Music and the Journey of the Soul

By Grant Jacobs

As I'm sure is the case with any individual who has felt compelled to write an article or opinion based essay the first statement is the hardest.  I'm often reminded of the scene in “Finding Forrester”, where after sitting down to work Forrester responds to his pupil's question as to how to start writing:

“No thinking—that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is to write, not to think!” 

So too is the case with my attempt to narrow focus for this article down to a single topic, theme, motif, idea, concept, purpose. What on earth can I say that will matter to anyone out there in cyberspace particularly—where the information and opinions available to us are seemingly limitless? 

I'm lucky enough to have a writer friend who often says, "you write what you know" … “Write what you know”… What do I know? … I know music.

“Not just albums” as my writer friend so bluntly puts it.  He says I can talk “music—not records, not artists, not songs—music.  What it means to be a musician.”

So what does it mean to be a musician? (Aside from the constant worry of going broke.) What does it mean to me? What did it mean to Miles Davis or Leonard Bernstein? What does it mean to my former professors from the School of Music at University of Louisville? What does it mean to them? 

These are all questions that deserve answers. 

I'm reminded of the first song I ever heard that I directly related to a girl I loved, specifically the third verse (in Portuguese):

Quero a vida sempre assim,           I want a life like this forever,

Com você perto de mim,                 With you near me,

Até o apagar da velha chama,          Until the final flicker of the old flame,

E eu que era triste,                          And I was sad,

Descrente de sinismo,                     Cynical about cynicism

Ao encontrar você eu conheci,         When I found you, I knew

O que é Felicidade, Meu Amor          What happiness is, my love

Absolutely beautiful.  Antonio Carlos Jobim's Corcovado. I know the version with Stan Getz best.  

Point is, among the most notable memories of my life is this song.

The first concert I ever performed with an orchestra in college we played the Enigma Variations by Sir Edward Elgar, and when we got to the variation movement entitled "Nimrod" (arguably the most well known movement, and for good reason) I cried.  I wasn't alone.

The first time I heard the opening track “Acknowledgement” to John Coltrane's album "A Love Supreme" I was 16, had just checked the album out from the public library, and was frustrated over having gotten into a shouting match with my high school music teacher earlier that day (mostly ignorant The perfect time.  

“Acknowledgement” … Seven minutes and forty-three seconds that will introduce you to God if you let it.  Listen to it loud, alone, with your eyes closed, and keep breathing deep.  

After the first statement of the main motif by the Double Bass, Coltrane launches into solo...attacking the notes with intensity beyond his normal intent.  After blistering through scales and phrases, screaming out through his single reed, the song ends with giving up the fight and simply singing out the phrase “A love Supreme” to the tune of the original bass statement.  

I've heard his sound of this period described as “wanting to fight his way out of the box”—out of the box of tonality, out of the worldly constraints placed on him and his saxophone.

John Coltrane was a prophet: whereas Mohammed used his (inspired) words, Coltrane used his horn.  His sound fought for freedom—freedom from tonality, freedom from constraint, both musically and spiritually. Freedom from organized musical form and freedom from limitations on not only his sound, tone, and notes, but his spirit, his emotion, his purpose, his life, his search for God. “Acknowledgement” is a perfect title for this song because after multiple minutes of struggling, he acknowledges all he can do is sing and pray for “A Love Supreme”.  

This is the reason people say music isn't the same as it used to be when they hear Taylor Swift or Justin Beiber.

For musicians and non-musicians alike, regardless of genre, we can all admit to having been transported to another place emotionally by the music we were lucky enough to listen to at the time.  Not “hear”… “listen to”… there IS a difference.  You “hear” the smooth piano tune in the elevator on your way to the doctor’s office, you “listen” to the song sung at your father’s funeral.  

This emotionality, this recollection of feeling, this sometimes indescribable sensationalism we have all hopefully been involved in in one capacity or another is not entirely unlike the sensations one may feel when reading their religious text, taking the holy communion with a previously unbelieving friend for the first time, praying for the health of the driver whose car just got hit directly in front of you as you swerved out of the way to safety.

These are all spiritual moments.  

“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being” 

-John Coltrane

In my own search for faith, for knowledge, and being—or for a way off what Dr. Derek Penwell described once as the "treadmill of Samsara"....Musical moments have consistently provided me with a glimpse of what could be waiting for not just myself, but for all of us, as we eventually pass the threshold to what may or may not be on the other side of death, a glimpse of nirvana, heaven.

In growing up in the Episcopal diocese of WV, attending summer camps, youth retreats and other "happenings," my favorite parts of any gathering or service we had were the times we were all singing together.  Smacking the beat on the pews of those sitting in front of us.

In college, I needed to find a way to supplement my income that was also conducive to my crazy schedule of music, education, and core curriculum classes.  I also desired a church home, because though my own faith was going through one test after another, it just felt right.  Going to church had always been part of my life and though I didn't know what I believed anymore specifically, swimming in my own personal pool of agnosticism...I figured I should fake it till I made it, I needed the structure.

Early in my sophomore year I was invited to audition to play bass with my friend, Barrett, at his church. They would pay me a little bit too!  I found a church home in The Catholic Community of Epiphany.  I was making money to play my bass, and I had a church community I could grab onto for support in the coming years.

Over my remaining four years of school my faith would be tested internally. Losing a guy from my orientation class to suicide, losing communication with the girl I loved, hearing of friends being arrested, having multiple relatives pass in short spans of time.

These are things that test faith.  

All the while I was reading Christopher Hitchens and he keeps telling me that there's no God.  That the reason as humans we are so intuitively inclined to need (and in the opinions of some—create) a God is because of some need for a parent figure later in life—derivative I suppose in many ways of the Freudian argument that we all need a mother or father figure, that we all want somewhere inside ourselves for there to be a God because we need it to tell ourselves that there's a reason we do the things we do beyond just helping our fellow human beings.  To tell ourselves that we will be rewarded for our prayers, for our good intentions, like a child receiving candy or a teenager being paid for good grades.

Are we all just creating a God because we’re looking for an “attaboy?”  

So in a single phrase...I was going through some spiritually turbulent times.  Going through hell.   My oldest friend regularly quotes Winston Churchill—“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

That's what I did.

And this is my point—in all those time of questioning and struggle I kept going....but what kept me going? 

Reliance on the routines and joyful moments involved in the development of my musicianship.  Along with the realization that some of my peers, though self-identified as agnostic or atheist, were the most spiritual people I’d ever known due to their unyielding love for music.  

This is why I decided to pursue music education—to lead young people to these oases of spiritual and sensational moments.  So if they should find themselves in a place where one day they question the existence of God, the existence of purpose, (or validation if you’re Freud or Hitchens), they can rely on the routine of practice, the cold sweats of pre-performance jitters, and the exuberance of applause for their innately human need for sensationalism.  In a single thought—the routines and sensationalism provided by musicianship can supplement those of organized belief when needed.  

Musicianship has continued evolving within the context of the church.  Among the earliest changes in thought to how music was to be presented to “the glory of God” was the publishing in 1581 of Vincenzo Galilei’s (Galileo’s father) a “Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music.”  In this text, Vincenzo argues against the use counterpoint (multiple moving independent melodic lines which support each other and harmonize).  Instead, he proposes the use of a single melody sung by a single voice, using the natural voice inflection of this singer to express the melody and text of the song.  

But why did he do this?  His argument was that the use of multiple voices in large choirs with multiple moving melodies and texts would essentially “distort” the message that was trying to be given up to God.  He argued instead for a single voice and melody because the message being given to God would not be lost in the confusion of instrumental accompaniments, complex harmonies, and multiple voices all singing with slightly different inflections.  

My point in using this example is this: human beings have always struggled with how musicianship and spirituality can most effectively support each other.  It is my belief that the modern-day church would look nothing like it does without the coinciding development of musicianship and the spirituality of historical musicians.  

We see it today, as mega churches often opt for a “praise band” format over traditional hymns or choral music.  These churches are asking themselves the same question Vincenzo Galilei did—how do we most effectively use our musicianship to support faithful spirituality?  

I’ve been lucky to have performed with a symphony orchestra, jazz combos, punk bands, dance bands, on solo recitals, for Catholics and Unitarians alike, and for parents with students I’ve taught.  All of these experiences have generated in me a host of emotions and feelings, from panic and doubt to unfiltered and limitless joy. The common trait these emotions share with my spiritual journey (we all have one) is that to ride the roller coaster of spiritual and musical emotionality is a fundamental part of being human. 

So I encourage you to embrace your sensational moments, embrace your spirituality (or lack thereof) and question it, and if (when) you find yourself lost in the woods of uncertainty remember you can always embrace music to help you find the road.    

How?