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Can Worship Leaders and Musicians Resist the Temptation to 'Perform'?
Image: James O'Brien

Listen, Trust, Improv

Deanna Witkowski

Recently, I attended one of the most beautiful music performances I have experienced in years. The concert featured a guitarist and pianist from São Paulo, Brazil, who were performing as a duo for the first time.

The musicians (formidable composers, performers, and improvisers) listened to each other so intently and responded to each other so deeply that the room felt like a house of prayer.

Would the music translate to a Sunday morning worship service? Perhaps not. But what I saw was not an ego-driven, “look at me” performance. I saw openness to the moment, to creating something larger than each person’s individual contribution, and to the people in the room. In turn, the audience responded as enthusiastic and attentive participants. The music became a shared experience.

In our places of worship, we often use the word perform negatively, and we often relegate it to musicians and artists. But if the word liturgy means “the work of the people”—and we are all doing liturgy each week, whether we are Episcopalian or Southern Baptist—aren’t we all working (performing) together to create worship?

As a jazz player, in order to find my own voice, I have studied the great masters—the saints—who came before me. Jazz and other musical styles that encourage improvisation can provide a living, breathing example of church. A jazz combo is a microcosm of community that works to make something larger than its individual parts. Each member has opportunities both to perform a solo and to support other soloists by providing accompaniment. This musical accompaniment—or companionship—is not fixed in advance. It ...

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