The Christmas Band
Published: December 18, 2008
A hush fell over the large crowd gathered for the annual parish Christmas concert. The concert was held in the school auditorium of the St. Thomas More parochial school in Fairfield, N.J., where I was assigned as a parish priest many years ago.
Like any orchestra, the sounds of instruments being tuned could be heard from behind the closed curtain. The tune-up sounded like so many notes trying to find their way to a somehow known but far and fuzzy destination.
The principal walked on to the stage and stood before the curtain. She paused a few seconds to secure the attention of the audience. She spoke softly into the microphone and thanked everyone for coming and for offering their support and encouragement to the school orchestra. And, without further ado, she left the stage. The curtain parted, the lights went up on the stage and the school orchestra came into view.
Unlike many an orchestra, this one was comprised of little kids.
First-, second- and third-graders sat on stools or chairs, holding their instruments. Their eyes were glued to the music teacher who stood before them with baton in hand and a sheet music stand right in front of her. The audience—the proud parents and siblings and relatives of the child musicians—cheered and clapped. The conductor turned, smiled, bowed and turned again to her charges. She tapped the baton a few times on the stand to arrest their attention and then raised her arms. With a sudden twist of her body and a swoop of her arms that rivaled any world famous conductor’s feverish modus operandi, she summoned the orchestra to life. And come to life it did.
I remember that the first song that night was “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” As their mentor swayed back and forth, the strains of music filled the auditorium. The kids played their hearts out, blowing and pounding and caressing the instruments that required such for their life. The notes rose from drums and cascaded from oboes, violins, hornets, flutes, a piano.
But there were two problems. One was that the kids were, for the most part, off key. The other problem was that it was all out of sync. The timing was so off the music sounded like a funeral dirge being played at the wrong speed on a warped record.
But, you know, it did not matter one bit. The music teacher swayed and beckoned and enticed the children with her whole being. She waved and swirled her baton, and the notes were born, screeching and groping their way as they were popped into the air with a seeming reluctance from the instruments that gave them life.
But it was one of the most beautiful nights of music I have ever attended.
The kids were having the time of their lives. After that first song, the audience roared their approval. The applause and cheers could have matched any concert I had ever seen. The music teacher turned, beamed, took a bow and then turned again to the kids and sailed right into the next number.
Not long after the concert, I had a chat with the music teacher. I so admired her and wanted to tell her so. In the course of our conversation, she told me that two things were important as far as teaching kids music. The first was to instill in them the confidence to play, and the second was to gradually encourage them to listen to the whole band, to have the desire to let the music carry them and get the feel for being an important part of something far larger than one instrument. Learning to play in a band was a roundabout way of tuning into others. Patience, she told me, was needed for the whole thing to gradually work.
That was many years ago, and those kids are now grown, most of them married with children of their own. Their instruments are surely long gone, but I hope that they picked up the real music of that night. What their conductor tried to teach them through song will serve them so well for the rest of their lives: living in harmony with others, not being afraid to love and being patient with the process that is life.
Making music is like learning to love. From the time we are very young, we need to be taught the ways of love. We need to be loved into loving, loved enough that we learn, bit by bit, that love is something that calls us to see each other so differently. We need, too, to know with all our hearts that God is something like that good teacher. He knows “the score” and is before us, guiding and loving a whole universe into being. We falter and stumble but are needed for this symphony of life that is God’s music in the making.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at www.abbeystore.com.