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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Listen to the Music
January 25, 2018

I grew up in a church tradition where we learned many songs “by heart” (by imitation and memory) rather than by reading the written score. We called these heart-songs “choruses,” and included them in every worship service, together with the hymns in our hymnal. When I began playing piano for church, I had to master both following the music in the hymnal and playing those “choruses” without any music in front of me. We called it playing “by ear.” Since playing by ear was a required skill for worship accompaniment, many church musicians did better playing by ear than “by note.” Those who developed both skills were most successful.

When I became Presbyterian in early adulthood, I found myself in a very different music world, where playing “by note” was the norm, and my skill at playing “by ear” was something rather foreign at which many marveled. All of my life I have straddled between these two worlds of music-making, though my love for playing by ear has led me to play jazz more than classical music.

We often celebrate the “new thing” that God is doing (Isaiah 43:18-19 ), and declare we want to be in on it. We acknowledge that God’s Spirit is always on the move, surprising us at every turn. But, are we so stuck in our learned patterns and established ways that we find it difficult to step into the unanticipated pathways the Spirit opens up before us?

We Presbyterians are far better at playing “by note” than “by ear.” We are better at following established texts than at shifting in response to changing circumstances. Critics may say we are more inclined to follow “the letter that kills” than “the Spirit that gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6) I think the reality is more complex than this right/wrong binary view.

A new study by the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences discovered that the brains of accomplished classical pianists and jazz pianists work differently, even when playing the same music. They approach the task of music-making from fundamentally different perspectives. In short, the jazz pianist thinks of “what” note to play, while the classical pianist thinks of “how” to play the note. The jazz mind is focused more on the music itself, the classical mind on the precise execution of the fingers. There are consistent differences in the brain patterns of classical and jazz musicians when playing the same music.

Classical pianists are better technicians. Repeatability is their strong suit. It is the same strength that makes a golfer great. When they learn a music score well, their performance is more likely to be truly virtuosic. They are masters of great texts and techniques. They are people of the book, and they know well both the letter and the soul of their book.

Jazz pianists are better creators. They are always prepared to venture into new territory, to follow music’s unanticipated turns. They don’t do as well with difficult piano scores that demand technical precision, but they excel in adapting to uncharted waters. For jazz pianists, what classicists might consider a pianistic “mistake” is just another opportunity to find a new pathway. They react to an unplanned keystroke not by getting back on track but by exploring where it may lead.

The church needs both classicists and improvisationists. The prophets urge us not only to welcome God’s new thing, but also to follow the tried and true: “Ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies.” (Jeremiah 6:16) Jesus warns us, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 5:17) Yet he proceeds immediately to demand that we think in entirely new ways about what God requires of us, creating a new script for living. In the passage immediately following this declaration, he repeats six times, “You have heard it said,” (the old way), “but I say to you” (the new way).

We Presbyterians are better at following established texts and patterns than we are at listening to the music as it unfolds and adjusting ourselves to unexpected movements and variations. I celebrate our devotion to the text and our wonderful capacity to preserve time-tested practices and maintain good order. But we need also to be creative, to adjust our forms of witness to a mission field that is constantly changing. How are we doing with that?

Yours in discovery,



The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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