Friday, March 13, 2015

Empty praise?

"Riches I need not," goes the well known hymn, "nor man's empty praise." That seems like a phrase worth thinking about.

I can't tell you how many times I've been in any number of musical situations, some rather informal (like being invited to play on some sort of program or for a church service) and someone will come up to me afterward and tell me how much they enjoyed my music. Frequently this is followed by the assertion that I am much better than some other musician who was on the same program. Sometimes I will hear that I am a better organist than somebody else, or even the best organist in town!

Which may not be total baloney. I'm pretty good at what I do; still, there is at least one organist in town with an impressive competitive pedigree, and a few others associated with the university who are either established organists or young hotshots. So while I have some professional pride, I imagine it is always better not to get your nose in the air too much. That would apply even if I was demonstrably the best organist in town, never mind that there are always at least a few phenomenal musicians around in any university town or large city who can at least give you a run for your money no matter how accomplished you become.

Besides, excellence, besides being in the ear of the beholder, is a product of many things, some of which are probably less tied to ability than others. I regard a good portion of my frequent success in piano competitions as an undergraduate to the choice of repertoire. I often played a rather flashy concerto and it often took the prize. It was a frequently lamented observation among competitors that poetic pieces did not often win, never mind the skill of the pianist. My mother once noticed the judges during a performance of mine, bobbing their heads rhythmically, clearly enjoying themselves. It couldn't have hurt--judges, I've heard, are human. Which means that any number of things may impress even a musically trained person which may not in themselves have to do with the skill of the musician.

Other factors that were said to sway judges had to do with whether you got to perform after the lunch break, or toward the end, where you could be more easily remembered among the 30 odd pianists performing back-to-back. That did seem to carry some weight.

A church service, of course, is supposed to be a thousand miles from all of this competitive hoopla. The only obstacle in the way of a total separation is that there are humans at both events, and human beings judge constantly. This is why I am often being compared to other musicians. In my hearing it has virtually always been at the expense of another musician, but I feel pretty certain that there have been times when somebody has sidled up to somebody else out of my hearing and told them that they were clearly better than me.

Should it matter? I am not sure that I take compliments as well as I should; they make me a bit uncomfortable, and getting one at the expense of somebody else even more so. However, I do find it somewhat amusing.  Such compliments may well be undeserved anyway, and they are simply the (possibly untrained) opinion of the person who uttered them, rather than some objective standard which is the equivalent of God's inviolable stamp of eternal approval. In some ways they may be worth about as much as a confederate dollar.

Now the religious evangelical part of my upbringing tells me that the next sentence here ought to read something like this: Besides, the Bible teaches us that we ought not to seek the approval of men, but of God, just as it says in the hymn quoted above. But I'm not quite comfortable with that pious cliche, either. In fact, at the risk of being a gadfly, I'm going to suggest that the praise of people should matter even to a church organist, up to a point. When we get to that point I'll argue the reverse. But first, the pro-praise position:

When someone offers a genuine compliment I assume that the reason for it is that they felt some kind of joy in hearing the music. Joy begets joy; they are remarking upon the pleasure they experienced in the listening. Is it of no consequence to give some measure of happiness to our fellows?

There are, of course, straight-laced religious folks who like to put a chasm between God and man; to remind us that the whole point of praise of God is that there is an "audience of one" and that it is only God (and emphatically not people) who should be the object of our desire to please. But there are some problems with that:

One is that it is a nice defense mechanism for people who are not getting the appreciation they would like from their neighbors; if nobody seems to like what I'm doing, I don't have to care (or at least can try mightily to pretend I don't) by telling everyone loudly and longly that I am only there to please God and NOT their pathetic selves. But there is no guarantee that your efforts are pleasing to God, either. And it is most likely not pleasing to God to have us fail to care about our neighbors. Jesus linked the two loves: love of God AND love of neighbor, as if the two are not only unopposed to each other, but should be linked. Expression of God's love can (and should) take place in love of neighbor. And the reverse. ("For if you do not love your neighbor, whom you have seen, how can you love God, whom you have not?")

If our music is not pleasing to people it is probably because it is failing to connect with them, which is not likely to either cause them to want to return to church, or to help them while they are present. If they are connecting in some way, they may be getting inspired, finding beauty in creation, feeling closer to their neighbors, and experiencing pride in an enterprise larger than themselves.

Or, they may just be feeling entertained. But we'll get to that.

Further, if the music is not pleasing to them, it might also be because the poor technic or erratic tempo or frequent missed notes of the organist are making it harder to participate, which doesn't help with the larger mission--not if we are too busy being distracted by all sorts of little perturberances. My point being that we should not use the idea of pleasing God alone to cover the fact that human beings are not pleased with our efforts for what may well turn out to be good reasons.

Even pride may have some value here. People like to be proud of their organist; it gives them one more reason to feel good about their faith community, and one more reason to invite friends. Pride gets pretty universally beat up in historical writings by persons of faith, but the church, which has been none too subtle about the good and bad in human beings, ought to try to practice more of it. In large doses, particularly if the organist has imbibed too much, it can cause an excess of ego, which can be destructive. But it can also give purpose, and energy. If you are good at what you do, and persons who have no cause to be jealous of that notice and are thankful for your efforts on their behalf, then the body is built up. Surely this is a good thing.

On the other hand, people are so inclined to think their organist is terrific that they may overlook a few things; besides this is all up to the judgment of the beholder. No matter how terrible someone is you can find someone who thinks they are just wonderful. Notice Youtube videos. Somebody thinks a video posted there is the "best thing ever posted" about nearly everything. And conversely, even the most acclaimed virtuosi, after their recordings have been illegally posted by a third party, are subject to people who think that their playing is rubbish. Such vast differences of opinion do not mean that we should cover our ears and never listen to another human being ever again, but it does suggest that we ought to at least be careful where the praise or blame is coming from, and not to get too wrapped up in it, either way.

A more important question is what this does for our motivation. If we are choosing our music in an effort to impress we are more likely to play things which are fast and loud, with ear-titillating passagework, or, if a pianist, things which can be played tenderly and which make the piano sound attractive. This is often not the best music, which does not gain human praise so easily. Often this music is a challenge to our ears, and though it will hopefully lead to the expansion of our souls, it is not as likely to excite in the short term. It is like feeding children something with a lot of sugar in it. They will love you for it, but if you value their health you will make sure they get a balanced diet even if they wrinkle their noses. It is the same way with a congregation.

This week I am playing something that will likely be popular. Next week, I am not. Both pieces were chosen with regard to the sermon. One is from this young century; the other from the 17th. I know that the first would easily beat the second in a run-off popularity contest. The funny thing is that you know that if a visitor attended just one of those service they would walk out thinking I was an amazing organist or just a mediocre one based entirely on whether what I played that week happened to be impressive sounding.


(I am reminded of an anecdote concerning baseball player Joe DiMaggio who was asked why he always played so hard, to which he responded that there might be someone at the game who had never seen him play. I would like to think , however, that this did not cause him to dive for routine fly balls and try to make everything look difficult even when it wasn't. I am sure that when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a difficult play he did what he needed to do and the fans loved it.)

Taken together they are a contemporary voice and part of the larger tradition; based on a 19th century Methodist hymn and a Lutheran chorale. An American piano piece and a German organ piece. Both with something to say, and in very different ways. This  week, I know I will get compliments. Next week, that is unlikely. In the aggregate, it doesn't matter. There is a higher calling, but it goes through, not around, the current circumstance.

If you aren't challenging your congregation, you aren't doing your best. But your neighbor's voice matters, too. You will want to not only take him deeper in his faith and his understanding, but meet him where he is. If you never get a compliment from a member of your congregation, you are probably doing something wrong. But if you can't get through a week without getting a compliment, you are also doing something wrong. Beware the compliment!

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