The Blessing of Music
I’ve been around music all my life, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I didn’t have a tune in my head or a piece of music in my hands.
Music runs in our family. I was a voice major in college; my husband, Bill, is a composer; our six children have studied in the finest music schools and conservatories. All of us have performed together around the world with our own group, the Annie Moses Band, started when the kids were young.
After a show, someone is sure to come up and say, “You’re all so talented. I wish our lives could be blessed by music like that.”
“No reason they can’t,” I’m quick to say.
Music is a gift from heaven, meant for everyone, not just the winners of American Idol or The Voice. It’s for anyone who has ever tapped a toe to a tune on the radio or hummed a movie theme.
It’s for people like my grandmother Annie Moses, namesake of our band, who survived the soul-dulling drudgery of picking cotton with one song after another. Music lifted her out of misery. That’s what music does. It moves us, inspires us, gives us courage, comforts us, connects us to God and to others.
It shone like the sun on Annie Moses’ hardscrabble life, which is why we honor her in song. I can’t count the ways music makes our lives better, but I’ll try.
Music helps us listen.
My daddy was a missionary in the rugged Kiamichi Mountains in Oklahoma. Our little church never had more than 60 or 70 people in the pews, but on the stage in front of the congregation everybody was welcome and everybody participated.
On Sunday nights, we sang the classics like “I’ll Fly Away,” “The Old Rugged Cross” and “In the Sweet By-and-By,” the harmonies filling the air. Anyone who wanted came up to perform: gospel quartets, banjo pickers, washboard virtuosos, singers who aspired to be the next Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline.
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Were they perfect? Goodness, no. But we leaned forward, listened, clapped and hollered. If we didn’t get a melody or all the words, we got the performers’ intentions, which must be the way God hears us.
Listening to music is good for our hearts and our brains. Scientists have shown that babies are born favoring the songs and voices they heard in their mother’s womb! As they grow up, children gain nuances of accent, timbre, inflection and tone from exposure to music. It improves memory.
A good musical education isn’t about training prodigies for world-class performance; it’s to expand young minds for whatever profession they pursue. It opens them up to a universal language. Maybe we should add a fourth “R” to the three we already have: Readin’, ’Ritin’, ’Rithmetic and Rhythm.
Music puts us on a team.
Mama didn’t have much more than a year of piano and voice lessons from a teacher in junior high school, but she was determined that her three daughters get every opportunity that she lacked—no mean feat in our rural area.
First she insisted that Daddy buy a piano. For twelve dollars a month he financed a spinet that sat in the living room like a short, stout nanny, a doily on her head, surviving spills, wax buildup, termite swarms, mice and cats.
I was five when Mama gathered my two older sisters and me at the spinet and taught us to sing in three-part harmony. We sounded like some fusion of the Andrews Sisters and Alvin and the Chipmunks. No matter. We hit the road.
Daddy took us up in his Cessna, evangelizing by air, landing in cow pastures, beside cornfields and on empty back roads. In tiny cracker-box churches, Daddy preached and we sang, Mama at the keyboard of some old pump organ.
We learned to own a stage, to speak and perform in front of others, uplifted by their applause, delighted when folks sang with us. Our music made us an integral part of Daddy’s team. But you don’t have to be a performer to know that feeling.
Just sing with someone else, even if it’s only “Happy Birthday.” Every voice makes a difference, every part counts. The whole is always greater than the sum. Jesus said wherever two or more are gathered in his name he is there. Seems like that gets amplified when we make music in his name.
Music expands our horizons.
Mama insisted on looking for the best music teacher she could find for her children, which meant driving us in Daddy’s pickup 20 miles every Saturday morning on rutted dirt roads to Mena, Arkansas.
There we were taught by Mrs. Johnson, a large woman with royal-blue eye shadow and her hair in a French twist, who had a profound love of music. She would clinch her baton and click time infallibly on the edge of the piano. God help you if you couldn’t keep the tempo.
Mrs. Johnson gave me a whole new repertoire for the piano: tunes from Broadway musicals, movie themes, Hanon exercises, classics by the great composers, all performed at our semi-annual recitals.
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I’d hear an older student, one more experienced than I, play a challenging étude or a two-part invention and think, Maybe I can do that someday. We’d go to local and state competitions, sweating through adjudications under the auspices of the National Guild of Piano Teachers.
For a country girl who lived in the hills where we could barely get TV reception, it was eye-opening. I’ll never forget going to a competition in Little Rock my sophomore year of high school. First I played—did all right— then wandered into another hall and sat down to hear a master class with a distinguished voice teacher.
A college-age girl with long, bushy hair and a loose-fitting dress stepped out onstage and began to sing in a foreign language. I couldn’t believe my ears. An enormous velvety voice took hold of a difficult melody and reached for the stratosphere. I was on the edge of my seat.
Then I listened to the teacher. With just a few comments she made what I thought was a perfect performance even better.
Oh, Robin, that kind of singing is for rich city people, I told myself, not you. But what if I could study with a voice teacher like that and become a singer too? “Inez Silberg, Guest Vocal Instructor,” the program said.
As fate would have it—or rather, as God would—that very teacher, Mrs. Silberg, became my instructor several years later at Oklahoma City University and she worked her wonders on me. But first a dream had had to be planted.
With music there is always something new to hear, something new to learn. Your world keeps getting bigger.
Music gives voice to our prayers.
When the Israelites were brought safely out of Egypt, they thanked God in their prayers, but how did they do it? With music, with song. “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously,” goes the Song of Moses, “the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:1).
Or take the 150 prayers at the center of our Bible, the Psalms. We should never forget that they were written to be sung, sometimes with the musical instructions right in the text: “with timbrel and dance...with strings and pipe.”
Words were set to music for very practical reasons in a preliterate age. It was easier to remember them when you sang. But music also helps us give voice to our prayers. Through music we can express our deepest longings; we have access to what we might not be able to say otherwise to God.
Today I like to remind our oldest, Annie, who sings and plays the violin in the band, what a lot of noise she made as a newborn. She cried constantly.
Once I left her in the church nursery and when I returned to reclaim her, the nursery director gestured to Annie’s bawling face and told me, point-blank, “Don’t bring her back.”
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The only thing that calmed her was George Gershwin’s “Summertime” sung high and loud. I didn’t care where I had to do it—singing top volume while putting her in the car seat or pushing the shopping cart through the supermarket— as long as it had its soothing effect.
It wasn’t long before I realized one of the verses was really a prayer, a prayer a mother sings to her child: “One of these mornings / You’re gonna rise up singing / Then you’ll spread your wings / And you’ll take to the sky....”
And that’s exactly what happened to Annie and to all of my children. They have spread their wings and taken to the sky, with their music, their lives and their careers.
My prayers have been answered beyond my wildest imaginings. Music has blessed them and they have spread the blessing, in the Annie Moses Band, in every piece we play and every song we sing. May our music bless you.
Read Robin's story, "Soothed by a Mysterious Stranger."
Read an excerpt from Robin's book, The Song of Annie Moses.
Listen as Robin shares how she was inspired by her grandmother, Annie Moses.
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