Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Continuity of Essence

[Ed. Note: The following is a blurb that will be published in the weekly (but during the summer, monthly) newsletter of the church where I do my church gigging…]


This past Sunday, Pastor Joel began his sermon with a ‘Car Talk’ story. The story raised the tiny topic of the nature of reality. ‘This is deep stuff,’ Pastor Joel said. Can’t argue with that.

The ‘Car Talk’ guys had told the story of a Volvo owner in 1964 who wrote a letter to Volvo, saying he’d replaced almost every moving part in the drive train, brakes and suspension in the two years he’d owned the car. If Volvo were willing to fund the replacement of the few remaining parts of the car, the writer proposed, ‘we will have evidence to solve one of the enduring philosophical conundrums, known as the problem of Ulysses’ ship: If, in the course of his voyage, Ulysses replaces every board on his ship, is it still the same ship at the end of the voyage? In other words, does identity consist in continuity of essence … or substance?’

The Volvo people had responded politely but discouragingly (no, we’re not replacing the rest of your car for free). The Car Talk guys sided with continuity of essence. Pastor Joel thought the writers of the book of Hebrews would agree with them. The philosophical question being wrestled with here was: what makes something real?

Deep stuff.

At the start of my second year in my college band, our director addressed us returning students, the ‘vets’, before the ‘rookies’ arrived. He asked us to remember the previous season. We smiled and cheered. ‘Crown Imperial’! ‘Malaguena’! Oh yes, and going to President Reagan’s second Inauguration, even if it had been so cold they called off the Parade. Me, I had never been in a band that big, that loud, that good, full of that much sheer joy and fun. I cheered loudly, too. And then our director looked at us – having gotten just the response he wanted – and said, ‘well, gang, that band is gone. We’ll never hear that band again.’

Wha’ what?

Well, the seniors from that band graduated. New freshmen are on the way. This band is not the same as that band. We have no idea whether this band is any good, yet.

We thought hard about that.

His point was: to keep us from resting on our laurels, and to get us ready to work just as hard this year to achieve what we had in the previous year. A valid point, and a good motivator. He was suggesting that the identity of his band consisted in continuity of substance.

Every director of an ongoing musical performance ensemble thinks about that, this time of year. When the personnel changes – or even if it stays constant, but the circumstances of life surrounding it change – work still needs to be done to maintain the output of the group. A church choir occasionally acquires new faces, but happily in SUMC’s case, many familiar faces will be seen in the choir loft from year to year. By contrast, a school ensemble is guaranteed complete turnover of its roster every four years at best.

As Joel told that story on Sunday, I got thinking about the flip side of that coin.

Doesn’t the identity of a church choir consist equally in continuity of essence? We have the same mission, year to year – to glorify God and comfort the congregation by using music. Unless something is shown not to work well, we take the same approach to preparing music for service every year. (And, no doubt, our particular choir maintains an combined air of solid work ethic and targeted silliness.)

For some this continuity of essence might connote staleness. In a lot of important ways, though, it can imply stability. A popular mantra is ‘get out of your comfort zone!’ – but for lots of people in the world and in our congregation, the choir is a comfort zone. On Thursday nights, we know we’re going to make good music and laugh a lot – for many, it’s an oasis in the middle of a stressful work week. If that qualifies as stale, well, hooray for stale.

So you might read this as a long-winded yet cheap ploy to encourage people to join the choir. If you’re already in the choir, you might read this as a long-winded yet cheap reminder that our continuity of substance will begin on Thursday night, August 29 at 7:30pm in the choir room.

Either way … almost time to saddle up! and begin the choir adventure again. We’ve got a pretty good essence to work from. Can’t wait to see what the substance turns out to be. Hope to see you, or meet you!, soon.

Peace and high notes,



August 12, 2013 - Posted by | choir, music, religion, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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