Greater Than the Parts

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by NotMolly

My Grands and Greats could play for hours; I memorized every chair rung, and every carpet petal of every carpet flower, stretched out flat in the bliss of that music.

When I was little, we’d visit my father’s parents as often as we could, given the distance (it being over five rivers and through about four sets of woods–and mountain passes–to grandmother’s house). Quite often, when we visited, the Cousins and Grands and Greats would gather, bringing with them the full weight of musical talent dissolved in the gene pool: banjos, guitars, dulcimers, harmonicas, mandolins, fiddles, and a wide range of voices melodic and harmonic. And when all were gathered, Music Happened. It was always a mix of old-time country with a bluegrass feel, and quite a few old hymns.

Here’s how I remember it: the house, whichever house we used for the congregation, was crowded, all the dining chairs pulled out into the living room, furniture pushed back to the walls, leaving an irregular open space at the center, with shifting sets of loved ones settling in around the edges. The little kids and babies were welcome to sit in the middle, if we sat, and didn’t wander or yell.

Were you to come to the front door, no one would hear  you, and a chair was probably pushed up against it, anyhow, but if you came around and peeked in a kitchen window, you’d see the pots bubbling on the stove, pies cooling, salads laid out on the counter, all handmade from family recipes or local favorites clipped from the coastal newspaper recipe column and Elme- glued to a file card until needed for the gathering. Sneaking a taste was permitted, but some pretense had to be made of sneaking, or it was a good bet you’d be walloped lovingly with a wooden spoon. The smell of the food and the sound of the music are entwined for me; to this day, certain songs make me sure I smell hot biscuits or soup.

There was no firm plan, no theme, no assigned leadership. The music followed its own path through us, song following on song, just exactly the way we needed, even if we didn’t know it at the time. Usually, a song started with my grandfather, strumming or picking the guitar, laying out the tune and tone in his mellow tenor voice. After the first phrase or two, more stringed instruments fell in with melodies and counterpoints, and my grandmother set a harmony line for voices. By the end of the first verse, all who felt inspired to play along were playing, and the voices wove together in a storm of joyous sound.

We, the little kids who sat in the middle, experienced what all our Grands and Greats had experienced as children, and what their Grands and Greats had felt, too. Music is never just music. For us, music was the connection, the knots that kept us together, the fibers that rooted us in a family that had a habit of frequent migration and no permanent resting place. That music was small-h home, a preparation for large-H Home and the family waiting for us there.

Though most of the Greats have passed Home now, the small music created by my grandparents at home today is still that happy effort; the sum is always greater than the parts. The chords and picking are not so fast or complex as they once were. The voices have reached their Four Score years, and may not sing for hours on end. Sometimes, lyrics drift away in favor of gentle, happy humming. Sometimes, the depths of the song overwhelm, and a quick break to wipe away tears is required. But always, the sum is greater than the parts.

For Christmas, I was given (well, to be honest, I sent my husband a direct link to my Amazon wishlist) a book I’ve wanted for years, on the history of the LDS hymns. In it, I’m struck by the collaborative nature of hymn creation, and its importance in our worship. So rarely is a hymn “sprung whole from the forehead of Zeus”; most often it is a process of idea, refinement, alteration, and musical expression. One person is blessed with an inspired theme, or has struggled with a question of faith and is inspired to write about the struggle and the confirmations received. Another person is blessed with a phrase of music, or a specific chord progression, or a joyful harmonic set. Another experiences a visceral confirmation of truth or excellence in another song or lyric, and writes music or words to respond and build on that experience. The words and lyrics are set down at once, or they are molded and shaped and refined until the authors look on it, hear it, and feel that it is good, an acceptable offering before God.

And then the song is lovingly released into the voices of the faithful, of the struggling, of the broken and the whole, the young and old.

The song is given life in the meandering warbles of the small child at play, singing to trees and birds and dirt about Heavenly Father’s love and blessing. The broken heart sings solace when a phrase of melody drifts over the fence and lights on the tear-stained cheek. The stillness of a night is made velvet-soft with the hymn sung in lullaby around a campfire.

The music offered up in our homes, our meetings, and our gatherings is human. It is flawed. It is sublime. It is limited, and unconstrained. It is imperfectly perfect. There is a spirit in it, and The Spirit in it, that refines and re-molds us. It is where we learn sympathy, harmony, and a more full compassion for the righteous efforts and intents of our Family. The glorious Sum is so much greater than all our individual parts. We are given music to tie us together, and help us feel our home and resting place.

Have you ever stopped to consider the depth of testimony, passed down through centuries of faithful struggle, that each hymn entails? The thousands of voices that have lifted up in praise, in penitence, in sorrow, in joyful, bursting, utter delight?

Have you ever been struck by the realization that Heavenly Father ordered the entire universe, brought nations into existence, inspired the creative collaborations of ages, just to bring you a particular combination of notes and words, at the precise time when your soul would drink them in, recognize them as Home, and be fed? What songs connect you to the eons of testimony, of blessings, of Home?

About NotMolly

Liz blogs as NotMolly, and lives on the western reaches of the Rocky Mountains with her Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal husband, their four beloved Minions, a huge number of books and assorted musical instruments, and four very spoiled pet hens. She can occasionally be somewhat serious and ponder The Big Stuff. And then she'll probably lapse into puns again...

4 Responses to Greater Than the Parts

  1. Emily says:

    I love that image of gathering together for music. I’ve heard stories from our family that they’d gather to share poems and readings or acting or whatever. That impromptu performance has been lost on my generation. and it’s actually quite sad. I’d never thought about how a song is the result of some event, and often a difficult one. What a wonderful way to share what one has learned. No wonder we get emotional when we sing and share the songs of the past.

  2. Paul says:

    I love the image you’ve painted of your extended family singing. It brings to mind my own childhood memory of our family gathered round the piano at the end of family night, singing hymn after hymn, and my dad’s saying “just one more…” as my mother played and we all sang. I wish my children sang with us as much as I did with my parents (some do; some don’t — those who don’t are less patient with those who do). I suppose we do gather round the Wii to sing Beatles’ songs, however; that’s something. :-)

    I am regularly touched in sacrament meeting by the hymns we sing. I pay particular attention to the poetry, and some of it is particularly moving to me.

  3. Ray says:

    I have very fond memories of our family gathering around the piano and singing as my mom played. They are some of my favorites memories of youth.

    I love songs that tell stories or include beautiful poetry. I have a hard time liking a song that has lyrics but the singing obscures the words.

  4. NotMolly says:

    Every time I think about the chain of experience, the threads of the human family, that are manifest in music, I really do get breathless. It’s just a gorgeous, gorgeous gift God has given us.

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