, in full knowledge that I am probably opening a can of very long and tangled worms!

On 10 July 2021 I performed with Bolton Symphony Orchestra at the Victoria Hall for the first time since January 2020. Usually we perform bimonthly, with intensive rehearsals in the 10 days prior to the concerts. With around 60 musicians in the orchestra, fitting everyone (some with big instruments!) on stage has always been a tight squeeze, and that was simply out of the question this time. So we did things differently. The concert began with a reduced string section playing the Bologna 2nd Symphony; we left stage left, and were replaced from stage right by the brass section who played a Romance by Finzi. They left the stage so the woodwind section could play a Strauss Serenade, and finally the strings returned to play Boccherini’s “La Casa del Diavolo”. There was also a flute duet and a demonstration of our lovely new set of timpani. After each performance there was rapturous applause from our socially distanced but highly appreciative audience – many of whom hadn’t been to a live concert from well over a year.

It was just wonderful to be part of an ensemble – albeit smaller than usual – working together to create music that none of us could achieve alone. Synergy at its finest.

On Sunday 27 June, at the Sunday School Anniversary Picnic, a small number of Maggie’s Music Makers sang three songs in the vicarage garden, and those present listening were generous with their applause after each. It was enormous fun, and heart-warming to hear the immediate appreciation of our efforts.

Musical performances never just happen. Each is preceded by weeks of rehearsals, and between each rehearsal there are hours of personal practice. This is embedded in a lifetime of lessons, practice, and sheer hard work building the skills that look so effortless in performance. Every musician practises, and most meet with their teacher, coach or mentor regularly. Indeed, Pablo Casals, the famous Spanish cellist who lived to be 97 years of age, was asked by a young reporter: “Mr. Casals, you are 95 and the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” And Mr. Casals answered, “Because I think I’m making progress.”

So why don’t we applaud music in church? And why do we leave the building while music is still being played? It is becoming more commonplace for pilots to have a round of applause for landing the plane safely. I have witnessed a crowd of tourists burst into spontaneous applause watching the sun dip over the horizon of the Grand Canyon. On 18 July, the morning congregation at St Margaret’s couldn’t contain themselves and clapped long and loud when Tom finished playing a medley of hymns before the service (it was 7 minutes long and contained 15 hymns – did you spot them all??) But why was that unusual?

A ‘performance’ is not a ‘performance’ when it’s an act of worship. The 7th of John Wesley’s Rules for Congregational Singing urges us to “sing spiritually” and to “have an eye to God in every word that you sing. Aim to please him more than yourself or any other creature.” Although written with congregational singers in mind, this applies equally to anthems sung by a choir and instrumental music played by a pianist or organist. Such music is offered worshipfully, to God. It is offered regardless of whether we actually like or enjoy it! After all, music in worship isn’t about us, it’s for God (Wesley’s Rule 3). Many years ago, a former member of St Margaret’s church choir said that we were simply “offering back to God the gifts He has given us”. How right she was.

Musicians love applause at the end of their performances. It is immediate and clear feedback that what we have worked on for so long has touched the souls of those listening. At St Margaret’s we applaud the Sunday School children when they sing for us in church – and they thrive on that kind of warmth and encouragement. It spurs them on to do even better next time.

When adults are offering music worshipfully, rather than as a performance, be still and listen. Even if the music isn’t to your taste, allow your soul to drift with the notes and swirl around the rafters. Pray. Behave as if you were listening to a reading of scripture, or some other form of worship.

Carol P


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