“My lyre is tuned to mourning and my pipe to the sound of wailing.” Job 30:31, NIV

Some time ago a regular reader of my blog asked me if I would write something about music used for mourning. I wasn’t ready to do it at that time. Now, I think, would be a good time. 

 When I read the verse quoted above a few weeks back, it seemed obscure and irrelevant. Now, in light of the horrendous attack on innocents in my city of Christchurch, it seems so poignant and real.

Though speaking metaphorically, the ‘musician’ in this verse has not put down his instruments in a time of grief, but has actively used them to express his pain. There is a sense that music helps the grieving process.

 A few days after the attack I was asked to accompany at the piano a mixed religious group to sing all five verses of our national anthem. How appropriate it was that we could sing “God Defend New Zealand” at such a time! It is not just our national song, but also a beautiful prayer for the nation’s peace and righteousness.* Afterwards, when alone, I felt that the bold, anthem-like way it is normally sung seemed too strong somehow and I wanted to play it in a softer, more thoughtful way because of how I ached at the terrible loss of life. New Zealanders were killed while they were praying and I pray it never happens again.

 After playing the cello on some occasion, a friend came up to me and said, “The sound of the cello goes to a place in your heart that nothing else can.” I think I know what she meant. And it holds true for other instruments as well. I do feel there are times that I can express my heart better without words, but through the way I play my instrument. Sometimes the best music comes this way because as the musician embraces strong emotions, they are transferred through the instrument to the listener’s ear. No wonder there has been so much beautiful music written at times of grief and sadness. Famous composers, such as Mozart, Fauré, Berlioz, Dvorák and Verdi, wrote requiems based on the Mass for the dead; and other sorts of requiem have been written after various wars to remember the fallen. These beautiful pieces have been played again through the years at special memorial times. Often they are passages from the Psalms or other Scriptures set to music, because a faith in Someone greater beyond our situation gives us a point of reference when the life we are living is rocked by things that don’t make sense. So many funerals include the singing of Psalm 23, which includes the line, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…” Even if the bereaved find it hard to sing, they can draw comfort from the song sung by the congregation and expressed in the music.

 If sad music makes you cry, that is a good thing in a time of grief. I have found it to be true that my tears of grief were healing tears. There is no need to wipe them bravely away when they come at all sorts of odd and inconvenient times. It just shows we are human. Humans are emotional beings. And I’m okay with that.

 For those of us in NZ, we are facing a sort of grief unheard of before. May we express our sadness in ways that will help us move through this time and build for a positive future. At the right time we will laugh again, but only if we have processed our time of grief well. And songs of lament are a rich source of healing through that process.

 Though I shared this once before in an earlier blog, it seems appropriate now to again attach a piano improvisation of a piece of music I wrote for a musical called Father’s Heart, based on the story of ‘The Prodigal Son.’  In the song the Father’s longing is for his lost child. If you are a New Zealander, maybe you can use the time of listening to it to remember those who lost their lives and perhaps pray for their families. 

*Here is a link to a piano version of God Defend New Zealand with lyrics and a few photos: https://youtu.be/3NxPhHyDSd4

 

Last week I took my little granddaughter, Naomi, along to ‘Music and Movement’. We’ve been a few times now. I get to push her in the buggy a few blocks to the local church where it is held and we discuss cats, dogs and flowers along the way. She’s only 16 months so we are keeping to easy conversation topics.

The first time we went to ‘M & M’, Naomi mostly just watched what was going on. Good skills! I could learn something from that. I usually blunder enthusiastically into new situations and neglect the careful observation part. The second time, she enjoyed the tambourine—having seen one of those at our place, she connected with the familiar and liked the sound. She thought the ribbons were pretty fun too.  Last week she was right at home and knew how to go and get an instrument and put it back with the others at the end. And when we got home she was rowing her boat and shushing the bear right on cue when we sang the songs we’d heard again.

The next day I was leading a similar session with a group of grandparents, mothers and children in our smaller community outside the city. I’ve been a part of the team which run it for a few years now. When I was first asked to prepare and lead a session I wasn’t too keen. (My only association in the past with preschool music had been to play the piano for ‘M & M’ many years ago. I thought that I would prefer that more demure position to that of leaping around to songs about floppy clowns.) But I took the advice of the leader, who encouraged me to leave my dignity at the door and said I’d be fine. It was good advice and I was. It has been wonderful being a participant in this more active role, as it helps me fully appreciate the value of a well prepared music session.

When you participate with a little person you know and love, you want them to have the full experience and you can reinforce it when you get home too. The framework given is so helpful to the activities you can choose to do. But I’m also seeing a fresh angle on how quickly these little ones absorb new skills through music. And I have found that getting involved with the session with Naomi adds to the experience for both of us and draws us closer to each other too.

As a music teacher I am often asked when is a good time to start a child at the piano. It really is different for every individual and it depends on a number of factors, but mostly how committed the family is to support the child’s learning. The teacher’s role is important, but won’t come to much if not continued at home, especially for younger learners.

In the years before a child might be ready to begin instrument lessons, I would advocate preschool ‘music and movement’ opportunities as a starting point to more formal learning. Children who have participated in these already have a head start with music skills. I’m also a huge fan of having your baby/preschooler listen to a wide range of music. Sing along with them as much as you can. Aside from the fact they are more likely to grow up singing in tune, home is a happier place when people sing!

And I highly recommend the experience of preschool music sessions for budding grandparents.

“My mum is going to like this piece!” I had just given a pupil a new piece of music that I’d recently written.

“But do you like it?” I asked.

“Yes!” he answered.

Children really do care what their parents think. They may not always express it as clearly as in the above example, but they are always looking for that affirmation in what they do. So, when it comes to piano practice, you can imagine how important it is that we affirm them for their effort with encouraging responses.

I have found that at the beginning children learning an instrument do really well because there is a natural interest on the part of the parent to listen to how they are getting on. So they come to their weekly lesson with everything learned, affirmed by their parents and proud of what they can do.

But I can always tell when life is getting busy at home. And I get it. I’ve had young children too, and I know there are times when days can go from one overwhelming event to the next. One of my favourite children’s stories was Five Minutes Peace, because the author, Jill Murphy, knew how I felt as a mum, and encapsulated it into an endearing story for children. A moment’s peace when your child is doing his or her practice without you is a valuable thing.

Whether this is you or not, you have to be intentional about both a child’s practice and your affirmation of it. Your children’s progress and your investment in their lessons depends on it. To help you in the affirming process, here are some comments you could use or adapt to your situation.

“Can you play that again? I really liked that one!”

One of the difficult parts of practice is the necessary repetition. So any way you can get a child to repeat an action accurately is progress. If it can be done in a way that it is not seen as a boring task to do again, all the better.

“You played that so beautifully.”

To be honest, it may not always sound beautiful in the learning process, so use this compliment on a piece they know well and do play well.

“Can you show me how that goes?”

Nothing shows your enthusiasm more than wanting to copy what your child can do. You are getting them to repeat it again as they show you.

“Do you think you could get it good enough to play for …?” (Fill in name of another parent, grandparent or whomever.)

The anticipation of a performance is a motivation all on its own. Someone wants to give the child the opportunity to show what he or she can do.

“Shall we play that together?”

Play with them—learn how to play their piece up high on the piano and play it at the same time. Or do the duet part if you are a pianist yourself.

 

Here are a couple of other thoughts to go into the mix:

  • Affirming works for both sides. Everybody feels good about what is happening. When you affirm your child’s learning you also feel encouraged that there was something to be encouraged about, and your child knows that they are pleasing you in some way. They are so much more likely to repeat whatever it is that gets your approval.
  • Keep it honest. Kids know when you are only being encouraging because it is in your job description. Look for things you can be honestly affirming about. If you are able to sit in on your child’s lesson, you will get to know the sorts of things the teacher affirms. I know some children prefer the parent not to be present, so you would need to work around that if that is your situation—all the more reason you can find out what happened in the lesson and show excitement at finding out what they did.
  • Practice initiation rewards. These are for the times when a child sits down to play without any asking (let alone nagging). It just wears you down if you have to constantly remind your child to practice. You want it to be something they always choose to do, but there can be times they need help getting to the instrument, and some sort of incentive for just getting there can help. One day they will thank you for it. Even diligent pupils can struggle with getting on with their practice, but usually once they are in the groove they are fine.

 

In New Zealand we have this unfortunate national trait called ‘tall poppy syndrome’. Loosely understood, it’s a subconscious attitude that we don’t want anyone to think they are better than someone else, so we cut them down to size. For many in our society, affirming, encouraging or saying something positive to someone about what they are achieving doesn’t come easily. Maybe that’s because we don’t want someone else’s achievement being a discouragement to another person who is making their own progress. I think that highlights what it should come down to, though. We don’t have to compare with the progress of siblings or friends. If they have made progress at their own level of learning, that is going to be wonderful in itself and well worth all the affirmation and encouragement we can give them to keep at it.

 

By the way, he was right. His mum did like the piece.