Look where I got to perform this weekend:
I was asked by a friend if I would play the midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Basilica of St Josaphat
here in Milwaukee. It’s only about a mile from our house, and I knew
the kids would be done opening presents long before I had to go back to
play the mass again on Christmas morning, so I agreed to the gig. The
place is simply beautiful.
What a wonderful experience to play with talented musicians in such a
setting. The orchestra was up in the choir loft with the singers and
organ, which is nice because you can concentrate on the music without
feeling like you are on display.
In some ways performing music is just a job that involves parking and
lugging things around and concentration and just plain work, but what
marvelous work! (Although for the choir director/organist who has to
lead everyone and also play music with his feet, I think it was less
marvelous and just plain work. But I’m a viola player! I play my part
when I’m supposed to and Sudoku the rest of the time.) Christmas Eve is
a magical night to get to make great music, even for those of us who
don’t claim the holiday in a religious sense.
The line between the personal and the sacred is an issue I think about a lot during this season.
I believe each of us is tasked with deciding for ourselves what is
meaningful and right and true in this life. Even if you subscribe to a
particular religion, you have to weigh all the information you are
provided from many sources and use your own judgment about how to
interpret all of it. Each of us has to come to peace with what we think
our place is in the universe on our own no matter what markers we
choose to guide us.
Are there really people who get worked up about others using more
inclusive phrases like ‘happy holidays’ this time of year? I wonder
about people who would be so insecure in their own belief systems that
they find offense where none was intended. I had people wishing me
Merry Christmas at my store the whole week of Hanukkah and I appreciated
it, even though it didn’t make a lot of sense. It was meant with good
will and I accepted it in that light. I’m mystified by people who are
supposedly upset by the phrase ‘happy holidays’ because when I was
growing up it was shorthand for Christmas and New Year’s and they could
simply take it in that light if it suits them. But it’s a handy term to
use when you don’t know what people believe, and that’s respectful in
my opinion. No one should be using the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ as a
verbal weapon or a means to intimidate people. How is that a reflection
on what the season is supposed to be about? Thankfully in my own
community this does not seem to be the case and I think that whole
controversy is constructed for TV ratings and not of concern to actual
I myself am not Christian, but I like having a tree and a tradition
of gift giving. It’s part of my heritage and it’s fun and it makes my
kids happy. My father’s side of the family is Jewish, my mother was
raised Christian Science but her father was raised Catholic, my
sister-in-law is from India…. There are lots of interesting traditions
to draw from in our home if we wish. I don’t see any point in fighting
the tide of Christmas cheer at the end of December so we put up lights
and hang stockings and enjoy it all, but it’s one of many possible
So I may be neutral when it comes to a lot of things about this
season, but the one place where I have a decided allegiance is with
music. This I have a strong opinion about.
There was a fascinating piece on 60 Minutes back when I was in
college that I remember watching with my grandmother in her family room
one evening. The story was about a high school girl in Utah who planned
to major in music as a singer so she needed to participate in her
school’s choir, but the area being predominantly Mormon meant that most
of the music they did had Christian themes. She and her family sued.
She didn’t believe she should be coerced into worship of a faith that
wasn’t hers in a public school in order to fulfill her educational
I found this riveting. Because on the one hand I don’t think it’s
fair to force a single religion onto people in a publicly funded place.
If a government building puts up a nativity scene because a lot of
people in the community want it, I think that’s okay, as long as they
make room for things minorities in the community want as well, because
that’s fair. Christians should not get in a tizzy because someone else
in the community wants a menorah there too, or an atheist manifesto,
etc. But people do get upset when they see things they hold sacred
juxtaposed with things they do not, so I think in most communities it
makes more sense to leave such displays to private individuals and
institutions. The majority needs to put themselves in other people’s
But as much as I wanted to support the girl in Utah for being able to
hold her own against the majority religion, from a musician’s point of
view I can’t, for two reasons:
First, from a practical standpoint, she will starve. No one asks me
if I am a Catholic before I go perform in a Catholic church. No one
asks if I am Baptist or Muslim or Jewish. They only ask if I can be
there on time. If I had to screen every couple who needed a string
quartet for their wedding to make sure their beliefs matched my own
before I could accept the gig, I would never get to play. If you sing
for money, chances are good you will be offered work in a church. And
unless there is some extreme circumstance that makes it impossible or
too distasteful, you take it. Because if people are willing to pay you
to make music you should be appreciative.
Second, from a musical standpoint, she will be actively denying
herself the opportunity to sing some of the greatest music ever
written. Both inspiration and funding have come from religious
institutions over the centuries, so some of the best music people have
created have religious themes. I don’t care if you are Christian or
not, if you can get a part in a production of The Messiah by Handel you
take it. It’s transcendent in its beauty. I can’t tell you how many
times I’ve performed the Hallelujah Chorus and it’s always a privilege
and a thrill. Would she really turn down the Mozart Requiem or a Bach
Cantata due to Christian themes? Insanity. A musician on some level
must be like an actor. If actors only chose roles that specifically
reflected their own personal beliefs then that’s not even acting. The
arts are more expansive than that. There is beauty to appreciate in all
cultures. What a shallow, worthless life as a musician you would have
if you cut yourself off from most of it.
I love traditional Christmas music. I love The Holly And The Ivy,
and Deck The Halls, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and Joy To The
World, and Angels We Have Heard On High…. My favorite is Silent Night.
I may not be a Christian, but I am a musician, and I know sacred when I
hear it. I love playing this music.
I don’t know what ever became of the girl in that story. I’d be
curious to find out. I hope she was able to find a career in music if
it’s what she wanted. But I hope if she’s still singing that maybe
somewhere out there this season she’s not denied herself the chance to
sing some really lovely music.
I wish all of you peace and joy this season, regardless of what you believe. And I wish you whatever music makes you smile.