Making Music in Times of Crisis

An introduction from the Rev. Miranda Hassett…  Over the summer, talking with clergy colleagues about how things were going at their churches, I started to notice a pattern in what they were telling me: “My music director just quit.”  “My organist hasn’t been in touch since March.” And so on. While these were extreme cases, many church musicians struggled to know how to do their job – fulfill their calling – under our current circumstances. I have a lot of compassion for that – I empathize! And I’ve also been incredibly grateful that our Director of Music Ministry at St. Dunstan’s, Deanna Clement, has approached our changed circumstances with curiosity, hope, and a robust confidence that we would continue to offer music to God and one another, somehow.  I asked Deanna about what made her able to face these times. The result is this message – a reflection on the qualities and ways of being that will help us keep making music, literally and metaphorically, in times of crisis.

“Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing; it finds an echo in my soul; how can I keep from singing?”

These famous lines come from a hymn by Robert Lowry (1826-1899). It may sound familiar: we used them as our Song of Praise for a while, this autumn. They also happen to be on the back of a high school choir sweatshirt that I still own, nearly two decades later.

You can read them as an earnest affirmation of music-making for its own sake, regardless of the circumstances. That’s not the only way I hear them, though. When I read these words on this particular sweatshirt, I also hear the start of an ethic of music-making while in crisis.

I hear it that way because crisis marked my high school choir experience. A choir director’s catastrophic failure of judgement left a vacuum of leadership in its wake, and a group of passionate teenagers committed to singing (and their equally committed parents) had to pick up the pieces.

My cohort ended up having 6 directors in 4 years of high school. It was hard in ways that still hurt 17 years later. And we also got through it. Not only did we all survive – but that first gut-wrenching year, both our concerts and our tour happened. They happened a little differently, but they happened. Choir continued, and we stayed connected.

That all happened in 2003 in suburban, affluent Phoenix, to a secular, public high school choir of passionate teenage musicians.  Today I, and we, are living through another crisis that affects our shared music-making. It’s a very different crisis, but finding wisdom in those long-ago experiences for navigating music ministry at an Episcopal church in Wisconsin in 2020, might not be as big a leap as you’d think.

Having been in that rag-tag band of teenagers, parents, and administrators negotiating uncharted musical territory gives me a way to hold the seriousness of our current situation for what it is, and to reflect on my role in helping navigate our current troubled waters.

Singing together in person in church is dangerous right now. The science is still emerging, but indicates that there is no completely safe way to sing together in-person. Singing, or playing some instruments, together in groups seems to be one of the riskiest things we can choose to do for everyone involved: musicians, helpers, audiences, congregants, and clergy alike.

The best we can do is to mitigate risk with masks, generous ventilation, limits on how many, how loud, how close, and how long. It’s a logistical nightmare for schools, colleges, universities… and churches.

We, as a member of the body of Christ, strive to welcome and serve and whole-heartedly include all kinds of folks – those confident in their ability to weather a Covid diagnosis; those who are at greater risk for complications and even death; and everyone in between. So our guidelines for music-making have to design for people at varying levels of health risk and of risk tolerance.

Our multi-generational congregations make us less like school or university music programs and more like community orchestras and choirs – and many of those community programs have canceled their in-person seasons, not just for 2020, but into 2021 as well. The Metropolitan Opera, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and Chorus all made this hard choice. So can we.

That doesn’t mean we can’t still sing together. That doesn’t mean we can’t still play together. It does mean that we’re going to have to find a way to make community and minister through music differently.

I don’t say that lightly. Rewriting the script for what music ministry looks like is overwhelming on a good day. Our received ways of making music in church are familiar and beloved. And for me personally, the fact that I wasn’t trained specifically for a church musician role gives me extra room to second guess myself.

But I remind myself that back in high school, the well-respected senior who became the leader for our choir wasn’t the most obvious choice either. He wasn’t the most musically proficient performer, though his many musical and technical skills certainly helped him. What really made him the right leader for our group at that time were traits that had little to do with music. He was kind, attentive, honest, creative, flexible, generous, earnest, curious, and savvy. He was someone who tried to include everybody; who ran towards whatever’s broken; and who tried to make amends when he messed up.

All of those are traits I’m still working to embody. All of those are traits that characterize the church, at its best.

So how did we do it, back in 2003? What values and ways of being helped us keep doing what we felt called to do, when the way we had expected to do it collapsed unexpectedly?

One important way of being was Collaboration. Everyone contributed what they could to keep things running. Although one choir student was put in charge during that strange interim period, in practice, many people helped us keep going. I led sectional rehearsals with the piano, as did others. A friend who had access to the concert program files kept those up to date. Council members made sure each class had leadership. Singers continued to show up to class. Substitute teachers let us do our thing.

In the Diocese of Milwaukee, we are exploring new forms of musical collaboration. People are contributing all kinds of gifts and skills, as we find new ways to make music together. It’s not just playing or singing that’s involved here: there’s so much happening behind the scenes to make sure that the technological and logistical aspects of this effort all work.

Another aspect of my high school choir experience was Sacrifice.  We had to let go of expectations about the experience we had hoped to have. We weren’t going to have one great music teacher lead us through four years of growth, as others do, no matter what we did and through no fault of ours. If anything, we had that ideal deconstructed before our eyes in real time without a lot of terminology for what was going on or how we felt about it, and it hurt. But being able to feel those feelings and release them was crucial to being able to move forward together.

The way we’re doing church and making music together wasn’t anyone’s choice. Being in exile from our buildings hurts. Being unable to do many things we love hurts. Finding possibility in this time doesn’t mean that “Everything is fine.” But doing what we can so that we’re all still here when we can be back together in-person again is worth it.

By the same token, we also needed plenty of Patience. There was a lot of hurt, confusion, grief, and anger to process. It was sometimes hard to know exactly what we were mad at or sad about, just that we were. It came out sideways. It made us sick. Even the strongest among us weren’t immune. We had to learn to be patient with one another as we dealt with the impact, individually and collectively, of what we were going through.

Learning to work with practices meant to keep us safe has required a lot of study, discussion, discernment, and grieving. Learning to work with this technology has required a lot. But we’re working through it all. We’re still here.

Something else that helped us back in high school was Focus. It was easy to get upset and angry because there was a lot to be rightly upset and angry about. Watching your heroes fail spectacularly hurts. Losing an imagined future hurts. But the mission was clear: we would continue to learn about and make music together regardless of what was going on around us. We would do it with whatever and whomever we had.

For my work at St. Dunstan’s in Madison, I’ve had to step back and ask, “What’s the most important thing?” My answer has been being part of the body of Christ in Wisconsin during COVID-tide. My job is to support that mission through music.

Perseverance: There were days where what we were doing felt impossible – but we didn’t give up on music or each other. Today, I’m the Director of Music Ministry at St. Dunstan’s and a recently minted PhD from UW-Madison’s School of Music. Music is still central in my life, and many of the friends I went through this with are still on my Facebook feed.

The Diocese of Milwaukee has not given up on worshiping, and making music, together. We’re working through technological glitches and learning from them. We’re adapting our practices for these new formats and taking notes on how it goes.

Collaboration, sacrifice, patience, focus, perseverance. These are ways of being that allow us to collaborate with God and each other, to “hear that real though far off hymn that hails a new creation.”1 They come alongside those sturdy Christian standbys of faith, hope, and love, as reasons that “no storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.” These behaviors are how I know that “Love is Lord of heaven and earth.” The skills we lack—or just need to practice a bit—will come with time, study, and play.

We may need to learn some things, and that’s okay. We might need to buy some things, and that’s okay. We may want to ask some people we never thought we’d reach out to questions that we never thought we’d ask, but guess what? That’s okay. We may need to try out some things that don’t work. That’s okay. We might need to reorganize our time and efforts and our liturgical aesthetics and our music-making spaces. You know what I’m going to say already: That’s okay!

Our Thessalonians text for today tell us, “Hold fast to what is good.”2 Honesty, kindness, patience, creativity, generosity, perseverance, flexibility, and so much more are good, and are already here. They are ways to “Rejoice, always, pray without ceasing [and] give thanks in all circumstances.”3 We sometimes just need to remember them; be given permission to use them; and bravely act with them in mind. Music is just one way we do these things, and it’s a great space to practice.

So, to quote a ready Music that Makes Community anthem (if there is one), “What we need is here.”4 Let me say it again: “what we need is here.”

Video Transcript:

(Instrumental Drone)

Let’s listen once.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Join in as you’re able.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Add in some harmony.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Last time now.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Let’s transition elsewhere.

It may take some time, but that’s okay.

(Instrumental transition to “How can I keep from singing?”)

“Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
it finds an echo in my soul;
how can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?”

(Instrumental out)

1Also from Lowry’s lyrics for the same hymn.
21 Thessalonians 5:15.
31 Thessalonians 5:16-17.
4Words and music by Amy McCreath.