Amanda Poppei

What is the role of Music in an Ethical Society? What optimally should it be?

By Amanda Poppei, Senior Leader, and Bailey Whiteman, Music Director, of the Washington Ethical Society

Amanda: Music! What is it good for anyway?

We in Ethical Culture sometimes imagine that the most important part of our Sunday gatherings is the platform address…and as a Leader who regularly delivers those addresses, I wish I could agree. But the truth is that it’s the entire experience on Sunday morning that really drives home the message, and music is an integral part of that.

At the Washington Ethical Society, we try to plan our musical offerings each Sunday around the theme of the platform address, so that the music isn’t just an interlude but rather an alternative/additional way of engaging with the theme. Sometimes, after the chorus sings a particularly beautiful piece, I think I might as well just skip my platform and let us listen to that again! We keep in mind that everyone hears words and music differently, and so giving them multiple ways to experience the same idea can be very helpful. And, music sometimes can bring us to different emotional places in a way that just words–no matter how compelling the ideas behind them–simply can’t.

So how do we find music that really does that…music that not only complements the platforms but also expands it?

Bailey: The process of selecting the music is a strange mix of planning, discussion, reflection, and inspiration. Having a monthly theme definitely helps get the creative juices flowing, but even a sentence or two plus few keywords about a talk can be enough to help me begin.

With a sense of the topic, and the tone, I explore my files, search the internet, flip through songbooks, and pull selections to consider. The arc of the platform is always in my mind. Where are we starting? Where might the journey take us? What will people need after the platform address? Comfort? Exhortation? Connection? Challenge?

I then take my ideas to the Leader to see whether we’re on the same page. With music or internet links, we review lyrics, musical style and character, cultural voice, and overall “feel.” We seek to bring in voices from different backgrounds, especially making sure that people of color’s words and music are included authentically, both through music the chorus can present well, and through musicians we hire. Just as Amanda can speak only from her experience, so too can I lead only from mine, and we want to bring in others to share their life experience.

Amanda: And sometimes, the process is entirely opposite! Every once in a while, the music director will bring me a piece she’s been really wanting to try, but hasn’t found the right place to program. If the piece grabs me, too, we’ll look through the months ahead and try to shape a platform service around that music, letting the music lead the way instead of the words. More frequently, I’ll have chosen a general theme or topic, but won’t really know what direction that topic will take yet. In talking through music choices with the music director, I’ll find myself drawn to certain music, certain styles or moods, which in turn helps me to figure out the shape of the talk I want to give. Just as a listener can experience a topic in a new way because of music, so I, as the writer, can experience it in a new way! In that way, the experience of choosing music is a clarifying one.

Bailey: But all this could be purely academic, if we didn’t come back to what matters: the individual and group experience of the platform, and how music plays a part. At WES, we’ve found time and again that the music helps bring folks into community together (opening singing); grounds them (music after meditation/reflection), provides space and time after the platform address, both to “hear” the talk in new ways, and to focus people’s responses (musical response); as a joyous way to welcome our children into platform (collection); and as a way to share our monthly theme (closing “song of the month”). Might platform be meaningful without these many opportunities to sing or listen to music? Of course. Is it richer, deeper, more connected, more inspiring because of the music? Yes. Members and visitors alike tell us every week how much they love the music. We believe that music helps listeners take the words and ideas of platform into themselves, and then to truly embody them in their own lives.

Amanda: I guess what we’re saying is: if there’s no music, we don’t feel the platform is complete. Music doesn’t just enhance platform, it’s an essential part of the experience, and brings dimensions and layers that aren’t accessible through plain old words. We simply can’t imagine Sunday without it.


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