I recently came across an interesting article in the Huffington Post: “Why Were So Many Beloved Christmas Songs Written By Jewish Musicians?”, which reminded me of my childhood holidays, which included a curious multi-family tradition.
My family celebrated Christmas, even though we didn’t consider ourselves religious; we were quiet agnostic/atheists. We loved having a tree decked with handmade ornaments and real candles (my mother’s Swiss tradition), giving and receiving gifts, feeling cozy by the fireplace, eating special holiday treats, and enjoying good company.
A musical tradition of ours which was a bit more unusual was inviting some of our close family friends over to sing Christmas carols. That would not be particularly remarkable except that these friends of ours were Jewish, as were most of our friends in the Pittsburgh, PA neighborhood where I grew up, and as I said, we weren’t a religious family.
It always seemed odd to me that we all had this tradition of singing Christmas carols together with complete disregard (although plenty of respect) for the meaning of the words. It was simply the music and the act of singing together that gave a lot of joy. My mother played the piano or cello, sometimes I played the violin, my brother played the cello, and my dad joined in on the viola.
Personally, it wasn’t until much later in my life that I could truly enjoy singing those songs – once I opened up to being able to sing the words with more depth of meaning. But I’ve always found it interesting that music and song can unite people in ways that go deeper than words – even to the point of singing words that one might not believe in at all.
Clearly, the Jewish composers in the article were able to do this, and by finding ways to dive into the ocean beneath the waves, they brought a great deal of joy to many people during the Christmas season, regardless of any religious meaning. We must have sung quite a few of those Christmas songs by Jewish composers during those family medley evenings!
One might think that singing words you don’t believe in is hypocritical, but I don’t think that’s a fair or generous perspective to have in respect to people who are singing together with love, warmth, and joy. I think there’s something much richer hidden here…a gold nugget that we could easily miss by dismissing people who are choosing to sing words they don’t believe in. The gold nugget is in the music itself.
I guess my point by writing this post is to affirm the possibility for us to go beyond what is formal (words) to enjoy the essence of a thing (music and its spirit). As musicians, we MUST do this if we wish to play from the heart, connecting to the hearts of our audience, with meaning.
Being able to play past the words or surface religious meaning is clearly a helpful skill to cultivate for religious and non-religious musicians alike, especially since we are often asked to play music that has religious meaning, but which may not have personal meaning for us.
Rather than resent that you “have to” play religious music you may not believe in, in order to make a living, why not challenge yourself to go deeper and find the universal meaning within the music itself. You’ll find that the challenge will interest you more, and letting go of your resistance will release muscle tension and improve your mood. It’s no stretch of the imagination to realize that you’ll sound better if you do this, too. You’ll also be happier, and please your audiences more.
So, if you don’t believe in the words, remember that you can believe in the music. The music will take you to the same universal spirit that the words are intending to convey, anyway, regardless of which religious tradition they represent. Enjoy the sounds you make, and the sounds you hear. Enjoy, and Love. That’s the Spirit! 🙂 Happy Holidays, Peace, and Joy to All!
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