by Kari Miller Magg
I love to read. I love to get lost in a good book, to let a skillful writer’s words carry me to another time or place and show me things through another’s eyes. I recently turned the page upon finishing a long, absorbing novel and found a “Reading Group Guide” featuring questions meant to “stimulate discussion, offer new viewpoints, and enrich enjoyment of the book.” I continued reading, expecting to gain further insight into a book that I had enjoyed so much that I hated to see it end. To my dismay, I found that the questions elicited responses from me worthy of a bored seventh grader. Rude, crude responses like: “Well, how should I know that?” or “Huh? Who cares?” or “Why would you ask that? What a dumb question!” or “That’s obvious. Do you think I’m stupid?” Instead of enriching and enhancing my reading experience it felt as if the questions had been diabolically designed to suck out as much life and mystery and emotion as possible.
I slammed the book shut, fuming and sputtering under my breath, but after I had calmed down a bit I thought that perhaps I should take the experience as a cautionary tale to keep in mind the next time I start talking about music. Whether it is in one of those little pre-performance talks, written commentary for the church bulletin or even an informal conversation during coffee hour, it can be all too easy to lapse into that music-school mode and start spouting off all sorts of things that might make one sound smart but really don’t add to the listener’s understanding or enjoyment. The casual listener usually doesn’t much care in what year a piece was written, or that it is one of five such pieces by the composer. More appreciated might be an interesting story about the piece or the composer or any personal observations one has to offer. Most listeners are also unimpressed by drab descriptions stating the obvious – such as that a piece begins with a slow introduction followed by a fast section. Surely they can hear that much on their own! Better to clue them in on some specific things to listen for; this might be something structural (the augmentation of the fugue theme in the concluding section) or something relating to the performance (the use of a distinctive organ stop or an unusual technique). And, really, is there anything wrong in encouraging a listener to just sit back and enjoy?
A musician that I once knew and greatly admired used to say: “The minute you start talking about music, it’s wrong.” While there may be some truth in that, most of us do talk about music, one way or another; we need to be able to share our insights and enthusiasms with our choirs and congregations, families and friends. Hopefully we will speak in a way that honors both the music and the listener.