So, I left religion in a fit of juvenile atheism at the age of 14, but never the church – soon after I abandoned attendance and confirmation classes, a family of rollicking folk musicians took over the music program at the Sacred Heart. Their brand of hand holding, strumming celebration was heartfelt and truly musical – not the easiest fit on a congregation of very stiff, very quietly terrified people – but I enjoyed joining them to perform no matter what my ideas might have been about religious doctrine (which did evolve past my preteen days eventually).
I continued to go to church as I grew older, but as usually a performer rather than congregant. Today, I’m captivated by the music of churches I never went to as a child – the sound of gospel hymns, tremulous choirs, and a legacy of singers that stretches from Mahalia Jackson to Anita Wilson (if you’re not familiar, check her out below).
I just got off the New Jersey train after having sung for the Ogden Memorial Presbyterian Church this morning. Their music director (my friend and wonderful baritone Casey Molino Dunn) always helps me bring something from this tradition to their musically diverse service. Today we did “Oh Happy Day” ( I think you’ll dig this insane rendition from Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples at the top of the post, I’ve been living for it all week).
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through the years of singing there is that when performing sacred music, it’s essential to realize that I’m not so important. I’ve sung there when I’ve been too reticent to perform elsewhere or when I’d been stricken with mysterious voice-altering allergies. Even though at those times I may have felt unworthy or unready for opportunity in my ‘career’, there was no question that my personal feeling of unreadiness was self indulgent when it came to a worship service. The job is to help those who came to hear and celebrate feel their connection to their God a little stronger. It’s a tall order – and it’s not about me. Raspy, tired, meager though I might feel my offering may be, it’s not my place to judge in that space.
I think this idea really articulated itself for me in this little church, but now extends to my feeling about all performance. It’s interesting paradox isn’t it, that the performer must shove aside her self importance in order to take center stage and shine?
All music can be sacred – all places where people gather to feel and to revel have their element of ritual and unity. Some of us worship with a martini rather than holy wine – the songs we all know the words to might be an Ellington tune rather than a hymn, but a feeling of receptivity and humility is what can make a set at a club or a regular Sunday service become something much more profound. I think no matter what the creed (or lack thereof), performances that come from a place of service and people that listen to them with receptivity can become truly transcendent.
Do you agree? Have you had ‘religious’ experiences with music outside of a church/mosque/synagogue or is that where it happens for you? Do share…