Occasionally a member of my congregation will come up to me after church and say something like “We just love your music.” Well, who doesn’t love compliments! So I’m always gratified and truly appreciate the positive affirmation. But one small phrase always sticks in my head long after the conversation is over: “your music.” This makes me a little uncomfortable, for I have no sense of personal possession over the music. In fact, it seems to me that music really belongs to all of us. I suppose that if anyone could be said to “own” music, it might be the composer during the writing process. But once music is published, performed, recorded, or broadcast, the composer has shared the music with others, and a significant part of the process of sharing is the giving up of total ownership. Once played or sung (and heard), music becomes the property of everyone— composer, performer, and listener. The music in our congregation is truly our music, not mine alone.
The music belongs to all of us, yet we are a people of diverse tastes, traditions, ages, interests, and levels of musical skill. My job is to facilitate the performance of music within this diversity, and to honor its place within the liturgy. So I try to choose music that is both old and new, simple and challenging, music that honors our heritage while reaching out ecumenically and around the world.
I answer the person who’s handing out compliments: Since the music is as much yours as it is mine, you have a role to play in its success as well. At times, like during a choral anthem or an instrumental piece, you might listen actively and think about how the music resonates with the themes of that particular day. During other musical parts of the service, hymns especially, you actually become one of the performers, and your contribution, no matter how small, is essential if the music is to have meaning and relevance. Whenever I hear my congregation singing a favorite old hymn (and sometimes something new, too!) with enthusiasm and gusto, I think to myself, “I just love your music!”