A Musician’s Humility

I’ve been playing the piano in church for years. And there’s a lesson I keep on learning: it’s not about me.

Taking piano lessons, I learnt to perform. Whether it was Bach, Mozart, Haydn or Gershwin, I learnt to play them with panache, with finesse, like how someone on stage would play it. While preparing for my diploma, I watched and re-watched videos of Lang Lang, Horowitz and Angela Brown belting out the piano pieces. Oh, what emotion. Oh, what majesty in the pieces!

In my local church, there’s definitely a stage of sorts, with the music ministry consisting of just organ, piano and choir. And for years, and in different churches, I listened intently to the pianist, picking up little tips that would let me play better. I was inadvertently thinking about me, about how to get that next “you played really well!” comment.

But it takes more than good technique to be a good church musician.

Is the congregation encouraged to sing when we play? Are they reminded of the great things God has done, in the words of the pieces we choose for prelude, offertory and after the service? Where is our heart?

At a music conference in July, the speaker showed how musical humility looks like in real life. He got his daughter up, and sang ‘Amazing Grace’ with her. A beautiful duet of soprano and tenor voices. Except that we couldn’t hear the melody because he was drowning her out, singing at the top of his lungs.

First lesson in musician-land humility: seek to make others shine.

And then we looked at an orchestra piece. A Masters in Violin student was tasked to play a single note in a very boring rhythm for most of the song. She could have thought “I’ll show them what I can do”, and played some fancy accompaniment – but that might have clashed with the other instruments, and made it difficult for the congregation!

Second lesson: it may be a small part, but that’s ok, the entire tapestry’s beautiful.

And we had choir rehearsals, where the conductor said we needed to seek excellence in each rehearsal. It’s not a time for horsing around, or playing the fool. We show love to the rest of the choir members by taking things seriously. Turning up when we are supposed to, learning what we need to, and putting our hearts in it. Because by showing love, we demonstrate that God is love.

Music moves hearts and stirs emotions. As stewards of the medium, we need to use it carefully. The congregation should come before us in congregational worship – can they follow the music, are we playing an appropriate music for the mood (e.g. reflective during prayer), are we playing in a key / at a speed that they can really enjoy singing to God?

Third lesson: Above all, love one another.

So many lessons from just a few years of making music. There’s definitely more to come, and I’m looking forward to that.

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