My Musical Odyssey, Part III: Get on Board

Gospel took me by surprise.

When I first arrived in Dallas to enroll in seminary, my plan was to do a double major in sacred music and theology. For some reason, though, it had never occurred to me that it might be a good idea to check out the program I was going to be entering before I actually moved myself and most of my possessions into a dorm room. I'd gone to Illinois sight unseen, and that had worked out reasonably well, so why should I treat my seminary choice any differently?

The answer, of course, is that I wasn't even in the program that led me to choose this school over any other Methodist seminary in the United States. I'd gotten into the Master of Divinity program without a hitch, but that was a course of study I could've taken anywhere else. If I wanted to earn a Master of Sacred Music, my choices were limited to SMU and Boston. Boston misplaced my application, so that left SMU. Just getting into the MDiv didn't mean I could be an MSM, as well; first I had to audition. I didn't see how I could afford a round trip ticket to Dallas, so I put off the audition until I was on campus, ready to begin classes.

And I flunked the audition.

I wasn't awful. I was aiming to be a conducting (as opposed to organ) major, and my technique was excellent; however, I had not at this time had any real experience conducting a choir, and it's just not the same thing. They let me down gently, told me that, since I was doing the double major, my first year would've been what I was already signed up for with the MDiv anyway, and I could always come back and re-audition the following year. And yes, by all means audit the MSM seminar, and see what you can pick up from that!

So I did all those things: I plunged into my MDiv classes. I audited the sacred music seminar. I sang in the seminary choir. I got a good look at what being a sacred music major would mean. And I didn't like it. As far as I could tell, these people were learning to be church music scolds, the church version of the musicologist who had taught my music history course in college. They were originalists who, like the conservatives on the Supreme Court, would not admit the possibility that interpreting a piece of music could evolve over time: any piece they programmed for their choirs would be performed exactly as the composer had written it, up to and including sexist lyrics, a topic that was heating up throughout the mainline Protestant world at that time. And as for conducting, far from the controlled expressive dance my teachers had impressed upon me, this was a study in micro-precision. Well-respected choral composer Lloyd Pfausch was their teacher, and he was a stickler for beat patterns that showed every fraction of a beat. It didn't matter that only a handful of churches in the US had choirs skilled enough to understand this distinction, or that adhering to it would (at least in my estimation) rob music of its expressive qualities: the conductor was to be a metronome.

So I didn't become an MSM. I continued singing in the seminary choir, and observed that the student conductors brought in to help displayed all the mechanical qualities I'd expected they would, and I was glad I hadn't gotten in. At the same time, I was beginning to lose motivation to perform music. I took my trumpet into the chapel a couple of times a week to play with the acoustics, and occasionally cut loose on the grand piano in the seminary lounge, but mostly I put music behind me.

By now my classical record collection was nearing completion: I had LPs of every great work that would appear on an essentials list, and when it came to my favorite composers (Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Copland, Bernstein), I had nearly everything they'd written for orchestra. But I wasn't listening to those records.

I finished my first year, took some summer classes, then set out on the expedition to meet my future in-laws in northern New York (I had just become engaged to a fellow student). Just before the trip, a friend gave me some cassettes to help me through my 1900 mile journey. One of those tapes was of Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Waters album. I had honestly never listened to Simon and Garfunkel before, didn't even really know the song from which the album took its title. Now as I headed north from Dallas and heard that iconic piano introduction, I felt something stir in me. It wasn't just this duo, either: there was something about the way the piano sounded that pulled me in a new direction. I had just discovered gospel music.

Simon and Garfunkel were also my introduction to rock, and really to all of pop, but it's that gospel piano sound that was to haunt me for decades to come. I began seeking out recordings of full-on gospel music. My first year, I had skipped African-American week services because the presence of a loud Hammond organ in the chapel seemed offensive to me, but my second year, I attended, and love it. On a rare Sunday off from the church job that earned me my grocery money, I checked out St. Luke's, a huge African-American congregation crammed into a tiny old church in a poor neighborhood, and was hooked. Aretha Franklin's gospel album now entered my collection. I began attempting to learn gospel techniques on the piano. I wrote a gospel song that I still believe is the best thing I've ever composed.

What was it about this music that captured me? Many things. For years I'd been chafing against the trend in popular church music toward theologically bankrupt, musically simplistic choruses. Gospel music was harmonically complex, making frequent use of diminished seventh chords, blue notes, ninths and elevenths, really the full harmonic language of jazz. Gospel performers improvised freely with melodies, ornamenting at will, sometimes abandoning the melody entirely, carrying on musical conversations with their piano and organ accompanists that thrilled the jazz musician in me. Gospel choirs sang with a full sound I rarely heard in white church groups, singing from the gut, feeling the music deeply, and moving with it. It was as if all the performers--organist, pianist, drummer, instrumental and vocal soloists, choir, conductor, and, yes, the preacher--had been possessed by the music, or, rather, by the Spirit that was communicating through it. This was something I never saw in the sacred music majors at my seminary, nor had I experienced it in any of my classical training; and yet, when I gave myself over to music, whether it was improvising on my trumpet in the chapel or at the piano in the lounge, I often found a place in which my identity vanished and I was the music.

It took me decades to work an authentic gospel feel into my keyboard playing, and I'm still not sure I've got it down, but gospel itself--the music, the theory, the performance practice--transformed me as a musician and a preacher. Hearing a gospel choir in full voice still stirs me as no other music can, and I'm now hypersensitive to the prevalence of gospel influence on the entire body of American popular music. Jazz, country, blues, R&B, rock and roll, folk, hip hop: it's everywhere. To understand American popular music, one has to start with gospel.

And that is precisely where I started. I was a bit late coming to the game--I still didn't own my first true rock album until I was 30--but with gospel in my blood, I was ready when I pushed that cassette into my car stereo for the first time, and heard Bono sing from his gut, just like a gospel singer would.


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