On Music

I receive many emails each day from people around the world who have found the "Fordham University's Introduction to the Irish Tin Whistle" videos to be helpful. Very often the emails ask for musical help or for me to record some particular tune.

But it's not an irregular experience for me to receive a request of a more spiritual nature. Today, I had such a request which gave me the opportunity to reflect, again, on how I view the relationship between music and prayer. Emending it to preserve the anonymity of the addressee, I'd like to share with you what I wrote:

Dear _________,

Happy belated birthday!

Yesterday your father wrote to me and told me of your growing interest in the tin whistle. I'm humbled to hear that my lessons have been a help to you, but I'm most grateful to hear that you are falling more deeply in love with the tin whistle and the tradition out of which it comes.

I think that it is very hard to be a young person today. It very often seems that the world around us is addicted to short-cuts: cheating, steroids, lying, theft. Maybe you'll remember the line from Homer Simpson that seems to summarize a lot of the attitude we see today: "If something's hard to do, it's not worth doing."

As you will have no doubt discovered, learning to play the tin whistle is very challenging. It takes a great deal of work and discipline to bring yourself to practice every day. So, first, it's tough just to sit down. And then you actually have to play! Sometimes we just want to play the things we're good at - going back to an easy lesson, playing our favorite tune over and over. This is, of course, good sometimes. But I reckon it's like having to learn Algebra and, instead of "solving for x in terms of y" you sit down and do long-division all evening. Practice, that hidden but oh-so-important part of our lives, demands that we tackle new movements and ideas in order to master them. This can be hard and frustrating and it may demand many hours of work. Nevertheless, you must always trust that even if it doesn't immediately feel as though you are learning, or growing, that there is tremendous growth going on within you. It's sort of like how caves are made: a little trickle of water flows down into the earth and, over many many years, carves out wondrous caverns in the earth. Practicing music is like this: we open ourselves up to the music and, even if we can't feel it making a difference, we know that somehow it is penetrating deep into the core of our beings, making us larger and exposing ever-new depths for our exploration.

I often say that "I pray like I play." This is true. You see, when we play music within a tradition, we surrender ourselves to something much larger than ourselves. We place ourselves before all those who have come before and accept what they have handed on to us. We are responsible, then, for what we have received. How blessed are you to have been born on All Soul's Day, for it is on this day that we remember ALL those who have come before us in the life of faith. Long before you were baptized, generations of your family members and the whole Christian community prepared the way for you. Your parents, grandparents, and siblings have all contributed to the young man that you are and the man you are going to be, and it is your responsibility - your burden and your grace - to treasure this gift and develop it. So, too, must you be a witness of the Tradition to your own siblings and, through your life, to all those you meet. The Catholic faith is not some "thing" like a Christmas tree ornament. It is a living, breathing tradition that calls all of us to love the Lord more deeply and to live out joyfully the message of the Gospel.

_______, my prayer for you is that you come to pray as you play. Always place yourself before the music and before the Lord, trusting that even when it is difficult or dry, that much is happening within you. The day-to-day practice and prayer will transform you, little by little, in ways you cannot imagine.

Let me conclude my note by saying this. Many times, my music students want to "play like I play." Sadly, they will never be able to do this -- because they are not me! My teaching is meant as a opportunity to encounter the tradition, to give the student a chance to come to know the Irish tradition in a new and exciting way. YOUR experiences, talents, skills, and passions will transform the tradition into something old (handed down to you) and something new (something for you to share with others). This live of playing/praying is very strange, because it almost doesn't seem to make sense. Anyone can learn to play music, but not everyone is a musician. Anyone can learn to say a prayer, but not everyone is a prayer. We become musicians and prayers only when we realize that we must be grasped and held by the tradition or the Lord. Once we do this, once we give ourselves over to something so much bigger than we are, do we become free to be ourselves. This is the freedom of surrender, the freedom we achieve through great effort and patient practice.


I hope that what I am sharing with you is helpful and encourages you to keep practicing. Learn to pray as you play, and you will find your music and your spirit transformed in new and fantastic ways. In my own life, it is as I grew as a musician that I grew in my faith which, ultimately, gave me the freedom to say "YES" to the Lord's invitation to be a Companion of Jesus, to be a Jesuit. Our Lord wants nothing more for you to find your voice of faith, just as I encourage you to find your voice in the Irish tradition. It's a scary, but wonderful journey to set out upon and please know that I wish you the very best in your adventures. Know, too, that I will keep you in my prayers.

Best (Belated) Birthday Wishes and Many Prayers,

Ryan Duns, SJ
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