I was a high school freshman when I first heard Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words.” Wandering through the back of the music room to pick up my trombone, I noticed Mrs. Nancy Davis at the piano. She wasn’t practicing for a church service or playing through a new orchestra arrangement or preparing for tomorrow’s choir rehearsal. I was struck by the sound of what she played—she wasn’t practicing anything at all. She was playing for the sheer joy of creating music.
She paused for a moment to show me her dog-eared Schirmer’s edition, a treasure since her high school days. And she gave the curious trombone player a quick musical tour of Mendelssohn’s famed piano collection. The songs were driven by their simple melodies, sophisticated but within the grasp of a good amateur. Their modest scope had bothered Mendelssohn’s composer friends, who were somewhat concerned that he was squandering his talents on commercial projects. Mendelssohn was creating music during the Industrial Revolution, when pianos were mass produced at a price cheap enough to attract the rising middle class. His piano books were bought by generations of pianists who never made it to the concert stage, back in an era when the families were music producers instead of music consumers.
Nancy Davis introduced me to an idea—that music is a lifelong activity, independent of a career or even a performance. Music is something you make when the room is empty.
I remembered this a few months ago when I heard that Jerry and Nancy Davis were retiring from Faith Baptist Church in Defiance, Ohio. Now in their mid-70s, they were going to be honored with a reception attended by friends from their years of ministry. So my wife didn’t ask a lot of questions when I threw my trombone in the back of the van before leaving. I had previously e-mailed Nancy with a private request and a PDF file. At some point in the festivities, we were going to find an empty room with a piano.
[As it turned out, the room wasn’t quite empty when we started playing. It’s hard to hide trombone at a party.]
Returning home to the Chicago area, I ran into Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” again, this time as the only book sitting on the piano in Don and Ruth Hustad’s apartment.
Born in 1918, Don took piano lessons early in life and became one of the 20th century’s most influential church musicians. He was chairman of Moody Bible Institute’s music department, organist for the Billy Graham crusades, and hymnal editor for Hope Publishing. He was on the faculty of Southern Seminary in Louisville until moving back closer to family a few years ago. And late in life, he almost stopped playing.
“I was frustrated with my hands for quite a while,” he told me, complaining about the arthritis that could be expected at age 94. So on the good days, when he woke up and his hands felt loose enough, he would try to play from the book with the familiar yellow cover.
“I eventually had to adjust my expectations—I wouldn’t be able to play like I had before, but I could still play for the joy of making music,” he said, repeating the motivation that Mrs. Davis had given me decades earlier.
Their idea is like a secret handshake passed among church musicians, a reminder among friends to keep playing. We are motivated by something more than the possibility of fame or a steady income.
And note that I said “keep playing,” not “keep practicing.” Both will be necessary.
Perhaps their idea is a variation on an old question from science class. “What if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it?” And if a song is played in an empty room, is it still music?
Yes. These “Songs Without an Audience” are part of the food that feeds a church musician’s inner life.
Then Dr. Hustad told me about the hymnology classes he had started teaching at the retirement center, where he would play through hymns and explain their background to the other residents (a generation that still understands their importance). He wasn’t quite ready to retire, wasn’t quite ready to stop playing. “Those classes are what’s keeping me alive right now,” he said as an aside, one that I remembered when he passed away a few weeks ago. I’ve written a longer obituary and tribute to him at BaptistBulletin.org.
“I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.” –Psalm 104:33
Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. He is choir director and worship leader at First Baptist Church, Arlington Heights, Ill.