Musical Martha: Minding the Rest as a Church Musician

I have always struggled with Sundays. I have always loved keeping busy throughout the whole day—even on weekends—but the very structure of Sundays is set against this.

As a musician and writer, I deeply enjoy my work and take satisfaction in doing it well. My love for productivity, however, makes Sundays a challenge. Before I began working consistently as a church pianist/organist, Sundays were a source of annoyance. Church at 10:00am interrupted my morning workflow. Heavy lunches with my family made me too sleepy to do much in the afternoon. By evening, I often found that I had spent my day sitting still, not producing or creating anything. Although it is certainly good that I enjoy my work, I am finding that it is equally good to sometimes set it aside; it is good for me to let Sundays interrupt my usual workflow.

It is good for me to let Sundays interrupt my workflow.

As a church musician, this presents a double challenge. My usual temptation is to be frustrated that Sundays interrupt my plans for productivity. Since becoming a regular church pianist/organist in college, though, Sundays have become work days. My initial reaction to this was gratitude—sheer thankfulness that I do not have to sit idly in pews and can instead put my skills to use, serving my dear choirs and leading congregations in worship.

Like my enjoyment of the work week, this is basically good. It is good to use one’s gifts for the benefit of the body of Christ. Equally good, though, is learning to rest regardless of Sunday’s demands. My efficiency and work ethic have made me (I hope) an excellent church musician. I am able to sneak between the piano, organ, and choir loft, jump in on handbells or sing alto, switch hymns and anthems last minute, and prolong preludes for ridiculous amounts of time as people find seats. I love that my work on Sundays demands my full attention; otherwise, my temptation would be to zone out and to passively recite the liturgy and listen to the sermon. With multiple responsibilities as a musician, I must instead be constantly alert.

Serving as a sacred musician has helped facilitate (and sometimes enforce) my active participation in the liturgical and congregational life of the Church. For this, I am grateful beyond measure. And yet, this remarkable blessing poses a serious danger: overactivity.

  • When I am more focused on sneaking to the organ during “The Lord’s Prayer” than on letting its words touch and transform me, I am no longer actively participating in worship, but instead am neglecting participation in communal prayer.
  • When I am more concerned with extending communion music to avoid awkward silences than with partaking of the bread and wine myself, I am no longer serving others but instead am denying fellowship (koinonia) through the sacrament.
  • When I am more anxious about selecting the right registration changes in my organ postlude than about letting the words of the sermon change my heart, I am no longer listening properly but pridefully.

This is overwhelming to recognise and I realise that it sounds extreme. After all, I still benefit from prayer, even if I must move as I whisper the words. And I still share in the eucharist, even if I take the bread with only with one hand as the other concludes a cadence. And, of course, musical excellence is still honouring to God, even if my sermon notes suffer.

So what can church musicians do? Are we doomed to become musical Marthas, always rushing about while our brothers and sisters rest in Christian fellowship and worship? How can church musicians—regardless of musical style—cultivate a Mary spirit in a Martha profession?

These are daunting questions. The answer, though, is beautifully simple: We can cultivate a Mary spirit merely by following the command of the Psalms to “Be Still,” to permit and prioritise small spaces for stillness silence in our practice and services.

The trend in worship—again, regardless of denomination or style—appears to be increasingly moving toward constant activity. We, as Christians, are in danger of reflecting the restlessness of the world around us in our lives and worship. Musicians are particularly prone to this; fortunately, we also have the power to protect moments of silence in worship for others and ourselves.

Recently, I wrote about how I love practicing alone in my church sanctuary. I love the freedom to play as loudly (and as badly) as I want, but—perhaps even more—enjoy wonderful and restorative silences when I am alone in such spaces. Back at my church in California, I could hear cars rushing past on the highway, no louder than my own breath through the thick walls. In Scotland, I could hear the wind howl against the cold stone. Now, in my new church, I can hear the near-complete quiet of the Arizona desert. These solitary silences are themselves a sanctuary, a refuge from a world that just will not shut up.

Bringing these silences into services is a particular, though counterintuitive, duty of musicians. In Scotland, I appreciated that my organ teacher did not want me to play music through communion: we sang a hymn or two and then let the silence of the church—speckled with sneezes, soft whispers, and baby coos—accompany the receiving of the eucharist. At first, these silences grated on my last nerve. I was so used to vamping until the bread and wine had been distributed to all, effectively eliminating any chance for uncomfortable silences.

The problem, however, is that this approach also eliminates the chance to grow comfortable in silence, which is itself an essential spiritual discipline. Learning to let silence be is essential, for it not only gives everyone’s ears an aural break and allows for quiet reflection, but it allows poor musicians a breather. In these spaces, I found that could take communion without rushing through my response of “Thanks be to God, Amen.”

On a smaller scale, allowing tiny silences exist uninterrupted promotes a more organic and reflective experience for both musicians and congregations. We all need a small breath between verses of hymns, rather than rushing into the next verse. We all need a moment after the sermon to ponder the words and commit them to our hearts, rather than leaping right into an anthem. We all need a second to smile at each other and to share our own benedictions before the rousing trumpets of a postlude pushes everyone out of the sanctuary and back into the relentless noise of the world.

We must remember that the music of life—like the music we practice—is composed of both sound and silence in proper alternation.

My dear fellow church musicians, please mind these little rests. We are called to sing and rejoice, but mustn’t become “clanging cymbals,” making noise simply because we cannot bear the quiet. We must remember that the music of life—like the music we practice—is composed of both sound and silence in proper alternation. We must mind the rests as well as the notes. This is perhaps my greatest struggle. I crave the constant bustling of Martha, yet I must recall that Mary chose “the good portion” and that her submissive stillness was more praiseworthy than her sister’s loud productivity. Surrendering to moments of silence and stillness within our worship is more fruitful than restless striving. In allowing and creating small spaces to breathe, reset, and be silent, we can guard against the efficient overactivity that is at once the greatest strength and weakness of church musicians.

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