The first time I heard Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, I was in my early teens and questioning all things religious. Even in the relatively innocuous Congregational church our family attended, I was beginning to bump up against dogma and faith and belief and how those things tangled with my own experience and the expectations of others. But as I stood in that little white sanctuary listening for the first time to our small choir, accompanied by a string quartet, belting out Handel’s famous chorus, my eyes spilled tears. “It can’t just be us,” I thought. “Even the most brilliant of us would need help to create something like that.”
Is there a piece of music that took your breath away the first time you heard it? Does it still? I invite you, right now, to go back and listen to it, even if (or perhaps particularly if) you’ve listened to it 10,000 times since that first time. Whether it’s Handel’s Hallelujah or Rufus Wainwright’s Hallelujah, listen to it again as if you’ve never heard it before.
“Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” – Ludwig van Beethoven
While my thoughts about God and spirituality have evolved a lot since I first heard Handel, I still deeply believe in the power of music to open me up, express beyond words, melt my sharp edges, and remind me of my divinity. In 13 years of teaching movement, I have felt it and witnessed it a thousand times: the recognition in a piece of music of something beyond me. My spirit flies, my heart unlocks. The practice of combining rich and resonant music with expressive movement makes magic: body and soul. Even more than listening or movement alone (both powerful practices in and of themselves), moving to music enlivens me like nothing else. As Beethoven said, music bridges that which is deliciously human and that which is beyond human. You can do this now, too, put on a piece of music and breathe, move, dance, or conduct to it. Savor the mediation of essence and form.
“When I don’t like a piece of music, I make a point of listening to it more closely.” – Florent Schmitt
It’s a practice to listen with open curiosity and without expectation. In Nia, we call it the state of RAW: Relaxed, Alert and Waiting. RAW turns listening to any piece of music into an adventure. When I was young(er), I only listened for the lyrics, and I still am a sucker for the poetry of music. But more recently, I’ve discovered Steely Dan’s jazzy irregularities, the intricacies of The Beatles later songs, the thematic variations in a Dvořák symphony, and the layers of unusual sounds in electronica. Even if I don’t choose a song to use in class or to listen to while I cook, any piece of music can be a chance to notice something new. Ask a friend (preferably someone in another generation or with a completely different musical taste from yours) to suggest a piece of music that you’ve never heard before. Allow yourself to listen to it openly and with curiosity. Notice if judgment, story, or preference pop up. If it does, see if you can gently set it aside and just listen: relaxed, alert and waiting. Here’s one you can play with right now.
“Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together.” ― Anaïs Nin
For the next couple of weeks, I’m on call for jury duty in Charlottesville. This means that I won’t know until the last minute if I’ll be able to teach class or if I’ll be doing my civic duty (we will do our very best to update the Web site so it is accurate, and you can also dive into the river of the unknown, show up for class and see who’s there). In the spirit of RAW, for these two weeks, whenever I teach, we will draw the routine randomly out of a hat and together, we’ll create a focus. Whether you are dancing with me (or my back-up team mates who are graciously waiting in the wings in case I need them), or you are dancing through your life, I invite you to allow music into your awareness. Listen with mindful curiosity. Entertain the possibility that music is divine expression and that when combined with movement, it is an embodiment of spirit.
PS On Monday, August 5, I will be teaching at 1045am at ACAC Albemarle Square: jury cancelled! 🙂