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Overcoming dissonance: finding connection in community

April 14, 2017

Alex Westfall

I cut my teeth as a musician playing guitar in the worship band at a Southern Baptist church in Indianapolis. My guitar teacher, the wise and venerable Ms. Tracy, was the worship pastor at her church, and when she thought I was ready she invited me to join her in her church band. I played from the time I was 13 until I graduated high school. And just to clarify, this was a white church. Whenever I talk about having led worship at a Baptist church, people generally assume that it was a black one. But no, this church was so white I think it up and moved to the other side of the street the first time I showed up. Though my experience overall was nice, within those walls, I was addressed as “boy” more times than I’d care to remember. Nonetheless, every week my black ass would get up in front of a congregation of about 200 white folks, and, eyes glued to the pedalboard at my feet and only making momentary glances at my fingers and the fake book in front of me, I would stoically strum out palm-muted power chords and short, modest lead lines.

In retrospect, my stiff, nervous, barely pubescent but distractingly big and black body probably looked out of place on stage next to my bandmates. Moreover, when I’m nervous I sweat like crazy and I’m sure that my shoe-gazing left me with a pronounced double chin. I really didn’t care about how I looked, though. I wasn’t there to perform; I was there to lead worship.

Before joining the band, I used to stand through worship sets with my hands at my sides, unsure as to why I wasn’t responding to the music as passionately as those around me. I would see people crying, lifting their hands and shouting in praise and I would wonder why the spirit wasn’t moving in me with enough strength to overcome my self-consciousness and manifest itself in some sort of worshipful gesticulation. I couldn’t let myself participate.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, I wasn’t able to get over this self-consciousness until I was up on stage. From my place behind the pulpit, I could see the entire sanctuary. In the brief moments when I would look away from my hands, I would turn my eyes to the upturned palms that dappled the crowd. It was the most profound and indescribable feeling to see the congregation so moved by the holy spirit and to know that I was the vessel that God had chosen to sing through. Though I had little in common with these people, there I was leading them in a ritual that connected each and every one of them to each other, to God and to me. In light of this, I had no choice but to give myself freely to the flow of the moment, shrug off my inhibitions and participate wholeheartedly in the experience of worship.

This was, of course, before I read “The Gay Science” and found out that God has actually been dead since, like, 1882. Nevertheless, even after abandoning my faith, I could not ignore the deeply spiritual connection I felt with every person I made music with. As life-changing as my crisis of faith was, it could not go back in time and tell me that what I was feeling while leading my flock in worship wasn’t something supernatural. This dissonance troubled me for a long time.

This week I read an excerpt from Thomas Turino’s book “Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation” that, among other things, explained the difference between presentational and participatory music. In short, presentational music is judged on the basis of aesthetic enjoyment whereas in participatory music, we derive value from the feelings the music elicits from the practitioners. Ideally, participatory music-making is radically inclusive—there does not exist a separation between musician and audience; rather, everyone in the room is involved as a participant.

That is not to say that everybody must be playing instruments—dancing, clapping and singing along also count as participation. The emphasis on inclusion promotes group intersubjectivity, making participatory music particularly effective in situations wherein music is used to establish or maintain a sense of group identity. One such situation, as pointed out by Turino, is in church.

It’s dawning on me now that what I thought was the holy spirit moving through me was actually something far more beautiful and immensely more complicated. It’s easy (and perhaps a bit hubristic) to say that that feeling was God’s hand guiding my own and that I, fortunate favorite of the Lord, was his blessed instrument.  Rather, it was the power of participation that moved me so deeply. It wasn’t a holy ghost or even the music that lent the worship ritual its profundity, but the fact that it involved everybody in the congregation. Differences like race, class, sexuality and any other factor that felt like it alienated me from the rest of the church seemed to melt away when we were all singing together. In their place was left a sense of belonging, and I guess that’s what kept me coming back.


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