Five of my children play Suzuki strings; two girls play violin, two play viola, and one plays the cello. The Suzuki program is rather structured, to say the least. A parent is to attend each child’s lesson and be present with her as she practices during the week. I estimate that I spend about 12 hours a week with the children on their string studies. Throw in a couple hours of church children’s choir time and the occasional recital or concert, and I spend almost an entire waking day each week supporting my children’s musical development.
So, it was with quite a bit of interest that I read Mark Oppenheimer’s New Republic essay entitled “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument.” To Oppenheimer, insisting that your child learn to play a classical instrument is, for most children, a fairly pointless exercise. Remembering that I had to be forced to practice piano when I was a child, I can certainly attest to the fact that lots of professional musicians would not be where they are today if it weren’t for parents pushing them to practice even when they would have been happier to quit and pursue something less demanding. But, I don’t know that my children will pursue a career in music, and, as I feel my eardrums close as an 8 year old struggles with a Bach minuet on her quarter-size violin, I think, what IS the point to all of this musical training?
And then, I hold a copy of Glory to God in my hand. And I remember that the faith my wife and I are trying hard to raise our children in is a musical faith. As cynical as I can get in my grumpy middle-aged years, I can’t deny this fact that music is central to the practice of our faith. These hours and hours of music lessons are building a foundation not only in music, but also in my children’s ability to sing their faith. So, when my fourth grader learns to play scales on the viola, she is also learning how to read “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant” from her hymnal. When my fifth grader practices her pairs of sixteenth notes followed by an eighth on her violin (“pony run” “pony run”…), she is also learning how to sing “Uyai Mose” (“tinama” “tinama”…). When my seventh grader learns to play duets with me on her viola, she is also learning how to sing the thrilling alto line in “Angels We Have Heard on High”. Music is music is music. I was grateful for it when I sang a Psalm response with my newly adopted children in a San Isidro church. I was grateful for it when I heard the thrilling cross-rhythms in a recording of Malawian drumming made by a church member on a mission trip. I was grateful for it as I sang the challenging hymns at Iona while leading a youth pilgrimage. I was grateful for it as we tapped a keg and broke open boxes of hymnals at Union Presbyterian Seminary with a surprising amount of excitement. And, I will be grateful for it as we introduce these hymnals–complete with dedications to saints in our past and in our midst–at Ginter Park Sunday morning.
I applaud the PC(USA) for publishing a new book in 2013. Talk about pointlessness! Paper and ink and glue. But, in the space of five pages, Fanny Crosby, George Herbert, a radical French religious community, and an unidentified group of southern Brazilians reside together. There are hymns that you hate that somebody will help you to love. There are hymns that you thought you understood that you will hear in a new context someday. There are dozens of languages. There are short choruses that will seep more deeply into your soul with each repetition, and there are epic, multipage hymns that will leave you so exhausted that you will need to sit down after singing them.
All of this I need to remember each of the thirty times an instrument case is opened in my house every week. The pitches, lines, and rhythms in this purple book matter more than almost anything else. These are our stories, these are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and this is our faith. Glory to God!
Doug Brown, our music director, and his wife Amy are parents to six. Doug makes superlative guacamole and wood cabinets that are practically as good. While he has said there is nothing like working with power tools for clearing one’s head of the Hymn of the Week, we know he is excited about the 800+ in the new hymnal.