A Keynote Address for the Lasker Summer Music Festival,
May 29, 2001Dr. Vern C. Falby
I wish to speak today to the issue of motivation in music, or perhaps more specifically, motivation in musicians. Motivation is frequently a matter of spiritual health, crisis in motivation so often a crisis of spirit. I think it is important to examine every so often our reasons for doing what we do, and I would like to undertake such an examination today in this public forum in hopes that it will be of use to you in your own work.
To begin, consider an image from the natural world. When we look at virtually any stretch of land not covered up by the concrete or asphalt of human civilization, we see countless plants of all kinds. What a fascinating phenomenon plants are! From their seemingly moribund condition in the winter, plants as innumerable as grains of sand on a beach either sprout anew or awake from dormancy to renewed life in the spring. They live, but their life is quiet; they grow and change so slowly that, on any one occasion of our studying them, they seem, in outward appearance, to be essentially unchanging. Perhaps you have seen films, shot with underwater cameras, that show forests of sea plants. In such forests, long strands of vegetation, which grow up from the ocean bottom towards the light at the surface, undulate gracefully in the waves. In the same way, except more vigorously, air currents move land plants, which grow up from the bottom of the air-ocean that we call our atmosphere. On the land or in the sea, the motion of plants is externally powered, in a kind of passive animation. Absent air or water currents to move them around, plants would seem to be as quiet as stones. Not quite, however; for, though it is too incremental for human perception, there is a different kind of motion going on, too, an animation deriving from within the plants themselves. Over time plants do indeed change position, for they are always leaning and even reaching towards the sun.
This angling toward the sun is such a notable characteristic of the botanical world that my eight-year old son Mac, who studies many more things than I do, tells me that it is the basis for a taxonomy organized by the degree of reach: at the ground is the forest floor; above that is the understory, soaring over that is the roof-like canopy, and from even that level loom what are called emergents, individual plants that tower above the canopy.
Surely it is highly unlikely that plants are conscious of reaching towards the sunlight. They just do.
I do not know what your politics regarding plants may be, but I hope you will not be offended by my suggesting a parallel between plants and musicians. As we make music, we musicians, too, are perpetually reaching. The forest floor of our culture is made up of new and earlier-stage students; by the time we reach music school, members of the student body comprise an understory that aspires to become part of a canopy consisting of working professional musicians. And from the canopy of working professionals—with a regularity that never mutes our surprise and wonder at them—emerge musicians of genius—maybe even including ourselves on a good day!
And what is the light towards which we all strive? Strangely enough, on a day-to-day level, I fear that musicians tend to be no more conscious of what we reach towards than the plants. But we keep trying: The power of music is so mysterious to its own practitioners, not to mention the world at large, that, understandably and in response, an elaborate lore—a mythology of ideas, attitudes, beliefs and biographical gleanings devoted to explaining the point, purpose, or value of the musical enterprise—has grown up around that enterprise, sometimes—at worst I fear, speaking of plants—like noxious weeds. Part of what we do in our musical education is to test the validity of this mythology for ourselves, and all too often we endeavor to get past it, replacing it with a more convincing account of music based upon our own experience and our own “thought-cleaning.” This is essentially what I am doing today.
What kinds of notions are promulgated in this lore? One is the idea of self expression. This sort of thing is alluded to in references to musical “voice:” what does one “have to say” in his or her music-making? Another is the idea of music as a kind of communication. Indeed, when I ask my students the bedrock question: “What is music?,” they regularly include in their definitions the notion that music is communication, but exactly what is being communicated tends to be as elusive and evanescent as the fading reverberations of a performance just concluded in a live hall. Another component of the lore—and one whose hierarchy is well diagramed by the forest analogy I suggested initially—is the issue of talent and individual capacity for improvement: how much of our ability in music is foreordained, how much can be achieved by education and by hard and well-focused work? Finally, there is the question of the definitive performance: are we all chasing after some ideal realization of the written score? And what is the function of the mediation of recording in defining this ideal performance?
As a music theorist, I think it is a good thing every so often to subject any kind of lore to scrutiny. An accretion of bad habits tends to be the price we pay for unexamined assumptions. And issues of musical beliefs and values loom especially large for us because they have a huge impact on our day-to-day activities and our ongoing efforts to foster good habits. Beginning to examine our musical beliefs and values is like opening doors to entire rooms of inquiry. But if I were asked for a more compact explanation as to why I believe that we need to periodically scrutinize our received musical lore, I would propose this: Scrutiny is called for not so much because of the breezy (maddening?) generality of that lore, rather due to the positive fact that far stronger and more persuasive answers to questions of self-expression, of communication, of talent, of perfection are to be found in the alternative provided by Jesus’ teachings. The implications of these teachings for music are rich; they are an exceedingly deep pool. Indeed, I doubt that we can ever fathom the depth of possible influences that Jesus Christ can have for and upon our lives as musicians. But I would like to suggest three immediate connections between those teachings and music:
First, I would cite the relation of music to the spirit. Jesus focused our attention upon the kingdom of God, a spiritual kingdom. William Congreve in his play The Mourning Bride, wrote that “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” This therapeutic function of music is well-known and suggestive. Certainly the part of us that is the chief beneficiary of music’s therapy is our spirit. Music is a veritable workshop of the spirit. It gives listeners and, especially, musicians themselves a substance to play with in our working-out of the flux of our feelings, the progress of our spirit. But is not this progress of spirit the pilgrim’s progress of our very souls? If our spirit is our life force, and our life force is from God—then each work of music that we learn and make our own potentially moves us along one leg of our spiritual journey towards union with God.
Second is Jesus’s focus on servanthood as a kind of worship-in-action. There is clearly a servant aspect to the musical enterprise. For example, in performance we serve others the balm and the tonic of music. And then there is the teaching/service connection: Whether we expressly think of ourselves as teachers or not, we musicians are always teaching. We teach by doing. We teach musical style by exposing our listeners to music of different styles. As we reach up towards the excellence of God, let us reach out to those who listen and, in listening, aspire to join us in the artistic world either by informed appreciation or by learning to make music themselves. Let us make a conscious commitment to the education aspect of our careers as service. Teach, not only to make a living, but to share the spiritual wealth of music. We have been gifted with musical ability; let us serve God by passing the gift of music on to others.
Third, there is the idea of music-making itself being an act of worship. Jesus the musician played words and deeds to make a music of his very life. But he was hardly “expressing himself.” Rather his focus was always other-directed. Each of his acts of service to others was an act of worship, a deflection of attention from himself to God. Following his model, we can reach towards excellence in music because we have been given the wherewithal to achieve excellence. There are a couple of latter-day saints who come to mind who model this kind of worship through excellence. Perhaps you will recall the film Chariots of Fire, a true-life story about the 1924 Olympics, in which one of the main characters, a Scottish missionary named Eric Lidell, ran to an Olympian degree of excellence because God had given him the gift of being able to run that well. He regarded each of his races as an offering; he ran, as I believe the screenplay put it, “for God’s pleasure.” Then a bit further back in history there was J. S. Bach, whom many of us regard as one of our all-time favorite ministers. Bach was one of the greatest exemplars of a long tradition of composers in the habit of dedicating their scores to the glory of God.
In closing, let us return to the question about the source of the light towards which we musicians strive. Do we reach in our music for beauty, or we seek to reach our audience? Or, in the parlance of those of us who tend to be more materials-oriented, do we reach towards the goal of revealing the perfection of design and proportion; of demonstrating a work’s wholeness, unity, or continuity; of achieving a broader multi-leveled perspective of the music we perform? In a way that can be more explicit than is the usual practice in the secular environment at Peabody Conservatory (the usual venue for my investigations), let us take advantage of the religious freedom of Lasker, specifically in this case the freedom to publicly confess our faith, to acknowledge that what we reach for in our artistic lives is a degree of perfection and excellence that is rare in human creation—that is to say human culture—but is everywhere in God’s creation: the natural world, including that world of plants. If the whole activity of worship is a reaching towards God, I like to think of musical reaching as a kind of intuitive worship, in which each performance is a kind of intuitive non-verbal (or, in the case of a vocal or choral music, meta-verbal) prayer.
Music as spiritual laboratory, music as service to others, and music for the glory of God: surely these comprise a better lore—and motivation—for our musical inclinations.
Let us invoke the help of God in doing the best work we can in God’s service.