One of the closest things I’ve had to a mystical experience was playing a boring low D note on a trumpet in my high school cafeteria.
That D is almost impossible to play in tune on a trumpet. It’s naturally sharp on the instrument (higher pitched than it should be), so as you play it, you have to use a finger on your left hand to extend a small piece of brass tubing. It’s like moving a tiny trombone slide.
The trick is there’s no prescribed amount to extend that little tube: It’s different for every instrument and every player. Most of the time, the note sounds awful and sticks out like a sore thumb, especially when you have to play it with other instruments. And if you have more than one trumpet playing it simultaneously? It’s the sonic equivalent of multiple people standing next to each other and throwing darts at a bullseye while blindfolded: You’re not all going to hit the target and probably won’t even come close.
As a teenager, one piece I played in orchestra required my two fellow trumpeters and me to play that low D at the same time – a sadistic choice by the composer. The first few times we played it, the note sounded predictably terrible. But then, after playing it time after time over months of rehearsals, we got to the point where that note was perfect every time, in tune with each other and in tune with the whole 70-person orchestra.
The wild, quasi-mystical part of it to me is that I have no idea how this improvement happened. It was not the result of conscious decision-making. Nothing felt different in my playing. But you could’ve pulled the three of us out of bed in the middle of the night, handed us our trumpets in our pajamas, and we would’ve nailed that D. It felt like a magic trick that had been downloaded into our brains.
I remember this single D more fondly than big, fun concerts or the jazzy solo I got to play in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It captures three of my favorite things about playing music.
Music is best when it’s communal.
If I sat in my room by myself, pulled out my trumpet and digital tuner, and honked that low D perfectly for hours, literally nobody would care. It was the interplay between the three musicians, our arriving at the right destination together, that set the stage for transcendance.
All of my favorite music memories are shared with others. There was the group singalong during grad school on the secret island — the first time I thought I might be falling for this woman I just met with the most beautiful singing voice. (We’ve been married ten years.) Or the night I was moved to tears out of the blue during a random evening prayer service in a Wisconsin chapel as the congregation sang a setting of the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer after she finds out she’s pregnant. I could make a list of hundreds of entries, and each of them involve other people.
Communal music requires true listening, the highest form of “spiritual hospitality.”
The simplest explanation for our trumpeting success was that we were listening closely. We listened to each other and to the whole orchestra and made adjustments that were so subtle we couldn’t even detect them.
The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote beautifully on how listening is much more than mere hearing. He’s talking about conversation and not music here, but making music communally is such a valuable exercise in listening. “Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves,” he writes. “Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”
In life, I’m generally much better at talking than listening. But communal music requires you to listen and respond to the people around you. This listening/adjustment cycle is a practice in generosity. Have you ever heard a great piano accompanist at a church service or concert? Especially when the singer is not so great? The accompanist changes tempo on the fly to match the singer’s phrasing, or figures out when to play more loudly to help the singer get back on track — all these little choices meant to make the vocalist sound their best. This is Nouwen’s “spiritual hospitality” at work.
The power of music is mysterious.
There have been a lot of studies about what music does to your brain. I’m sure if you had run my trumpet buddies and me through an MRI machine, you could’ve seen the parts of our brains that were lighting up when we played that D. There’s a scientific explanation for how we came to crush that note. I acknowledge this.
But there are also so many questions about music that neuroscience can’t answer: Why are humans musical in the first place? Why do we perceive certain vibrations bouncing off our eardrums as joyful or sad ? Why do I get chills every time I hear the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony even though I don’t understand a single word of the German lyrics? If you want to wrestle with those questions, you’re moving into the realm of mystery and spirit. There are no easy answers about the power of music. And that’s what makes it thrilling.