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Be Still and Listen: What Playing in an Orchestra Taught Me About Prayer

Updated: Mar 9

After taking some extended time off from playing flute professionally in an effort to help old tendonitis injuries heal, I'm playing a gig with a local orchestra this month. The program is lovely: Felix Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, and Camille Saint-Saen's Piano Concerto in G Minor – all truly a delight for the ears. My part is only on the Mendelssohn (yay piccolo!) but it’s been such a wonderful experience so far, and I’m so glad to be playing again.

In recent days, the Mass readings have been following the prophet Samuel; and on the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, we read about the encounter that Samuel has with the Lord as a child, in which the priest Eli encourages Samuel to respond to the Lord with the words, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD

where the ark of God was.

The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, "Here I am."

Samuel ran to Eli and said, "Here I am. You called me."

"I did not call you, " Eli said. "Go back to sleep."

So he went back to sleep.

Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli.

"Here I am, " he said. "You called me."

But Eli answered, "I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep."

At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD,

because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet.

The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time.

Getting up and going to Eli, he said, "Here I am. You called me."

Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth.

So he said to Samuel, "Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply,

Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening."

When Samuel went to sleep in his place,

the LORD came and revealed his presence,

calling out as before, "Samuel, Samuel!"

Samuel answered, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him,

not permitting any word of his to be without effect.

A few days later, the timeliness of this reading hit me. I was preparing for the first rehearsal, which included some recollection of how an orchestra rehearsal typically runs, as it'd been over a year and a half. I took to my memory and imagined myself being in the middle of a rehearsal. As I went deeper into my memory-imagination, recalling what it's like to be immersed in a sea of music, I suddenly remembered an incredibly important part of being in a rehearsal with other musicians: listening.

In an ensemble of any kind – be it an orchestra, chorus, chamber group, or even an indie band – if we don't listen to the other musicians around us, our own part can do one of a few different things. At best, we can get through the music generally with the other musicians we're playing with, but not at the best level we could if we took the time to listen. It can grate against the other parts, both in small, detailed ways and in larger scale incidents, if we're operating on our own sense of time and pitch. Or worse yet, it can be completely out of time and make very little sense, both to ourselves and to the people we're making music with. Aside from having the ability to execute rhythms and perform the right notes at the right time, having a well-trained listening ear is the most important skill a musician can develop.

When I recalled the importance of listening, I immediately thought of Sunday's first reading: "Speak, for your servant is listening."

A woman reading the Bible. A stack of books is on a table next to her.

So often, we can easily get immersed in focusing on what we think is best for our lives, best for the people around us, or best for the church (both on local and institutional levels). However, the best thing that we can do is to take our ideas to the Lord in prayer, and then to listen. What does God think of our ideas? What answer does He desire to provide us with? Does He have a better idea? Or even this: has He already given us a better idea and we aren't seeing it? It could because we're afraid to see it, or we don't want to see it; or because we're so immersed in our own ideas that we simply don't have the space to see what He's put forth.

If listening in prayer is not a skill we've invested in the time to develop, we might not know what God's voice sounds like. This is similar to when we're just starting out as ensemble players: a violinist sitting at the back of the violin section needs a little time to develop an ear for the cellos on the other side of the ensemble, and a trumpet player needs to learn how to listen for the flute section. However, the more intentionally we put the time and effort into learning how to listen, the more we will learn what God's voice sounds like (and the cellists, and the flutists).

In only three and a half weeks, we will begin the liturgical season of Lent. If you've never learned how to listen for God's voice, Lent is a wonderful time to be intentional about learning to listen to our Creator. Set aside a little time each day to put your phone and any other distractions away, and spend this time both actively praying and in listening. First, bring the intentions of your heart to the Lord, and then sit in silence. Pay attention to the movements of your heart. The first book of Kings, chapter 19, verses 11-13 reminds us that the voice of God is often heard as a "still, small voice":

And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Eli′jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Eli′jah?”

Lastly, I cannot understate the importance of spending time in front of the Eucharist, especially within the context of Eucharistic Adoration. We have a God Who is with us always, and praise be to Him for that. But when we have the opportunity to do so, what better place is there to spend time with God than in front of the Eucharist, in which He is physically present? St. Alphonsus Liguori, a Doctor of the Church and talented musician in his own right, once wrote, "Realize that you may gain more in a quarter of an hour of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament than in all other practices of the day." There is so much fruit to be born in learning to listen to God in the presence of the Eucharist.

Learning to listen to God is an incredibly important aspect of the Christian life. May God give us all the grace to learn what His voice sounds like, and how He speaks to each of our unique, individual hearts.


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