David Saunders on the power of music
For nearly thirty years I have had the privilege of making music with people in day centres, mental health hostels, hospitals, residential homes and prisons. I have been witness to the power of music to overcome disability, like the Parkinson’s sufferer putting a tambourine on his shaking leg and saying: ‘Look, it’s playing itself!’ Or the chronic stammerer who sang every word of a popular song. One day, as I began playing ‘Around the world in eighty days’, a man with dementia got to his feet, went over to a woman in the group, and did a perfect waltz. He did not know his own name but his wife, now in tears, told me what a wonderful dancer he had once been.
These experiences speak to our human need for delight, comfort, inspiration, joy and consolation. And although I love the classics, all types of music have the power to touch us. Playing songs from Broadway shows I have come across eternal truths within simple lyrics: ‘Love isn’t yours till you give it away.’ Music can energise, transform, delight and heal, to make us more whole. Playing piano in day centres is probably the most religious thing I do.
I have also learned to be surprised. At one centre I distributed simple percussion instruments to a group of clients with dementia. One man in particular had perfect rhythm. On inquiry I was told he was the drummer in the Joe Loss Dance Band. Someone else played trumpet with The Temperance Seven!
Music is one of God’s great gifts. We know the power of gospel music to generate a spiritual high. Similarly, it was a profoundly spiritual experience for me to play for a smoke-filled room of mental health clients, who gave their all to ‘You’ll never walk alone’ – a song which means so much to the people of Liverpool. Of course, there are other potent sources of inspiration: art, poetry, dance, beauty, colour, and the natural world. They each have the potential to speak to our souls. But my thirty years of music making has shown me the unique power of music to literally strike a chord within us all.
I have to acknowledge that music can also be used to manipulate our emotions. Armies use bands; Adolf Hitler misappropriated Richard Wagner’s work to foster Nazi ideology. Film composers use music to heighten the image on the screen. But, all in all, I would argue the influence of music on our species has been benign and, at its best, a source of fun, delight, healing, wholeness and greatness.
So it has been a real blessing for me to be involved in bringing succour, joy, laughter, tears to so many people in so many places. How do I reconcile all this with my commitment to silence-based worship? My conclusion is that in the fullness of the Spirit there is room for all forms of creativity. Spirit-led spontaneous singing happens from time to time in my local Meeting for Worship. The growth of community choirs, or the TV programmes enabling people to come together to sing, are testimony to this power. In all its forms music can touch us; it can truly be a ministry to ‘that of God’ within us. Hallelujah!
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