On Being Called
November 1993By Allen Brings
Allen Brings, a pianist and composer, is Professor of Music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College of the City University of New York. He has been a Naumburg Fellow at Princeton and has twice served as Chairman of the Eastern Region of the American Society of University Composers. He is co-author of A New Approach to Keyboard Harmony.
I have a vocation. I've known this for a very long time, ever since I was a child and it was pointed out to me by my teachers at Immaculate Conception grammar school. It seemed so self-evident at the time, as if it didn't need to be pointed out at all. It was said that everyone was called to do something and do it well. Nothing was said then about being someone, not even about doing something well in order to be someone.
It seemed to me at the time of my discovery that whatever I was called to do could be whatever I happened to be doing at the moment, no matter how insignificant it might seem, and that by doing it I was helping to fulfill God's grand design. If this realization therefore accounted for every moment of every day of my life, especially if I remembered, as mostly I did, to offer up these moments when I got up in the morning, it occurred to me that one's vocation was probably closely related to the particular talents that we are all gifted with and that, however obscure or unappreciated, distinguish us from one another.
Musical talent is like an outcropping of a lode of precious metal. Its mere presence draws attention to itself; it is rarely stumbled upon by accident. Mine became evident in a way that has been replayed from time immemorial. The unselfconscious desire both to express and to mimic impels one to repeat what one has heard, often on some available musical instrument. In a single innocent act, the presence of both a recognizing inner ear and a tonal memory is revealed. All that remains is for the talent to be nurtured before it is lost, as it can easily be by the age of nine. If, in response to the perception that there must be a more captivating way to sing or play a melody, the act of mimicking introduces conscious variation, then the talent is rarer still. When combined with the desire to explore the possibilities of the yet-unheard and to know with certainty the outcome of each expedition and, not least, with the need to vent strong emotions, this talent to mimic-but-differently may then, just then, disclose a vocation for composition.
Vocations are seldom, if ever, meted out in the singular. But it does seem that they are assigned priorities. If it appears that we are called regularly to clean up after ourselves, this is not to say that cleaning up takes precedence over seeking after the as-yet-unheard, except perhaps occasionally. Martha should have understood that Mary was right to listen to Jesus when she had the opportunity, but that she was not therefore exempt from responding to the call to help Martha on another occasion. Nor does the response to the call to co-operate in God's creation by inventing the yet-unheard require any justification other than that it is indeed a reply to God's invitation to continue that act of creation begun when all that is seen and unseen began to expand at that primordial moment eons ago. Although few composers invent what they do not wish to be performed and heard, what matters if it is neither? What matters if what is invented is useless as an artifact that can be bought or traded? What is more important is that the talent freely given was not buried but used and, by being used, gave glory to its donor.
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