Last Sunday, I sang once again at a church service. The piece I performed was "A Simple Song" by Leonard Bernstein, and I was accompanied by the wonderful Melanie Bradley on piano and long-time friend Stacey Hartman on flute. We did the 11:00 service at Melanie's church, Lewes Presbyterian, an old, beautiful church in downtown Lewes. It went well, I think, and the congregation seemed to genuinely appreciate what we offered. Afterwards, when I was home relaxing before Sweeney Todd rehearsal, I reflected on what has long been my approach to singing in church as opposed to singing anywhere else.
I always did feel differently about church singing than I did about singing on stage or in any other public venue. Somehow, getting applause in church after performing always feels wrong to me even though I hunger for it at any other time. And, while other performances are usually dictated by a script or what will best please an audience, I typically take great pains when selecting a piece to perform at a church. You see, although I don't consider myself a devout Christian, I am spiritual enough to believe that whatever middling musical talent I have is a gift I should put to service. And, in the case of the church, that means doing what I can to enhance the message being conveyed that day.
This practice I adopted from a woman named Florence Ruley who was the music director of St. John's United Methodist, the church I attended as a teenager. She would carefully select hymns (if not given suggestions from the pastor) that correlated with either the scripture being read at that service or the content of the sermon, a copy of which she would often be given as a guide. Many times, she and I looked over different song choices for me to perform, trying to find something that would contribute in some way to the overall theme of the service.
Although I didn't recognize it at the time, I now see that Mrs. Ruley was showing me how to leave ego at the door and bring my skills and talents to bear on a cooperative task in which others were supplying their own skills and talents. My singing a song wasn't a pause in the service for a moment of spotlight or an extra treat for the bored congregation. Rather it was a continuation of the message, a way to shed light on some aspect of the sermon's lesson. While I don't kid myself into believing that I always accomplish this, it is an idea I've carried with me into adulthood and one that provides me a sense of fulfillment that regular stage performing does not.
My choosing "A Simple Song" brought all of this back to me as I began the mental struggle I've had with this song for over twenty years, dating back to when I first heard it sung while I was in high school to a failed attempt to perform it myself when I was in college to the present day in which I have now sung it twice as part of two different church services. This struggle really amounted to a fear of singing this song in front of people and not doing it justice or, worse, simply not doing it well at all. But, the lesson from Mrs. Ruley finally sunk in and got me to face that fear and accomplish one of my long-time, unstated goals.
You see, my fear, just like any other fear, had roots in the egocentric desire that the world around me is significantly preoccupied with my actions. People often fear how something is going to appear to others because they think others have a vested interest in what they do, and I am no different. But, the simple truth is that no matter what mishap or flub I make or even how brilliant my actions, the world at large will continue on, completely unaffected by my failures and successes.
On the surface, that appears to be a depressing train of thought: no matter what I do, the world doesn't care and will continue on regardless. But, the acceptance of this idea frees one from the constraints imposed by fear. After all, if what I do isn't going to have a far-reaching affect, why not take a chance on something? Why be afraid of possible ridicule and judgment?
Of course, there are those who are going to offer up ridicule and judgment in abundance all in an effort to feel superior or mask their own fear, but I'm talking about a big picture view here. In the grand scheme of things, we don't amount to very much, and in that state, we have space to move around in, freedom to discover things about ourselves. And, yes, do the things we've been afraid to do for so long.
The paradox is that by accepting our insignificance and releasing our fear, we open up an opportunity to touch a wide range of individuals. Because I finally found the balls to sing "A Simple Song", maybe I was able to reach someone and they were able to receive a message they needed to hear. Maybe I helped save the service from terminal boredom. Or, maybe people forgot everything about the service, including me, the moment they walked out to the parking lot to go home. I don't know for sure, but, more importantly, I don't need to know because what matters as far as I need to be concerned is that I faced my personal fear, set aside my own egotism, and worked with other talented people on something bigger than myself. I got something very special out of the experience, and I just hope someone else was able to as well.