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Making Music Live
Within Tapestry of Faith, the role of music is to make our lives and our children’s lives more vibrant and connected to each other and to the universe. We do not need to be trained musicians to make our music come alive. Whether we are experienced singers or shower singers, we can make great music. To paraphrase an expression from Zimbabwe, “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can sing, you can lead a song.”
Within Tapestry of Faith, the role of music is to make our lives and our children's lives more vibrant and connected to each other and to the universe. We do not need to be trained musicians to make our music come alive. Whether we are experienced singers or shower singers, we can make great music. To paraphrase an expression from Zimbabwe, "If you can talk, you can sing. If you can sing, you can lead a song."
It is only in the last sixty years that the leadership role for making music in our diverse communities has been delegated to specialists. Before that, everyone was a song leader—one simply started singing a song, and people joined in.
I am honored to offer this simple guide to help you weave music into our Tapestry of Faith programs. I was raised a Unitarian Universalist and love our musical traditions, our hymns, and our anthems. But like many within Unitarian Universalism (and within the Judeo-Christian world), I have sought out new music, chants, folk and popular songs, and song traditions from many lands. I have led these songs, old and new, within hundreds of UU communities and at General Assemblies since 1990. I want to share with you some general principles as well as specific techniques that will guarantee powerful music-making with our children. I will keep my methods simple, but please know that the simplicity I speak of never means dumbing down. Simplicity means focus of purpose. The great composer and song leader Alice Parker says, "You get what you ask for." To use a simple metaphor, when you focus on the simplicity of fire and your purpose is to create that fire—that spark, that flame that symbolizes our faith—you can light the world.
I will also offer tips on dance, listening, storytelling combined with listening, and drumming. None of these require singing, but the majority of what I offer celebrates the act of opening our mouths and letting our emotions fly out through sound. That is what singing is: the vocalization of emotions. Singing brings children and communities together like nothing else.
You do not need to be a singer to lead songs, but I won't lie to you—it helps. My advice for people who don't sing, but want to share singing with children, is threefold: First, start singing. Maybe not publicly right away, but start somewhere. Your confidence will grow. Second, take it one step at a time. Start singing a song everyone knows already and, BING BANG BOOM, the children will sing along. In an instant you're a song leader. Third, don't be afraid to ask for help. There are always adults in the community who will gladly volunteer to lead or teach a song, but more importantly there are youth in every community who love to sing. For years I attended the LRY and YRUU youth conferences where there is a longstanding tradition of young people leading each other in songs, and doing it quite well. Involve the youth in your community. Ask them to lead younger children in singing. If you are a song leader in training and not ready to take the leap, let the youth do their thing. They will. All you have to do is ask.
So here's my plan. I begin with the many uses of music within UU communities and end with important principles, including some essential information on the misappropriation of diverse musical traditions. (In general, you can skip around and read what you need to know, but please be sure to read the information on misappropriation. I do not offer the final word, simply some thoughts for an ongoing dialogue.) The chapters in between provide how-to information, followed by ways for making our communities come alive with music. There is a huge difference between a flickering flame and a great burning light. Our music can be that great beacon, and all of us—if we know how—can let it shine.
I've also added an extensive resource section at the end of the book. We need to know our resources.
An important note on language: I write in the first person, from experience. My language leans toward the Humanist side of Unitarian Universalism, but occasionally the word spirit pops up. As Unitarian Universalists, we strive to welcome diverse theologies, but sometimes in our goal of creating a language common to Humanists and Theists (not necessarily two different things), we sometimes end up with a language that appeals to the least offensive common denominator. In our effort to avoid offending anyone, we sometimes remove the spirit. Musically, the results can be dispirited, a sound that lacks life, a sound that is, quite frankly, dead.
Here's the secret: singing is all about the emotions. Our emotions can range from blah to zest, from complacency to compassion. Whether we are singing of love or singing of the spirit (Mystery, God, Goddess, Lord, Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, Gaia), we need to engage our hearts as well as our minds (I would also add bodies). Singing with spirit and singing about spirit are two different things. Whether you sing of the spirit is up to you and the consensus of your congregation. I believe in bringing a diversity of beliefs, including spiritual beliefs, into song—but whatever you do, do it with spirit. Engage the emotions. Bring song to life. Let it shine. I consciously use that phrase a lot.
We enjoy the ritual of lighting the chalice on Sunday mornings. When we do, I often think of the spiritual chorus, "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine." For me, "let it shine" means creating a positive environment in which the emotions can be a blazing light, where connections can be made, and where we become fully alive.
Faith in sound
In his book, The Disciplined Mind, Howard Gardner speaks of teaching children three moral structures: 1) the ability to determine what is true and what is false; 2) the ability to determine what is moral and what is immoral; and 3) the ability to determine what is beautiful and what is not. As Unitarian Universalists, these goals are consistent with our Seven Principles.
1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person
2. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations
3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and society at large
6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
Celebrating music with our children isn't just about the music; it is about seeking what is beautiful, what is true, and what is good. An Earth-Centered chant can help us feel—actually feel—our interdependent web. A hymn like "Bring Many Names" and a subsequent discussion of its words can help children respect a diversity of thought. Knowing that each child is capable of creating great beauty speaks of our belief in the dignity of every person.
Music connects body to mind, mind to emotions, emotions to body, and all of those to the mystery that is the universe. Music connects our communities, adjoining us to the past and future and to all people. And music is an act of compassion: when we sing, we make the world a more beautiful place.
Let it shine.
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