An email I received a few minutes ago has inspired this post. A man from California, having found my tin whistle videos, wrote asking "whether you memorize the music you play or have you reached the point where you simply 'play by ear'?"
The Irish musical tradition is aural, that is, related to hearing. The long-standing custom is that one who wishes to learn Irish music does so by sitting with and playing with other musicians. Having learned the rudimentary skills considered basic to an instrument, the musical initiate seeks out a master musician and submits to learning from him or her. Invariably, the student will bear traces of the teacher's influence: the way of holding the instrument, of playing tunes, of ornamenting the music, and of being a musician. Given patience and time, the novice musician grows and develops her own playing, one that tends to be consistent with the teacher's/teachers' while simultaneously being distinct from what has been received.
This sounds abstract. But years ago, I recall going to a concert that featured four flute players from County Sligo. Each player could have been described as having a "Sligo Style" - a way of playing distinctive to that region of the country - but each player had a distinct interpretation of that style. An impromptu set of reels they performed, however, showed how linked they were: when they gathered together, it was as though they were joined in the music to such an extent that their breathing feel into sync with one another. The four flute players became one musical voice that sang of a shared tradition in unison.
I mention this because it is my experience that people write me wanting to learn to play the tin whistle and they want me to suggest a book to help them do so. They want a book that will teach them how to be an Irish musician. Now I am not anti-book, not by any means. I use sheet music and can learn music faster by reading it than I can by learning it by ear. But it seems to me that learning to play Irish music solely by using a book is like saying that one wants to be a Catholic but wants to read the Bible and the liturgy in the privacy of one's own home!
Let me draw an explicit parallel. The Irish musical tradition involves a gathering together of various musicians who, while expressing the music differently through individual performance, gather nevertheless to share their common musical heritage. We gather as ceilí bands and in sesiuns (gatherings of Irish music where we simply share our music with one another). The tunes we perform are not glibly played notes but, rather, musical prayers that have been inherited from the tradition through our teachers and given voice anew. A gathering of Irish musicians, bound together in the name of their common musical heritage and tradition, is a liturgy celebrating what they shared by bringing their unique musical voices together. Irish music, in this sense, is eucharistic.
This is not to say that all such gatherings are successful. I've been to events where musicians try to out-do one another, each vying to be the center of the musical scene. I'm disappointed in such affairs, because the focus has shifted from what is shared in common to each individual trying to show how good he or she really is. The unique voices refuse to come together in unison and the liturgy of music suffers.
So, too, do we see this in religious gatherings. When we enter magnanimously into a religious tradition, have we not been empowered to do so because we have been initiated over the course of years into the community? Do we not have models to imitate and show us how to live and pray? Are we not each of us called to live out our faith in the world, negotiating to the best of our abilities as people of the Gospel in a world that sorely needs to hear the Good News but is often terribly resistant to it? And isn't it the case that we also gather together in a liturgical celebration where although we pray in common, there is nothing common about our prayer? There is nothing common about our prayer when we actually bring ourselves to pray, when we do more than recite words but, having let the prayer seep into the depths of our hearts, we make the prayer our own?
Because religious observance is far larger than the performance of Irish music, the shortcomings of religious people are more public. I think religious gatherings go off-track, though, just like musical ones: when we forget that we gather in a common name, in a shared tradition, and make ourselves the center of gravity. All of us have had the experience of the preacher or priest who made the sermon/homily a show all about them, leaving us wondering, "Where is Jesus?" Many of us have been to gatherings where the group leader is more interested in showing how wise/skilled/talented he or she than in helping others to grow in holiness.
In my life, I do the best I can to pray like I play - from the heart. I try not to insult my musical heritage by simply repeating notes on an instrument; I let my love of my musical heritage carry the notes into the depths of my soul and I let my passion be expressed in and through my interpretation of the music in fidelity with that tradition. When I go to Mass, I do my best to make the prayers we recite each week MY prayers, letting the full weight of the words penetrate the core of my being. I pray out of these words, through these words, expressing all that I am and all that I desire through them. My failings, faults, triumphs, sorrows, doubts, fears, and joys...these all are given voice in the prayer of the Church.
This is not a skill learned from any book. It is acquired only through the entrance into the liturgical life of the Church. To be sure, each of us struggles to live out his or her calling...and many of us fail miserably. But we can come, whether we've had crippling failures or soaring success, with hearts joyful that we have always another opportunity to try again. In this are we a Eucharistic people, bound in a shared tradition, called to live out in the world, but recalled to gather joyfully to give thanks and praise to the One who has called us. We are called to pray as we play out in the world: not in perfunctory or empty words but, rather, from the very depths of our hearts.