The Day I Got Lost in the Music

I remember my very first attack of goosebumps. I was thirteen, maybe, one raspy voice in a middle-school choir festival a half century ago in a small town in Wisconsin, dozens of kids drawn from regional schools. The music that did it was J. S. Bach—“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” For almost fifty years I’ve not been able to hear that piece without being zapped back into that pimply choir because I was seized so chillingly—heart, soul, mind, and strength—by the beauty of that moment.

Those goosebumps arrived during an afternoon rehearsal. I have no memory of the concert that night or the faces of our proud parents out in the dark, steel-chaired crowd. That afternoon there was no audience; there was only a young conductor working hard to achieve something close to what his choice of music—and his passion—brought to me at that moment on that day.

I remember exactly what that gym looked like. I remember which step I occupied on the bleachers and even the faces of some of the kids around me because I won’t forget being embarrassed by this tearful yen that suddenly struck. I needed all the testosterone I could muster to stanch it.

We were junior high kids, our voices cracking like cheap speakers, I’m sure. No matter. Even though I knew the graceful, never-ending dance of notes that ran exquisitely beneath the story line of that music was gorgeous, I honestly didn’t know what hit me. I grew up surrounded by music and singing, but I’d never felt beauty so tangibly.

My girlfriend was there, and I haven’t forgotten that either. She stood a row or two away in the choir and played a role in this totally unbidden emotional seizure. The music alone may not have raised such a visceral reaction, but my seeing her there a row or two beneath me, both of us singing, has to be factored into the goosebumps.

Faith played a role too, I’m sure, although I don’t remember being all that pious. But we were singing about Jesus, all these kids; and there was that lilting music—we couldn’t do much better than Bach—and, as I was saying, my girlfriend was there; don’t most of us experience love long before we can define it? And being part of something so much bigger than myself had to play a role as well—all those kids making a beautiful, joyful noise. Just like that, goosebumps. My lower lip turned dysfunctional, and tears edged to the corners of my eyes. I felt gimpy. I moved my mouth, but I was incapable of singing. If I had let it come instead of stifling it, whatever was in that music on that day, in that room, would have tipped me over.

I’m not instinctively musical. My mother would have loved my being able to sit at the piano and create the joy she did on that bench throughout her life, her husband beside her, singing along. She made sure I took lessons for years, but today I can’t plink out much more than some ancient rag.

When I remember that choir festival and my first kiss of sheer musical beauty, I think of the very first verse of Psalm 147, which unashamedly asserts the joy of singing: “Praise the Lord. How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!”

How pleasant it is to praise him in song. Interesting choice of words: “how pleasant.” Seems to me that is an embarrassingly human assertion for something as divine as Scripture: singing to the Lord, the Bible says, just plain feels good. Those goosebumps had nothing to do with duty (“we should praise him”) or with God’s demanding our praise. Psalm 147 begins by wooing the Me Generation: Hey, it feels good—so do it. And, oh, yeah—it’s fitting too.

There have been many since—goosebumps, that is. “The Hallelujah Chorus” will do it just about every time I hear it—in concert hall or on iPod. The old country hymn “Farther Along” takes me out at the knees too; and for no good reason other than the power of the music itself. The much-beloved choral anthem “O Lord God” by the Russian composer Paul Tschesnokoff leaves me babbling—and I never sang it, not once. Really, I’m no singer.

That anthem once plunked itself down at the end of a play I’d just started writing, sat there as emotionless as a cat, and told me it needed to be there. This play you’re working on, that piece insisted—it needs to end with me (I don’t remember a Russian accent). So I listened. I scrambled to find a way for the story to get to that piece of music. I had to write a story that would end with “O Lord God.”

The play I was creating was meant to celebrate the history of the college where I teach, a place where Tschesnokoff’s “O Lord God” had been a favorite of college choirs for years. My sister sang that anthem in her college choir, and it stayed so tenaciously within her that she used to sing it habitually, thoughtlessly. She gave it to me.

But I had come to love the piece because of its story, a musical story that begins in lonely fear, the melody begging the Lord to listen to prayers that seem to go nowhere. Anguish drips from the opening lines—as it does, for instance, in the howling initial verses of Psalm 13, as if God almighty is just not listening.

And then, suddenly, quite miraculously, things change. The melody soars in a thanksgiving promise: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live.” A real musician would know how to describe technically what happens in that piece, but even a rank amateur, even a chunky adolescent can know, if he listens, that those anguished prayers have been answered. “Glory to God,” the anthem insists at the end: “Glory to God.” It’s a short story with a denouement that soars through the roof.

When the play I was writing finally made it onstage, I watched it at least a dozen times; and every time I was moved as deeply as I ever had been at the amazing story of deliverance celebrated in the music of “O Lord God.”

But then, most of our really great songs are stories of deliverance, or so it seems. Once we come to know our sins are gone, once we experience the miracle of grace, once our quaking bones have been delivered from a load of sins and miseries, we can’t help but sing, even the monotones. Grace makes even our old rags sound like Bach.

So there I sat, goosebumpy in the blessedly darkened theater every time the play ended, teary at the mysterious clarity of the music, a reaction that can only be experienced as, yes, good and very, very pleasant.

I wonder whether, fifty years earlier, my skin turned inside out and my tears ducts filled because, maybe for the first time, my “self” almost disappeared. I got lost in the music, lost in affection, lost in the joyful affirmation of group love that is choral music, lost in all those things and more, just plain lost. I lost myself.

That’s a good thing and pleasant. Self-lessness is a good thing. Love is selfless, after all. Heroism is selfless, and deep and convincing spiritual experience is selfless too. Always.

It’s not easy for some of us to admit it, but it’s just good, even pleasant, to lose yourself—something I think we do in music. It’s good to praise, to give yourself away to God. It’s good to love, to give yourself away to others. Praise—whether it’s evoked by a Bach chorale, a Russian choral anthem, or a bright new dawn—offers a chance for us to empty ourselves in God. And that’s pleasant—and fitting.

In Psalm 32:7 David makes a perfectly understandable claim in another song of deliverance. The story of his life isn’t over, but the victory has been won. He’s sinned, he’s confessed, and he’s been forgiven. He’s been delivered. “You are my hiding place,” he says, my comfort and my joy; you are my habitation; you are where I live, where I lay me down to sleep. I lose myself in your love because you surround me,” he says—as if his habitation were the salesroom of some huge electronics store—“with songs of deliverance.” Not stories—songs. Surround sound.

That’s good, I think, and it’s pleasant, I know. And it’s fitting before the King, our King, who is, as I will never forget, the very joy of man’s desiring.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.