Saturday, April 16, 2005

Music as Spiritual Discipline

One of my spiritual disciplines is music. I play 18th and 19th century flutes, recorders, and sometimes crumhorns. I perform with an early music group, and have been thinking about finding or starting a group in (mostly Irish) traditional music.

For a long time I struggled with the question of the role of music in my life. I have been as consistently fascinated by it and dedicated to it as a professional musican would need to be. Why did I not place music at the very center of my life then? It's a long and complicated story. I'll sum it all up by saying that it was a combination of my fatal lack of self-confidence coupled with what initially seemed like competing career interests in academic study and teaching, and/or possibly pursuing some form of ministry.

Happily, I've been able to bring together all of my strong interests into a well-integrated life -- by studying, teaching, and writing philosophy, from my contemplative angle; by focusing my "care about people" energies into my teaching and into my various forms of service to the campus community; and by joining the music group I mentioned above.

So the question of the role of music in my life was answered: the discipline of regularly practicing music and occasionally performing is part of my spiritual discipline. Here's why:

First of all, it does something good to me emotionally. It keeps me in touch with my emotions, and stabilizes them. It's hard to describe what I mean by "stabilizing them" -- maybe what I mean is that it allows me to have my strong emotional nature without my being too frightened by it all. I can live my emotions, fully experience them, have an outlet for expressing them. It brings me into a good relationship with the full range of emotions -- even the difficult ones.

Secondly, it keeps me in touch with a transcendent dimension of reality. I've finally learned that in teaching philosophy the best way to teach about Plato's theory of Forms is to talk about a musical piece as a Form. It is real, but what exactly is its reality? Is its reality the notes on the page? No -- they are but a representation, and a representation that never captures all that is involved in an actual performance of the piece. So, is it a given performance? No, because each performance itself is fleeting -- it happens and then is over, but the piece, as a piece of music, remains real. Would it be a recording, then? Not really -- every recording filters aspects out from the original performance. And then there are different recordings by different musicians of the same piece -- which is the "real" one? None. They are all real as instances -- but different from each other. It is the musical piece that has the enduring and transcendent reality. So, in playing music, you reach for this. You connect with something beyond yourself.

Thirdly, the quest to play music well is a quest for a kind of excellence. Seeking excellence is always spiritually good for a person. The discipline of reaching for this on a regular basis makes you a better person. You develop important qualities of critical self-reflection, humility, awareness of your impact on the world, and seeking through your life and work to bring something good into the world for the benefit of others. How can this not pervade the rest of your life in positive ways?

There is more I could say, but this is a start.

1 comment:

  1. I just joined the whole blog thing and found your site quite intriguing. I teach business english in siberia and my boss, a musician, is my student...sometimes. We are actually performing on saturday, blues...I play the trombone and your writing is quite interesting to me..I think our next lesson will be making a blog for him, perhaps we can stay in touch. He has an intermediate level of English but is a quite extraordinary person...maybe we can become friends?

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