Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Conduits of Sound

My friend plays the cello. Once a year, he has to change the strings, and it costs him over $300. From what he tells me, most serious cello players buy different strings from different companies. Apparently some companies make some strings better than others. If you want the best sound, you can't just buy a full set from one place.

Musical instruments are a wonder. When you really get down to it, everything in the universe is made up of the same basic materials, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anything like a tuba in nature. How do we come up with this stuff? Strings and pipes and skins and metals all meticulously engineered to produce such precise noises. When I was in Milan, I saw a museum filled with old instruments, many of them primitive by today's standards. I never could have come up with them, though.

But time, economic forces, human creativity, and a little divine spark go a long way. Toss those ingredients together, let it simmer, and before long you'll have violins and pianos and guitars and flutes and bassoons and bagpipes. If you're lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you feel about it), you might even get an accordion.

When I was very little, I always thought I could play any instrument. I thought if I could just hold it in my hands, I'd be able to make it sound good. I assumed my excitement and undiscovered talent would just naturally channel through the instrument the moment I held it and willed the sound to come forth.

Unfortunately, on the rare occasions that I did get to touch and hold these conduits of sound, they never worked. Most of the time I couldn't even get them to make a noise. Perhaps I would have had better luck with their more primitive versions, before the transfer of generations of accumulated musical knowledge and skill demanded development beyond their simple origins. Hey, it took thousands of years for the piano to form. How was I supposed to catch up?

My point is, the musicians are pretty impressive, too. They take these precisely engineered devices and manipulate them according to the rules - rules that developed just as remarkably as the devices themselves. Western music scales generally divide into seven notes. Is it a coincidence that seven is the holy number the Israelites designated to signify completion? When did we decide to have seven days a week, anyway?

Armed with knowledge of the rules and untold hours of practice, musicians use breath, muscle memory, creativity and intuitive sense to bring these miracles to life. And despite the essential individual training, playing music is - more often than not - a team sport; different individuals with different skills employing different instruments with different sounds for the sake of a beautiful, unified whole.

An orchestra is quite the culmination - the end of multiple millennia of instrument evolution, music theory development, and human dedication. But it still needs a song to play, and after all this trouble it ought to be a good one. But what is a good song? One that sounds right of course - one that is discovered more than it is created. The songs are already there, vibrating in the strings from which God made the universe. The composer just has to find them.

Thankfully, some people are very good at doing just that. When musicians follow their roadmap, it leads to a heavenly destination.

If at any point any member of the orchestra decides to go his own way - to serve himself rather than the whole - the music suffers. If any one member fails to commit himself to his training, the whole is diminished. As the saying goes, your team is only as good as your weakest member.

But when all are committed - when every individual, faithful and dedicated, serves the whole and follows the leading of the composer - we catch a glimpse of the Divine. God's nature is love, and love - a giving, faithful, sacrificial thing - finds an audible expression.

The Apostle Paul likened the members of the church and their diverse spiritual gifts to a physical body and its various parts. Everyone has a role to play. The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!" True, but I like to think that if Paul had come along a little later, he (and the Holy Spirit) might have preferred the orchestra metaphor.

And yet, as remarkable as an orchestra is, it's only a small reflection of the symphony the Master Composer is writing; one that will perfectly weave all things - major, minor, harmonious and dissonant - into a heart-stopping climax and glorious resolution.  

Give me the love of an orchestra.



  1. That's pretty crazy. Do you think he could have done it if he had never even played the clarinet?

  2. definitely not. I think piano also helps a lot, because you have the scale in your head.

    why didn't I get a notification of this comment?

    also, why am I giving all the comments? You need to tell more people about your blog =)