When I was 14 years old, I traveled to Scandinavia with the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp International Concert Band. Blue Lake is a summer camp on the western side of Michigan that offered two week-long camps with concentrations in theater, dance, and choral and instrumental music. I had attended the previous summer and was invited to audition for the high school international band. I made it and opted to go. I remember my mom and dad being more excited about the opportunity than I was. After all, I was just entering ninth grade and was self-conscious of being the youngest in the group. But go I did and after spending all winter and spring rehearsing, we left for our summer tour of Sweden, Norway and Denmark in July.
We ended every concert, whether it was in a cathedral’s courtyard, assembly hall or civic auditorium the same way… Stars and Stripes Forever, with the entire brass section standing up in grand fashion after a dramatic ritard before the final chorus. The European audiences loved it, clapping in time with the beat and giving us robust standing ovations when the song ended. The second to last song of every concert they also loved… Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia. Though we were never actually in Finland, other Scandinavians seemed to honor and respect our attempt to play some of “their” music. But as much as they enjoyed it, I did even more. I instantly fell in love with the subtle power of this gentle melody (which we have in our hymnal as Be Still My Soul and This is My Song). I even came home from that trip, confidently telling my mother that I wanted to have this song played at my funeral! To her credit, she didn’t scold me for thinking of my mortality as a 14 year-old, or remind me that her funeral would likely precede mine. Instead she said something like, “Well I think that’s a lovely choice.”
I don’t know where the idea came from – to have Finlandia played at my funeral. I don’t consider myself morbid, nor one who thinks of dying more often than the average person my age. But I believe I had some understanding from an early age that music communicates a reality of its own that is beyond the ability to quantify it with the spoken word. We can confess with our music what is difficult for us to articulate with our words. Singing and music expresses the deepest desires of our hearts; the truest intentions of our souls; our core convictions. It gives us a voice when our words fail us and speaks meaning into the places of our lives that are beyond meaning.
A few years after that European trip I wrote an essay for an English class in which I used the phrase: “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a piece of music is worth a thousand pictures.” I’m sure at the time I felt I was waxing poetic and philosophical. In retrospect that sentence seems more corny than anything else. But corny or not, I believe it’s true. A week ago last Sunday Bob Wade and I were both getting ready to play in the brass choir and sing the recessional anthem Battle Hymn of the Republic. I walked passed him humming the part of the song where the men sing in very staccato-like fashion “truth – is – mar – ching – truth – is – mar – ching…” Bob was thumbing through his copy of the anthem but looked up upon hearing me. He leaned his head back for a moment, closed his eyes and smiled. “Ahh,” he said, “that song brings back so many memories.” And so it does.
I don’t know what memories that particular song brings back for Bob. But I don’t have to. For it’s true for me too. And I’m willing to bet, the same can be said for you as well. Because all music provides us a universal language with which to communicate the meaning of our lives.
Blessings – Michael