Playing beyond the barlines is an invitation for tapping into an intuitive experience with music …. when the heart leads over the dictates of the mind. Barlines are markers in musical notation that imply structure and order for music making.
I first really learned about crossing the barlines through my work as a music therapist with people who were dying. The people, their challenges and triumphs, opened my heart in ways I could not have predicted; nothing and everything mattered with the utmost intensity. The music served to address their physical and emotional experiences. Physically, that may have included my improvisational guitar playing that connected with someone’s pain and moved that individual toward a little more ease or softening of that pain. Emotionally, that may have included singing a song together that gave pause and touched the soul. Moving beyond the barlines taught me the power of music to transcend any given moment.
A Note About the Music
In exploring music beyond the barlines, I am not proposing that all conventions of music making be abandoned, such as rhythm and pulse. In using music to help others, there is no way around the fact that practice time must be put in to hone your musical skill. I am suggesting that the true power in music is when the rules are not front and center, when sound and emotion and intuition are given full range to dance.
In the book, Effortless Mastery, Kenny Werner gives a road map to playing music note-by-note, with intention and attention. He encourages letting go of ego and helping the notes to flow effortlessly; to dropping into the experience where “every note I play is the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard” (p. 57).
I especially appreciate the way Werner brings up the impact of fear on music. “In fear, we expect; with love, we accept”(p. 57). Fear can cause us to feel gripped and can come from a place that is riddled with shame or fear of embarrassment. What we know about shame is that it can make an experience overwhelming and encourage self-criticism. “Fear-based listening is trying to play with others while being preoccupied with yourself” (Werner, p. 71). Fear can cause us to grasp tightly to a sound that wants to flow freely. Loosening the grip on what is supposed to happen allows room for what can happen. Additionally, when the music is free and effortless, the listener might not be able to articulate why the experience was so moving but will have felt it nonetheless. The subtle path that gets us to this freedom includes intention, presence and attention.
Music: A Higher Purpose and Pulling Out all the Stops
Werner posits, “Music never dies in terrible times. To the contrary, it flourishes. At those times, the essence of what music can provide really comes through. The music that gives strength to deal with the atrocities of the day, a song that can articulate our pain, the dance that plays at our longing, the poetry that restores for us a moment of tranquility or incites us to riot – that’s what becomes important”. (P. 49)
I love the metaphor of “pulling out all the stops.” It refers to playing the organ (think large cathedral, enormous pipes…) with all of the stops pulled out so the fullness of the all the sounds can be played and heard. As we struggle with challenges in our lives and in our troubled country and world, we need to “pull out all the stops” to address divisiveness, hatred, injustice, and along the way to soothe and to heal. It is so important, perhaps now more than ever, to find our way across the barlines of what we think of as music, to allow ourselves to deeply feel each and every note, to use that energy and power to sustain and encourage us on this journey.
“Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world.
In fact, it is the only thing that ever has!” Margaret Mead
Rebecca Solnit explored this notion in her essay Preaching to the Choir (in Call Them by Their True Names, © 2018). She explained that change is created when enough people get together who feel passionate about an issue and find a way to move it along. She noted that in the early 1960s the majority of Americans did not support the Civil Rights Movement and less than a quarter of them approved of the 1963 March on Washington but that march helped to usher through the 1964 Civil Right Act.
“The choir is made up of the deeply committed: those who show up every Sunday, listen to every sermon, and tithe like crazy. The time the choristers spend with one another, the sum of their sympathy and shared experience, is part of what helps them to sing in unison and in tune.” (p. 76)
While Solnit was speaking metaphorically, I am proposing that it is not only the bond of being with like-minded people but the actual act of singing together can strengthen our connections with one another. Making music and singing can create positive changes in our individual physical and emotional state. Singing together and creating harmony can be a deeply moving shared activity. It can also just be fun and help us lighten some of our personal and shared burdens.
There is much talk of how polarized we are in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Many reports can be found of neighbors and family members, who are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, no longer able to have civil conversations. What if music can help bring us back together? Can singing together help us recognize a common sense of our humanity?
The choir can help us focus on that which unites us, rather than focusing on what divides us. Singing together can help us feel like we are not alone, and encourage us to go further than we would alone. We do not have to be on the same political page to sing from the same page of a songbook.
Common Sounds is my new project (created with my colleague, Samantha Sinai). We are inviting two choirs from different faith groups (e.g., Jewish and evangelical Christian) to come together for a 3-hour workshop that includes singing interspersed with meaningful conversations. Both choirs are also invited to participate in an evening concert where each group sings separately and together. We are drawing on the belief that our connection to music and singing can help us also find a way to get to know and understand each other in a more truthful and meaningful way.
Participants in Common Sounds workshops recognize the power of music and hold a belief that increased understanding of one another is a good thing.
For more info: http://www.commonsounds.net
I know that feeling deep in my heart when I am singing or playing a musical instrument, when all else ceases to exist and I am floating with the music. I understand how precious that feeling is, the power of that feeling. Others who are in the Choir also get that. Preaching to the Choir recognizes the musical connections we experience, from heart-felt personal experiences to human-to-human connections. People who listen to music understand the powerful feeling they get when they hear music. Beautiful singing with the choir can move a person to tears and to action.
“In finding people to walk with - and talk with -
we find power as well as pleasure.” (Solnit, p. 80)
Preaching to and singing with the Choir holds potential to reach across divides that threaten our sense of a shared humanity.
SING with the CHOIR!
I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Suffice it to say, I have a renewed sense of why I make music. Her book gives encouragement and permission to fully delve into all parts of music making and composing in a freeing way that I hadn’t fully embraced.
Gilbert explored the notion of having a love affair with your art. Let it love you and help you dive deep to find whatever needs to be found. She debunks the notion of the "tortured artist" as the quintessential way to make art. It does not need to be a battle with conquerors and sub-missives. It can be an unfolding of layers upon layers.
“Forgive me if I don’t have the words, maybe if I sing it, you’ll understand.”
When we sing together we share a common voice, we are taking our breaths at roughly the same time, our words align, we create a collective sound together, and we sometimes harmonize. We can sing together even if we hold vastly different worldviews. Singing together does not mean that suddenly we agree on how to govern or live in this world. It means that for those moments, we are together and united in song.
“My 3rd grade teacher told me to mouth the words.”
“Even my parents have told me not to sing!”
“I was born with zero musical talent.”
Heard these laments before? Said one of them yourself?
Shaming experiences with music can stay with us for a lifetime, preventing us from rewarding music-making experiences.
“If I accept myself as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers
Shame is the opposite of that statement. It is that self-loathing experience of not feeling good enough. If I had a magic wand and the ability to create an immediate change in people, I would wave it to help recognize shame and transform it to love and acceptance of self. This does not absolve us of our wrongdoings; on the contrary, it gives us the opportunity to change rather being stuck in our shame.