Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Playing By Ear

It's 4:30 in the morning and I can't sleep. I ran 18-miles yesterday in just over 2:46 minutes (just over 9-minute miles). It's the furthest I've ever run but, surprisingly, I'm not in a terrible amount of pain. The first 15 miles, in fact, went faster than I've ever done them before. It was the last 3 miles that really killed me. I guess this is why it takes a long time to train for a marathon! Still have five weeks to go, so I'm hoping to get my times down below 9-minute miles in order that I finish the marathon in under four hours.  

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 ceilĂ­ 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. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Still Here!

I recognize that I've been very quiet these last few weeks. Please indulge me for just a bit longer: I finished my last paper for my English course yesterday and I'm about to commence writing my last substantive paper for the semester. I have a few short 2-3 page papers to write but, as the end of the semester draws near, the end is in sight.

Within the next few weeks, many pieces will be in place. I will learn during the first week of April where I'll be teaching next year. I'll be in the midst of preparing for my comprehensive oral examination in philosophy (the dreaded De U). 

I have a few things I'd like to write, but right now I need to stay focused on the tasks at hand. I'm also still trying to sort out what I'm going to do this summer, a question that is also consuming quite a bit of my time! 

Stay tuned!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Faith and Begorra!

Drew Marquard, SJ, was kind enough to edit this video so that I could get it posted on the internet. This is one clip of the show Matt Malone, SJ, Justin Stoney, and I performed this past Saturday night.

If you are interested in purchasing a DVD of the entire show (for only $10.00!), the end of the clip contains ordering information.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Regency Interview Update

Just a quick update:

I returned last night from Cincinnati where I had a great day at Saint Xavier High School (go Bombers!). Both the Jesuit and school communities were gracious and welcoming and I had a very fine visit at the school. I have today free (to do homework) and then I interview at Saint Ignatius High School (Cleveland) tomorrow morning. I return to New York City tomorrow night and I've class all day on Thursday. On Friday, if the rumors are true, I'll be treated to a U2 concert at Fordham University!

It's been a whirlwind travel schedule since Thursday, so I'm grateful to be sitting at the Rocky River Bruegger's Bagels in my favorite booth, sipping delicious coffee out of my travel mug and relaxing.

One final note:

Faith & Begorra!
An Evening of Irish Music... and a Few Surprises

Matt Malone, S.J.
Ryan Duns, S.J.
Justin Stoney

Saturday, March 14, 2009
6:00 p.m.

Don't Tell Mama Cabaret Theatre
343 West 46th Street
New York, NY


If you're going to be in New York City on March 14th, please begin your celebration of Saint Patrick's Day a little early with our show!

I can't, I'm Lenting...

Just over a week ago, a federal study on dieting was released. In an age of ballooning obesity, the study set out to discover the best diet solutions: low carb? high protein? low fat? a mix of the three?

What the study confirms, really, should not be shocking: the only way to achieve sustained weight loss is to cut calories. Balancing one's diet and moderating one's caloric intake, is far more successful when it comes to losing and maintaining one's weight. Other types of dieting (Atkins, South Beach, etc.) work for only a short period of time and are good for only as long as one adheres rigidly to them; the moment one begins to drift from the diet, the pounds begin to return.

As a former Weight Watcher (a program I swear by), this comes as no surprise. As a teenager, Weight Watchers helped me to learn how to eat. At some point in my young life, I had developed very bad eating habits and, through the Weight Watchers program, I entered into a permanent re-orientation of my views on diet and exercise. Having learned anew how to eat, it has become a part of my life that I will prefer broiled chicken to chicken alfredo, salmon to a cheeseburger, baked sweet potatoes to french fries. Dieting isn't something I have to do, because healthy eating has become, more or less, an integral and integrated part of my life.

So isn't it fitting that the federal study was released at the beginning of Lent? How many of us begin Ash Wednesday with amazing resolutions and with great resolve: "I won't eat any sweets." "I will pray daily." "I will be nice to my co-worker, even though she's a pain." 

So did you make it through Sunday?

Have you already succumbed to "Lent Resent" because your Lenten fast has become an inconvenience to you? Already looking forward to Lent's conclusion so that business as usual can resume? 

Yes, it is a theme for me, but this dieting study simply impresses further on me the transformative power of Lent. When you enter into Lent as one enters into a fad diet, we see can often see immediate success and begin to feel really good about ourselves. We lose five or six pounds...we see the fruits of prayer flowering in our attitude toward the world and our disposition to our neighbors. BUT it soon becomes semi-inconvenient and we, deluded by our success, reckon that we can do it on our own. So we make shortcuts in the diet (just one piece of cake never hurts, does it?) or in our Lenten commitment (I'm so tired...God knows how I feel, so I'll sleep in rather than pray this morning). And, slowly but surely, the whole thing begins to crumble. The result? You get frustrated, hate dieting/Lent, and live with a guilt complex for the rest of the year (until next Lent) -or-  until you find another fad diet to jump into. 

This certainly isn't applicable to everyone but inasmuch as the above comments are partly autobiographical, I know it's a trend that's out there. 

In light of the diet study and now at the beginning of Lent, I think it a good time to reflect on how we are approaching our fasts. Are we doing it as a fad or as a way of re-orienting ourselves toward a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ? Does our fast heighten only our awareness of what we do without without even considering the one for whom we fast? Where is Jesus in Lent? Without Jesus, fasting is simply an endurance contest; but with Christ in our sight, Lent becomes a period of training and discipline that whips us into shape to celebrate at the great feast of Easter, when we as Christians celebrate the death of death and the triumph of life.

The banquet of Easter, where we are fed with the Bread of Life, permits no fad diets! "No thanks, the Bread of Life is not Atkins friendly!" Rather, it is a banquet for those who have been trained to realize where their true nutrition comes from. The Lenten fast is not meant to break you down but, rather, to train you for the veritable smorgasbord promised at the Last Supper and celebrated every Sunday in the Eucharist. The discipline of proper eating and living helps us to appreciate more fully and to savor more completely the gift of Christ's own self that is shared with us. 

Karl Rahner, SJ once wrote that "The good things in life aren't just for the rascals." And with Lenten eyes, I believe we can see how right Rahner was: when we have a good diet, we can permit ourselves indulgences from time to time, treats that recall for us the goodness of the world and the delights of the senses. I can say from experience that a stack of buttery, syrupy pancakes tastes A LOT better after running 13.1 miles than it does when I roll lazily out of bed and amble lazily into the kitchen. So too do I detect the small delights in my life when my heart is focused because of diligent prayer. 

I don't mean to be preachy this morning. I'm an extrovert and I'm thinking three feet ahead of me - on my laptop! Hopefully this acts as a help in re-framing our approaches to Lent in order to realize more fully the promise of this beautiful season in the church. 

Happy Dieting...errr, Lenting!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame