Moved by Music

February 24th, 2011

President Loren Swartzendruber ’76, MDiv ’79, DMin, with his wife Pat

Aaron Copland, 20th century American composer, shared this perspective regarding music: “The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.’”

Many of my earliest memories involve music, most often in the context of a worship service in my home congregation. It is amazing that the memories evoked frequently cannot be adequately expressed in words. I am transported back in time and space, subconsciously touched by the rhythms, harmonies, and melodies of hymns. Sitting next to my dad, I learned to sing the tenor line long before I knew how to read the music. For those warm memories I shall always be grateful.

I well recall, however, a deep feeling of incompetence in a public school 7th grade music class when being tested on our ability to recognize the sounds of individual musical instruments. Though many of my classmates could not have joined an a cappella choir and didn’t know the difference between the tenor and bass lines, I was embarrassed to realize that the sounds of individual musical instruments were largely indistinguishable to my ears. Fortunately, through music appreciation classes in high school and college, I expanded my repertoire of understanding.

Copland’s suggestion that music has meaning, but that its meaning can hardly be reduced to words, rings so true at this stage of my life. It is not uncommon, especially if I have no responsibilities in a worship service and if I have experienced some stressful weeks, to be overcome with emotion while joining others in congregational singing. Frequently, I sense that I am part of something much larger than myself and am filled with gratitude for the privilege of being a member of a church that takes corporate worship seriously (and joyously!). There must be a reason why such experiences rarely occur when I am preparing to preach!

Music, in its many forms and genres, makes an essential contribution to the quality of life at EMU and beyond. To quote Copland again, “To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.” The making of music at EMU has always been strong, even when the music was only made with one instrument (the vocal cords). Yet our musical output keeps getting stronger, as EMU’s outstanding musicians embrace and contribute to other musical streams. May we make music forever!

Loren Swartzendruber