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Music, Children, and Chaos

There I stood, in front of the fireplace with my guitar strapped on and dozens of lyric sheets in my hands with songs like “This Is My Father’s World” and “Be Thou My Vision.” I turned to my left and gave the nearest student that familiar instruction to “take one and pass them back,” watching the sheets of paper make their way around the circle we had formed along the perimeter of the room. On this Wednesday morning, chapel was held not at school, but at our neighboring nursing home. In the middle of the room, couches were filled with residents, some smiling pleasantly, others vacantly, and still others giving the appearance of being annoyed at the general state of things. The smell of artificial maple syrup wafted through the air.

The school is comprised of a mere sixty or so students, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, and it occurs to me that every age from six years old to perhaps eighty-five is fairly represented in this room. This must be the most multi-generational room I have ever found myself in.

When I took this teaching job, the leader of the school told me, “I want my students to be able to sing together, really and truly. I want them to experience the struggle and reward of learning to use their voices in harmony.” Every Wednesday morning before chapel, the school recites together a list of virtues and their accompanying descriptions from memory as guiding principles for how to interact with one another throughout the week. The list includes traits like “attentive: listening with ears, eyes, and heart,” “tenderhearted: feeling the joys and hurts of others,” “orderly: keeping everything in its place,” and “discerning: able to see things as they really are.” Every music class I teach the students hymns, in two-part harmony for the third through sixth graders and three-part harmony for the seventh through twelfth graders. The students are not always attentive, tenderhearted, orderly, or discerning, but I watch them learn how to become these things by trial and error. Music teaches them how, more viscerally than I had imagined.

My ears perk up whenever I detect any potential for discussion of how music intrinsically embodies God’s intent for his creation. It’s what led me to the Rabbit Room, to Belmont as a Religion & the Arts major, to Tolkien’s Silmarillion, to the Punch Brothers, to write songs and start a band, and of course to write this post. Some days, my desire to experience something irreducibly true about the world through a song is what honestly gets me out of bed in the morning. Right now, the particular train of thought I can’t get over goes something like this.

It's not that if you sing this note and I sing that note, we'll hear some compromise of a note created as a result, like how red and blue make purple. No, we will hear red, blue, and purple. If that's not magic, I don't know what is. Drew Miller

In most arts, there is an element of hospitality, relationship, and proportion built in. Generally and traditionally speaking, visual art strives for balance of color and composition. Dance carves out physical space for bodies to inhabit. Poetry commits to a form, a structure, a method of phrasing and rhyme that results in a pleasing sense of unity. But two words cannot occupy the same space on a page. Neither can two dancers occupy the same physical space. It feels like a feat of magic to watch red and blue make purple, but once purple happens, red and blue are out of the picture. They cannot occupy the same space without forfeiting their identities as “red” and “blue.”

On the other hand, in music we hear multiple voices occupy the same space. And the magic of it is that, when true harmony is achieved, we hear not only the new, unified voice created by the joining of multiple voices—we can still hear the individual voices that comprise this new voice as well. Individual identity is retained even as a new voice is made. It’s not that if you sing this note and I sing that note, we’ll hear some compromise of a note created as a result, like how red and blue make purple. No, we will hear red, blue, and purple. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

Those thoughts are a long way off as I stand amid the chaos of this room, wondering if we as a school are not in fact imposing on this nursing home with our clan of bumbling children. One of my superiors, also a teacher, leans over to me and says, “Thanks as always, Mr. Miller, for riding this wave.” My mind only begins to grapple how fitting an analogy this is as he introduces our school to the residents: “Our music teacher, Mr. Miller is going to lead us in some hymns for you this morning, songs we have sung many times in chapel together, and we’d love for you to sing with us. Our first song will be ‘Nothing But The Blood,’ which should be #135 in your hymnal.”

I jump right in and start a two-step strum on my guitar to begin our song. The younger the student, the more their singing resembles shouting as they raise their voices: “OH! precious is the flow!” I’m overpowered by their enthusiasm. The older students look across the room and smile with polite tolerance at their younger companions. We’re making space for each other, or at least trying to. It may feel more like a cacophony than a symphony, but it is doubtlessly a “joyful noise.”

After a few hymns, I lay my guitar in its case as one of the residents takes her turn to lead us in song. A fellow teacher guides her to the piano in the far corner of the room and helps her take her seat. She is blind, but she seems to know every note from the hymnal by heart. She prepares to play “Victory In Jesus,” one of her favorites. I feel the collective energy of the room shift as the student body is transferred from familiar hands to less familiar hands, from familiar songs to less familiar songs. The students now look with intimidation at their hymnals, attempting to sight-read while readying themselves for the unsteady, often abrupt cues of our pianist. Younger students begin to eye older, more experienced singers for direction.

I have experienced time and again music's power to make one out of many, give voice to everyone in the room, and provide an occasion to receive the hospitality of others. What is simultaneously challenging and profoundly freeing for me is to witness this power even when the result doesn't sound 'good' to my Nashvillian ears. Drew Miller

Then something altogether new and unexpected happens. As our pianist begins the song, everyone in the room both cringes and tries not to cringe. The piano is so badly out of tune that even the most musically skilled in the room can barely discern what key the song is in and what note to start on. Two things happen in rapid succession: first, everyone’s desire for harmony gains more resolve at this greater threat of dissonance; and second, like a parasite on the first, students fight nobly against the urge, primal as hunger and thirst, to laugh. Tension builds and it occurs to me that there is a music unfolding, a conflict awaiting resolution, a narrative with a most uncertain ending, that vastly supersedes this unfortunate rendition of “Victory In Jesus.” Teachers hold their breath, hoping for and desperately counting on their students to be tenderhearted, orderly, and every other virtue we recite on Wednesday mornings.

Our pianist stops at nothing and students sing with their eyes closed, giving the impression that their goal is now merely to drown out the piano. The struggle is very real. I take comfort in the thought that God is probably laughing. We finish “Victory In Jesus” and begin “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.” Shortly thereafter we sing “How Great Thou Art.” By the middle of the second song, the school has miraculously adjusted to the new status quo, and I’m impressed by the tenuous order we’ve managed to find together. I’m also impressed by our pianist’s unflinching devotion to finishing the hymns we had set out to sing. The show must go on.

I have been moved by the act of making music, of joining voices, countless times. Whether it’s tearing up at the sound of the Doxology in church as voices find their place in that resounding “amen,” arranging a song with my band and having my mind blown at its potential fully realized, or singing playfully around the house with my wife, I have experienced time and again music’s power to make one out of many, give voice to everyone in the room, and provide an occasion to receive the hospitality of others.

What is simultaneously challenging and profoundly freeing for me is to witness this power even when the result doesn’t sound “good” to my Nashvillian ears. Yet there is a sophistication to the joining of a kindergartener’s voice with an eighty year-old’s voice that is perhaps audible only to God’s ears, and if we listen close, we can catch a glimpse of it. If we let it, the out-of-tune piano can be the greatest gift of all, instructing us in extending grace, telling us simply to relax—it’s all going to be okay. We’ll get through the song. God is not afraid of chaos; after all, he made the world out of it, and all evidence suggests he’s inviting us to make something of it, too.


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