What's in a Song?
By Ben Brody, '98, D.M.A.
Last week I came home from work to find my eight-year-old son sitting at the piano, plunking out the tune to the hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Noah has been taking piano lessons for the past year, and he has just begun to enjoy playing by ear, rather than simply following the music on the page. Along with the theme from Star Wars and the earworm Let It Go, from the movie Frozen, Come, Thou Fount has now entered the piano-plunking canon of our household.
And I couldn't be happier. Star Wars and Frozen are woven into my children's imaginations because they have seen each movie so many times that they can hum or sing the music by heart. (In our house, humming of the Darth Vader theme is often accompanied by duels with homemade light sabers.) Come, Thou Fount has entered our family canon because we sing it regularly at church. My sons know all of these songs well because they have regularly, repeatedly listened to (or sung) them over months or years.
Music shapes us. We are shaped by music we listen to, but we are shaped even more profoundly by the music we sing. When we sing, our bodies are producing the music and words that we then hear. Our muscles engage our lungs, which circulate the air that surges through our vocal chords through the resonating chamber of our mouths to produce sound. When we physically enact something, we remember it, often long after other memories have faded.
I recently read a blog post written by a mother who wanted to help her sixth-grade son make good choices when confronted with peer pressure. She felt he was well-equipped to know what was right, but she realized that he had no practice in actually responding to peer pressure. Together they brainstormed potential awkward situations and came up with several viable ways to respond. The son then chose the response that felt best to him, and he rehearsed it with his mom. It was not enough to simply teach him what is right: It was just as important to let him practice his response.
I think that singing in church works in a similar way. Communal worship trains us in the vocabulary of faith. Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs shapes and seeps into our souls as the words and music are repeated over weeks and months and years. Songs that we sing in church form us by giving us the words to respond in thanksgiving, confession, lament and praise. When one of my students is overwhelmed with God's goodness, I want her first instinct to be to sing Bless the Lord, O My Soul. When a parishioner encounters doubts and temptations, I want the words "On Christ the Solid Rock I stand" to be the response that encourages faithfulness. When one is near death, suffering dementia, and can't even remember the names of her children, I want the words "Jesus loves me, this I know" to be among the last words to leave her lips.
At Whitworth, students have the opportunity to experience the formative role of congregational singing in powerful ways through weekly Hosanna, chapel and morning-prayer services. More than 30 student musicians are regularly involved in leading congregational singing in these services, and hundreds are shaped each week through attending them. In addition, our university choirs regularly participate in leadership in chapel, as well as in churches throughout our community. It is humbling to think that hundreds, if not thousands, of former Whitworth student musicians are now leading music in churches around the world!
For the past several years I have been involved with the design of a new music facility for our campus. The new facility will provide two large rehearsal rooms for choirs and instrumental groups, new teaching studios to accommodate the 40 full- and part-time faculty who teach in the department, and new classrooms and practice rooms. While there are many exciting aspects of this project, I get most excited when I think about the ways that the expanded rehearsal, practice and teaching spaces will help us form musicians who will play a role in shaping the worship life of churches for generations to come.