Prayer: a musical analogy


If you have ever heard an orchestra warming up, you may have noticed that the first sound to cut the silence is a sustained note played by a lone woodwind instrument. The tone calls out above the rest of the ensemble, hanging in solitude for a moment. Then, winds and strings rise to match the pitch, billowing outward and blossoming into a colourful unison. Traditionally, the first note, the tuning note, is played by the group’s oboist. It just so happened that I was my high school band’s oboist. I had to play the tuning note before every practice and performance, and that meant that if my pitch was off the whole band might be out of tune! Thus, I spent a great deal of time learning to play in tune.

Music teachers and band directors, in their long years of musical experience, are tuning masters. Often, they can tune by ear, identifying a note as sharp or flat by their cultivated sense of hearing. Students, who are only beginning to develop that sense, have to rely on the help of electronic tuners or directions given by their teachers to reach the perfectly centered pitch and memorize how that pitch sounds and feels. Sometimes I think of prayer as spiritual tuning. Like a perfectly tuned note, the example of Jesus Christ has rung out before all Christians as the beautiful tone of holiness we aim to reach and sustain throughout our lives. Just as listening closely to the tuning note and practicing with a tuner to continually check the accuracy of a pitch help a musician develop a habit of playing in tune, a Christian can grow in holiness by listening to the Word of God and spending time practicing prayer to recognize and imitate His example.

We can instinctively recognize that jarring noise like the rumble of a mob or the tension of notes out of tune is not music. Poor tuning and external noise can easily drown out the sound of music. Likewise, the noise of our lives and our own faults often overwhelm us and leave us unable to heed the perfect example of holiness in Christ. Before any musician can play on a bustling street corner or before a crowd of people, he or she needs to spend time in silence learning to listen to good tuning and play in tune without distractions. Christians also need to spend time in silence listening to and learning to imitate God’s perfection.

The cacophony of college life can be a major threat to our spiritual tuning. Silence is seldom found on a typical campus. If we want to sing or play God’s praises in our lives as students, we need to be confident that we know how He wants our melody to sound. That means we need to practice prayer! The first step in learning to play in tune is just sitting down with your instrument and something or someone who can help your recognize proper tuning. The first step in learning to live in holiness is to sit down with the One who shows us how to be holy, listening to Him and heeding His gentle, Fatherly correction.

Here are some tips for working on the spiritual tuning of your prayer life:


  • “Go into your room and shut the door” (Mt. 6:6): Musicians don’t just practice with their ensemble; they practice alone beforehand to learn their part so they can play in harmony and keep time with the rest of the group. Praying during Mass or with friends is great, without a doubt, but we need to learn to pray, to speak with God one-to-one, in order to make our communal prayer even more meaningful and keep our attention fixed on God.
  • Warm-up first: Instruments can’t be tuned accurately until they are warmed up a bit by playing scales and beginner’s exercises. Often, praying a simple prayer from memory like an “Our Father” or “Hail Mary” is the best way to start a period of prayer, and spending time meditating on those basic prayers can help us learn how to address our mental prayer to God.
  • Breathe: We may associate prayer methods involving breathing with non-Christian traditions, but consciousness of breathing is actually very important to the Catholic tradition of contemplative prayer. The Holy Spirit breathed life into the world in creation and breathed life into the Church at Pentecost, and the word “Spirit” even comes from the Latin word for breath! When praying, listen to your breath and be grateful for the gifts of life and the spirit.
  • Listen, try changing something, listen again, adjust again: When trying to match a tuning note, a musician will listen to the pitch and then try to hit it. If the pitch doesn’t match, the musician then pauses, tries to adjust something which she knows could help the pitch move closer to the tuning note, and she tries to match the tuning note again. This cycle continues until the pitch is matched. Yes, it can take a very long time! When we strive after holiness, we first have to listen to God in His scriptures, the teaching of the Church, and the good advice of people of faith. Then, we can try to match the example we hear. We will almost definitely be off target a lot of the time. None of us is perfect! When we make changes to our spiritual lives (adopting new kinds of prayer, reading spiritual books, or changing the way we think or act) we have to keep checking in with the Scripture, teachings, and righteous advice to make sure that our changes are always moving us closer to Him rather than further away.

  • Perfect practice makes perfect: We do not know how to pray as we ought, that is why we have been given the Holy Spirit (Rm. 8:26). When we pray, we call on the Spirit to help us pray better. It is important to make sure that we are praying to the best of our ability and with regularity. A good musician practices a little every day and slowly increases that time as he or she becomes more confident. Good prayer habits begin small. To start practicing prayer, it is far better to set a goal of praying for five minutes a day every day and sticking to that schedule than it is to try to spend an hour in silent prayer and say a rosary each day and give up after day two. The mustard seed of faithful periods of short prayer will quickly grow! God loves faithful consistency, even in the smallest of prayerful acts.
  • Don’t give up: Every analogy breaks down eventually. In truth, it is much easier to match a tuning note and make a habit of playing in tune than it is to live in perfect holiness. We spend our whole lives trying to become people who are honestly imitating Christ. Praying consistently will keep us on the track of improvement. When we make the choice to spend time in prayer, we invite God to take on the project of our holiness from there. He is always the Teacher directing us to center our lives in Him. With His guidance, our practice of prayer will keep our spiritual lives in tune, producing melody for Him and for all the world to enjoy.

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