[Note: This post first appeared in its original form on April 22, 2007 on Steve’s blog, Theological Musings]

As most of you know, I’m a musician. And in the past, my “day job” during the school year was with Appalachian State University‘s School of Music. I was an accompanist there, mostly working with vocal students, but also occasionally with some instrumentalists.

In the spring of 2007, I had the opportunity to participate in two concerts of chamber music. For those of you unfamiliar with classical music, the term “chamber music” usually refers to groups larger than two and up to about a dozen.

The two performances I was a part of were a piano trio (piano, violin, cello) and a piano quintet (piano, 2 violins, viola, and cello). Chamber music is rather different from most of the work I did at the University because it’s not “accompanying”. In chamber music, every instrument is equally important, and at any given point in time, any one of the instruments could be predominant in terms of playing the melody, etc.

This was the first time that I ever had the experience of working in this type of setting with chamber music, and I found it exhilarating! But it also made me think in terms of metaphor.

In July, 2005, I wrote a post on Theological Musings called “Symphony or Cacophony” where I drew the parallel between a symphony orchestra becoming unified under one conductor and the Body of Christ being unified under our Conductor, Jesus Himself. And I believe that metaphor still stands.

But there is another facet of the body of Christ that I saw in my chamber music experiences. Specifically, I want to draw on examples from the quintet performance. (For those interested in these things, we performed Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81.)

In a chamber music setting, there is no conductor. Rather, each player is responsible for being unified with the rest of the group. This plays out in various ways.

There are several ways in which the group coordinates with itself. One of these is the method we affectionately refer to as “The Sniff”.

It works like this: If the first violinist is responsible for starting a particular piece, he will make sure everyone is ready, and then he will sniff loud enough for the rest of the ensemble (and, depending on the hall, the audience as well!) to hear. This sharp inhalation functions in precisely the same way as a conductor’s “prep beat”. In other words, this is the one beat prior to the start of the music which instantly communicates when the piece is to begin, and likewise the tempo with which the piece will be played.

I will use “The Sniff” as my first example of how this played out in our performance. In the first movement of the Dvořák, the piano starts by itself and the cello comes in with a gorgeous solo in the third bar. For this reason, there was no need for a sniff from anyone. I merely made sure everyone was ready, especially the cellist, and I began playing.

The same was true of the second movement. However, the third movement started with the four string players minus the piano. In this instance, it was necessary for the first violinist to give “The Sniff”. And the quartet came in based on that cue.

The fourth movement started with all five of us. The difference was, however, that the piano hit the first note, and the four string players had to instantly respond on the second half of that first beat. In this case, because it was the piano that began, it was I who was responsible for “The Sniff”.

I illustrate all of this to demonstrate how I believe leadership can, and should, play out in the body of Christ. There are times when one or another person needs to “take the lead” on something. However, this is done in coordination with the rest of the body (in my metaphor, making sure the others are “ready” to move). And this leadership is sometimes just a gentle lead in the right direction.

Once the violinist or I gave that indication to the rest of the group that we were about to start, we then immediately resumed our position as “one of the gang”. I didn’t maintain “leadership” through the entire fourth movement. In fact, only about eight measures or so into the fourth movement, it was necessary for the first violinist to once again take the lead.

Another form of leadership that happens in chamber music such as this relates to subtle moments of leadership within a phrase of music. There are moments where the tempo is “pushed” or “stretched” in response to the musical ideas. Sometimes this is planned out in rehearsal, but other times, it “just happens” in performance.

One such example was in the second movement. This movement features the viola throughout most of the movement in a slow and passionate melody in the very dark key of f# minor. After a brief introduction by the piano, the viola takes over, and the rest of the quintet pretty much follows the violist’s lead.

There was one particular unrehearsed moment in our performance, however, where I saw not only organic leadership, but a shared leadership between me and the violist. I’ll try to explain it to make my point.

At a particular point in one phrase, I felt the urge to “stretch” a particular beat. Because the violist was technically in the lead at that point, I had to make sure not to step on her toes. I glanced over at her to see what she was going to do. She happened to glance my way at the same time, and so we were able to watch each other and feel the stretch of the beat together. The rest of the quintet followed perfectly.

The moment was very small. And the glance was very short, but just enough for us to incorporate the musical expression in conjunction with each other, and in so doing, lead the rest of the quintet together for that moment.

I call all of this “organic leadership”. The idea that leadership is fluid within the group, and that it sometimes moves from one to another as the need requires. There was not one set leader in the group, and when we were finished, it was a corporate bow by all five of us with none recognized more highly than the rest.

And what happens when that leadership doesn’t quite work? At another point in the second movement, the first violinist accidentally took the lead a measure earlier than he was supposed to. Instantly, the rest of the group figured out what had happened, and adjusted their playing to once again bring the entire quintet into unity. It happened so fast and without any of us actually having to say or do anything other than adjust our playing (skipping a few notes) to “catch up”.

The first violinist was not demoted as a result, nor was he forbidden from taking the lead in the other areas he was supposed to. Instead, the group organically worked to “cover” the fault, and together we continued in unity.

I think these are all ways in which the body of Christ can work together as one body. And I hope that, even for my readers who are not musical, the metaphor has been explained well enough to make the point. Your thoughts in response?

Until next time,

steve 🙂