Listening for better music

Part of what it means to be alive is to experience joy and sorrow – sometimes in the same moment. Whilst we can find unexpected joys through our lives, the sorrow will often be peeping around the corner – because life isn’t perfect. Even without Covid-19 and Lockdown, life holds ups and downs for all of us and it would be strange if we didn’t respond to that.

In those moments I often find myself doubting whether I’m on the right track or if I’m capable of handling the situations that come my way. I can often begin to wonder if I’m doing enough or if I’m doing the right things. Everything can start to feel imperfect and too difficult.

King David, who had won countless battles, conquered mighty armies and had God’s promise over him that he would be King of all Israel, wrote some of his most famous songs – or Psalms – while hiding from his enemies, fearing for his life. He expressed sorrow that it had come to this but also joy that he knew the love of God.  Life for even the greatest heroes of our faith was full of these ups and downs.

This moment of joy and sorrow meeting in the same place can be found in a song from Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, called Ach, ich fuhl’s (which means, Oh! I feel it!). It is a heartbreakingly sad song which is also extraordinarily beautiful. It’s also really quite difficult to sing well! As a semi-professional soprano, I spent a very long time working on it and never felt 100% happy with it.

About 12 years ago, I recorded some music for a CD and this song was one of the tracks. I was so unhappy with what I heard back that I struggled to listen to it and had abandoned it altogether many years ago! I’m not sure that I ever sang it again, after I turned fully professional. Getting it right just felt far too difficult.

God prompted me to go back to listen to that recording again as part of an online retreat, led by Bishop John, three weeks ago. It was difficult to listen to: I could hear every imperfection – some notes in the piano weren’t as perfectly in tune as they could have been, I can hear the breath in my tired voice at the end of a long day of recording. I feel like I’m going too fast and I can hear the technical effort I’m putting in to make the hard parts sound effortless. I listened once more, and suddenly realised that only I would necessarily hear some of the flaws in that performance and that others had heard it and had enjoyed it and even felt touched by it.

I asked myself which opinion I should believe and, in that moment, I felt God tell me that I should believe both: that what I do/ how I love/ how I minister will be imperfect. Things around me will go wrong. I won’t always have the most finely-tuned accompaniment to my life’s song. But God can and will continue to work through my meagre offering – he will speak to others so they hear something that is useful through my imperfect work.

Bishop John told a story on that retreat about Stradivarius violins, which are worth millions of pounds each. And, apparently, the reason they are so much better than ordinary, mass-produced instruments is because the holes cut into the wood are not perfectly symmetrical. Their hand-made imperfection is the very cause of the beauty of their sound; it’s what makes them so valuable.

God doesn’t create the imperfections but he can redeem them – he can use them to make better music. Even in the bleakest situations, this can be a helpful, hopeful word to us all.

Sometimes, as this Charlie Mackesy sketch I stumbled across on the same weekend suggests, it’s through the imperfections – those holes and tears and cracks – that God’s music can come through. I pray for all of us to hear that better music in the midst of all of the imperfections we experience now and in the future.