“Why don’t we have a little sing-along?”
For many years, those words filled me with irritation. A lazy evening after dinner trying to decide what to do—watch a movie? Read? Play a board game?—and then would come Mom’s inevitable suggestion of a family jam session. None of us seven children ever met the idea with enthusiasm.
It wasn’t that we weren’t capable. In our household, learning how to play an instrument wasn’t so much an option as a rite of passage, a way of life. It would begin when Dad, a consummate guitarist, would show each of us at a young age how to stretch our little fingers to play a C or G chord. As time went on, some of us branched out to piano or bass. But we did it all out of a sense of obligation. Playing music was a chore, something you slogged through to keep Mom happy. And so were the family sing-alongs.
Despite our lack of enthusiasm, my parents doggedly kept the sing-along tradition alive— whether it was playing on a random Saturday night or on Christmas Eve, when the whole extended family would gather, pull out tattered red songbooks, and go through the litany of Christmas carols. When sing-alongs went well, they’d inevitably end with Dad playing rousing renditions of Beatles classics. When they went badly (which was quite a lot of the time), they dissolved into morose chaos. Dad would step in and try to coach one of us through a difficult segment of sight reading, or attempt to set completely off-key musicians back on track by humming the correct note. Sometimes, one of us would just quit playing mid-piece. Tempers flared, kids slumped in their seats and barely mouthed the words to songs or simply fled the scene altogether. Mom, unperturbed, always asked for more and looked forward to the next sing-along. Wise woman that she was, she saw what we couldn’t back then—the beauty of making something beautiful (if flawed) together, the way each of us improved our playing slowly but surely over the years.
It seemed the more we forgot about playing everything exactly right, the more joyous and exciting the music became. It drew us towards each other and became an expression of love rather than an exercise in duty.Maria Bonvissuto
And it went on this way for a while. But then came one Christmas Eve a year or two ago when all of us—brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents, twenty-somethings, teenagers, and toddlers—squeezed once more into my family’s slightly-too-small but cozy living room for our annual holiday sing-along. And, wrapped in the warmth and music and cheer, I found myself happy to be there; not only happy, but looking forward to doing it again next year. Not only looking forward to it, but getting up and playing and singing wholeheartedly. The feelings of awkwardness and obligation to entertain had disappeared. To my astonishment, my brothers weren’t running away at the first chance they got either. An element of chaos certainly still reigned, but it was chaotic merriment. The joy of making music and basking in each other’s presence suffused the room. Little ones banged drums and cymbals, the older ones took turns improvising on the piano, and everyone joined in for a raucous rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” We’d never sound like a well-oiled symphony, but that would have spoiled the atmosphere anyway. It seemed the more we forgot about playing everything exactly right, the more joyous and exciting the music became. It drew us towards each other and became an expression of love rather than an exercise in duty.
St. Paul tells us “…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Ephesians 5:19). As I ponder those words and the role music has played in my family, I can’t help but think that our ludicrous sing-alongs have helped me understand just a little better how to live in God’s love—how He doesn’t demand lives of absolute perfection with no mistakes, but rather lives of love and perseverance when we mess up the sheet music horribly. Of how He longs for us to play the music of our souls for Him not out of a sense of duty, but rather out of joy, because we simply want to be with Him and make Him happy. Like my Mom sitting there patiently, pleased with even the most imperfect bit of music we had to offer, He watches our struggles great and small and is pleased with the baby steps we make towards Him. Our souls are as chaotic, messy, and imperfect as those early family jam sessions were. And yet, if all we can muster is a simple, hesitating tune plucked out on guitar instead of a masterful piano concerto, He still delights in it. He doesn’t ask us to put on a performance. He only wants us to lose ourselves in the music of His love and beauty.
I’m still not exactly sure how I went from begrudgingly participating in the family music-making to fully embracing it. Maybe it was growing up and leaving home, which makes you re-think everything you once rolled your eyes at as a teenager. Maybe it was seeing our family slowly spread to different corners of the country and yearning for that tight little community we once took for granted. Maybe it was simply because these gatherings—filled with laughter and choruses sung in slightly off-key unison—keep the darkness and uncertainty of life at bay and make me believe that beauty really can save the world.
Whatever it was, I’m grateful my parents guided us gently and persistently to see the true beauty of making music in community. And in moments when we’re all together singing, I seem to hear echoes of a day when we’ll all gather around the Lord’s everlasting table. The odd notes, jarring voices, and imperfect melodies will melt away. And the music our souls will make for Him will be one long, riotously happy yet piercingly beautiful, sing-along of love.