dead companions and live congregations

I read the first 5 chapters of The Hobbit last night.  When we offered to buy each of our grandchildren a book or two at the bookstore (an annual California event for us), my grandson chose this title. I admit I was surprised. I remember recommending this book to my brother when he was around 11 years old (my grandson’s age).  My brother later seemed to feel the book was not a good recommendation for someone his age. (* see the comments for a correction about this)

However, my grandson seems highly motivated. I watched him turn immediately to the back and read an excerpt from The Lord of the Rings. Also we came home and that evening he put on the DVD of one of the movies.

I know I have read The Hobbit at least once before and probably all of The Lord of the Rings. But I’ll probably re-read them now that a family member is reading them.

On the last plane ride of our journey I noticed someone in front of me was reading poetry in manuscript. He was probably a teacher. But it got me thinking how few people I talk to about poetry and music even though they are very important parts of my own life.

This kind of thinking inevitably leads to examining my life of isolation from people who have stuff in common with me like poetry and music. There are of course, poets and musicians, in this area. At least I assume there are poets, not having met many. The musicians seem to think I’m not all that good or worthy of discussing music with, much less playing it with. This is one of the reasons I jumped at the chance to play with the Barefoot Jazz Quartet this year.

But still, my own idea of what makes good music is a bit different from the people in this group. I’m not sure about how they see my work and abilities. But no matter. I enjoy playing even when I’m not sure how well I’m being listened to or understood.


I have made peace with the fact that musicians and listeners in this area probably think of me as a musical hack. At the least, I am invisible to them. So be it. I still have my music and my poetry. I have companions in music and they are superb: Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Bartok, Zappa, Prokofiev, and many others.

“When you come to university you’re crammed together with a couple of thousand people who are around your aged and who share a bunch of stuff in common with you, and most, important, are at that very same moment also looking for new friends.”

This quote from The Chairs are Where the People Go by Sheila Heti and Misha Glouberman describes my experiences of finding friends earlier in my adult life.

“But adult life isn’t like that. You may move to a new city, maybe for a job that doesn’t easily put you into contact with a lot of people with whom you have much in common. So what that means is that it’s work, and maybe for the first time in your life you have to actually take making friends on as a project. I knew so many people around that stage of life who suddenly found themselves isolated and couldn’t understand why, and had never thought of making friends as something they had to bring conscious effort to.”

Unfortunately, this took me so long to figure out here in Holland that I probably have missed the boat over and over in this department.

There have been some interesting situation-specific aspects of my life as a musician in Holland. I did examine the local college music department in 1987 when I arrived. I found a department typically at each other’s throats and with very uneven quality so I pulled back a bit from that.  I was involved with the Roman Catholic diocese here and made some colleague type friends most of whom I no longer see.

I was involved with local American Guild of Organists until the new organ teacher at Hope arrived. I, myself, nominated him as Dean realizing that although he was the logical choice, he and I had a history of conflict in Detroit. Ever since I have been isolated from the classical pipe organ community.

So now my musical companions are largely dead ones.  And as a matter of course my abilities and work are often under-estimated or unnoticed here in Holland. Fortunately, this feels less and less important to me.

What is important is my daily contact with wonderful music as I sit and hone my skills at the piano and pipe organ.  And I  have a new found joy and interest in leading congregational singing.

More from Glouberman:

Chapter 13. Social Music

“Over the past hundred years or so, music has become a much less social experience for a lot of people. Music used to be something you did, something you made with the people around you. Now, for many, people, it’s something made by skilled professionals you have never met, that you listen to as a largely passive audience often at a substantial spatial and temporal distance from the performer.”

later in the chapter, Glouberman describes an event he organizes:

“You get a roomful of people and you ask them to close their eyes and make and hold a vowel sound together. And you know what? It sounds amazing! I mean, it’s the most boring, unmusical sound you can imagine—-a couple of dozen people holding an unpitched drone. But when you’re in it, when you are doing it with people, it can be very beautiful and very interesting.”

This chapter reminded me a lot of congregational singing considered as a remnant of “social music.” Probably part of why I continue to enjoy it.

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1 thought on “dead companions and live congregations

  1. My brother corrects my memory. It was not The Hobbit I recommended. Rather it was the Trilogy. And he also remembers that I exacted a promise that I would only give it to him if he would read it. This is why he resisted, he remembers. This seems probably likely.

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