Some thoughts on Music, Bi-vocation, and Race…

music-clef

‘In some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was a interloper; this was not my heritage.’ – James Baldwin

DEVELOPMENT

My earliest loves are God, and music. The first two things, apart from actual people that I have loved and cherished from as early as I can remember. Whilst not coming, as many do, from a family of musicians, there was always a piano at home. And, although I didn’t know how to play it, I tried…..I longed to make it do what I wanted, when I wanted, the way I wanted…..I longed to be an ‘artist’ in harmony with the piano. Yet at that time, I didn’t know what an artist truly was nor did I have any knowledge of harmony or any understanding of technique. I had the arrogance to think that it was okay to want to dominate the instrument in this way, rather than let it dominate me. With music, with art as a whole one always has to come to a compromise – an understanding that the instrument, and the music, will always win. There is no mastery of art, just a beautiful truce….

Deep down, it was the organ I most loved, and most wanted to play – but the mystery of hearing it Sunday by Sunday in Church and watching the organist go behind a well-placed piece of wall to hide his artistry from view meant I had absolutely no idea about how this ‘King of Instruments’ was made, or played. One morning, after years of wondering mysteriously at its working, I braved going up to Mr Bray to ask about the organ, he showed me a few things, and after asking about lessons, he said I really ought to start on the piano and keep going for a few more years.

What then felt like a rejection, was in fact good advice, but my childhood interest was placed on a back-burner until the age of 15. Piano lessons until then were good, I had a natural ear for picking out tunes, and harmonizing but this was eradicated by an insistence to simply play what was on the page, and not what my ears and fingers felt fell naturally. All this time, I had in my heart the voice of God (not audible, but still heard) etching away at my consciousness calling me to the priesthood. People often faced my sense of bi-vocation with the question: “What are you going to do then, music or the ministry?” and I didn’t know, or perhaps I thought I did. And in the musical sense, many were dismayed at my love for classical music….did I play Jazz, could I improvise for a Gospel song?…..the assumption and the presumption being ‘you’re black, can you do the black musician thing?’

At High School everyone is forced with this awfully narrow proposal that you have to decide one career or vocation and then put everything behind progressing to that, and so you attend career fayres where people hand you leaflets about what you might consider doing for the rest of your life with no sense of the fact that you might have another vocation that is more than just a hobby…

School Teachers ask you what you want to do for work-experience, and you’re only ever offered one option. Once the lawyers, doctors, pilots and vets have been sorted – the rest of us get a looking….I decided to go to Methodist Central Hall, Westminster to suss out what the Methodist Ministry was like, and, to my surprise and against my own will, I fell in love. That same year, for the very first time, I found an organ teacher – found it all much more difficult and mundane than I’d expected, found a world of tweed, Oxbridge-heading, middle-class, privately educated white folk who made playing the organ seem like an in utero mad-science of the elite, by the elite and for the elite. What was I, a poor black kid from West London doing trying to learn an instrument which it seemed was not made for people like me. I didn’t fall in love, I thought my career choices were sorted, and teacher after teacher made it clear that only a serious, non-emotional, experimental approach to music would do. Added to that many couldn’t understand why someone who didn’t want to become a university organ scholar, or a full-time church/cathedral organist would bother trying to study the organ…

In short, the end became much more important than the experience, and even the skill. This was upheld by professionals in the field who claim to love, and want to evangelize about the instrument and its music…It’s true that both the world of music, and the ecclesiastical world are hesitant at taking anyone seriously who appears to only be half-committed to their work, but I don’t think this should put a bi-vocational individual off following their calling. Let your work speak for itself. Resist the label that you are a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’, be a master at both – work towards the goals you set yourself, and not the goals of those whose motivations lie only in careerism, and dare I say it, capitalism?

Acknowledge that some things will have to give in order to be fulfilled in your bi-vocationality. And realise that you are probably not the first or the last to be in that position.

As time went on, that realisation became clearer for me, I began to call to mind and encounter many who are at the top of their professions, people who have two loves. Think of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Albert Schweitzer, James Badlwin, R.S Thomas, Malcolm Guite, Jeremy Filsell and Stephen Hough….each managing to excel in two instruments, or two entirely different fields of art and vocation. Why did no-one tell me about these people before?! Then I became aware of how many black musicians there have been, whose gifts as performers, improvisers and interpreters of classical music have been evident, or in some cases held back. If you’ve ever heard the classical sounds as Nina Simone improvised, or Oscar Peterson, you’d immediately wish that their abilities to play Bach were nurtured and recorded.

VOCATION

    As a Methodist, something about the way we talk about the ministry in Methodism suggests that it is all or nothing, and that we know exactly what that looks like in practice. The notion that ‘no-one who puts their hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’, can’t be a blanket condemnation for anyone who has made ordination vows but also had another love….what of spouses equally committed to the Church and their family, or non-stipendiary clergy? The burden of guilt so often placed upon the scholar-priest, the priest-poet, the priest-musician or another type of bi-vocational full-time Church servant has probably detracted from the offerings the Church could receive rather than benefited it. And yet, it is only because of the flexibility of our priestly life that we can feed our other interests and cultivate whatever second loves we might have. That someone might end a day of as a vet, to go home, change their clothes and celebrate mass at the Parish Church they assist in, or end a day of pastoral visiting, and end the day by painting, working on a book, teaching French, or marking up a Bach Chorale, shouldn’t be a determining factor as regards their commitment to a primary vocation. Should it be frowned upon that a cleric might find as much fulfilment and feel as much a pull by giving a lecture as they do standing behind the altar celebrating the Eucharist.

REALITY

Music like the Ministry, requires a daily ‘yes’ to its demands. In the same way that only a healthy prayer life can sustain a life dedicated to God, only a healthy (and brutally honest) practice life can sustain a life dedicated to music. In many ways I owe music my life. I might not actually be here if it were not for music. In those moments when my relationship with God made no sense, when I had a vocational, personal, professional crises it was music that sustained that relationship and communicated things I could not put into words to God, and things God did not put into words to me. In my friendships, it’s often been my musician peers who have understood the demands on my time as a presbyter moreso than friends in other fields. Music is genuinely the language of my soul, my desire to be a good musician and my desire to be a good shepherd to my flock are both motivated by each other.

One day, when we finally had our own computer at home, I came upon an organist who smiled as she played, and whose playing was so masterful it was evident that it flowed from the heart. I knew I had to study with her, and after some time I did. I did fall in love, with the music, the instrument, and the art of practice, and somehow I realised the ultimatum wasn’t priesthood or, or music or…..but both and. somehow. What I learnt from teachers like this, teachers who spoke blunt honesty but who spoke from the integrity of their love for the music – was that hard work does in fact pay off, that it’s okay to feel for harmonies what the world tells you to only feel for people. I didn’t know just how integrated music could be to the rest of life, until I had teachers like Jeremy Davis, Sophie-Veronique and Poom Prommachart. These teachers were aware of the diverse and multifaceted history of music, they understood that classical music really belonged to the universe, and not one particular group of people. These teachers are the individuals who would keep me back after lessons, look into my eyes and ask me if I really believed I could be a good musician. These are the teachers who didn’t hide the efforts of their labours, who didn’t make music a mystery and yet to me were mysteries in themselves.

The day I threw away the foolish idea which so many people preach about ‘talent’, I understood that talent was a myth. That actually, those tweed-endowed, middle-class, odd-sounding from-the-cradle-organists were actually only decent musicians because they slaved away at their art as much as the rest of us, in fact often unadmittedly moreso!  Hard work = Good playing. Not talent, not teachers, nothing else. One too many organists do a great disservice to the art by shrouding the instrument in an exclusive clique to which only the bold, rich, and most “talented” may enter. And in all of this, clergy too are guilty for colluding with the classical music mafia. If we care about liturgy and worship, we should be going out of our way to enable musicians to develop their art in as many ways as possible, and encouraging those who are developing to aim for the highest standards.

It seems to me that an antidote for many who feel unfulfilled might well be to entertain this possibility of being bi-vocational, and for young black and ethnic minority musicians to be taught musical history in its truth and diversity. One of the things I will always be grateful for to my teacher Jeremy Davis in particular, is helping me to find my own musical language – a period in the history of music that speaks to my soul, a harmonic swirl of sound which is rooted in my soul – the French school of music. I hear in composers like Ravel, Debussy, Satie,  Duruflé, Chopin, Messiaen and the improvisatory school of France the language of the tribe, the language of the plantation, the agony, hope, despair and faith of people who have suffered and yet remained prisoners of hope. I don’t know why this is, but I feel it, I hear it.

Perhaps, the questions we need to pose for young people discerning their future vocation(s) are:

What kind of person do you want to become?

What skills do you want to develop?

What mark do you want to leave on the world?

What moves you, what angers you?

What do you love?

Who do you want to be?

Then we might find more people who are as dedicated to the journey as they are to the destination.

One thought on “Some thoughts on Music, Bi-vocation, and Race…

Add yours

  1. Yes and! Abundance Variety Diversity Inclusion Welcoming the “other” – it seems so clearly to be the way forward.
    Doing and being interested in more than one thing, especially if one of those was playing a musical instrument, used to have a positive value and be considered a sign of a well-rounded person 100 years ago, when my parents were young. We live in a impoverished age in many ways. Read The Undoing Project to see how our mental biases limit us.

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