Singing the blues

The Tatura Guardian - - News - — Brian Spencer, Min­is­ter, Tatura Unit­ing Church

I re­cently at­tended my sis­ter’s 60th birth­day party.

My sis­ter is a writer and while such an oc­cu­pa­tion doesn’t make one very wealthy in Aus­tralia, it means that through the 40 years of her writ­ing novel­las, short sto­ries and po­etry, she has built up an im­pres­sive group of creative friends.

Her party was at­tended by film mak­ers, writ­ers, po­ets, singers, ra­dio pro­duc­ers and artists of many hues.

Through­out the evening there was a range of per­for­mances by this tal­ented group of party go­ers.

As one man got up to sing, he was in­tro­duced as a nov­el­ist and mu­si­cian whose first novel had won the Aus­tralian/Vo­gel Lit­er­ary Award, the Miles Franklin Award and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fic­tion, but who had now cho­sen to con­cen­trate on blues and roots mu­sic.

As a fairly un­tal­ented in­di­vid­ual I am in awe of such creative peo­ple, but I was cu­ri­ous why some­one would walk away from writ­ing when he was clearly good at it and was be­ing ac­claimed for it. His an­swer was in­ter­est­ing. He said that he was a slow writer and the de­mands of con­tin­u­ally hav­ing to come up with some­thing new made song writ­ing a more en­joy­able oc­cu­pa­tion. Songs are shorter than nov­els for a start. When you’ve writ­ten a novel, peo­ple ask when your next one is com­ing.

When you have writ­ten a song, peo­ple want you to sing it again and again.

I’ve of­ten thought about this ten­sion be­tween the spo­ken word and the sung word in the con­text of church ser­vices.

For the most part peo­ple like to sing hymns that they know and don’t like it if there are too many new or un­known hymns.

But it goes fur­ther than just know­ing the tune; many of the favourite hymns have rep­e­ti­tion built into them through a cho­rus.

But in con­trast to what we sing, we have a dif­fer­ent re­ac­tion to what is spo­ken. The ser­mon must be novel.

If some­one was to dare preach the same ser­mon that they had used the week (or year) be­fore, there would be crit­i­cism of it be­ing bor­ing or a feel­ing that some­how we were be­ing cheated be­cause it was not new and unique. The aca­demic lit­er­a­ture on this is di­vided. On the one hand it is ar­gued that nov­elty is es­sen­tial to our evo­lu­tion as a species and helps us learn.

Any­thing that’s new, dif­fer­ent or un­usual doesn’t just catch our eye, it stim­u­lates our brain.

A new phone, a new work­ing en­vi­ron­ment, vis­it­ing a new place, even hear­ing a new ser­mon.

We are drawn to nov­elty. There’s a re­gion in our mid­brain that is es­sen­tially the ma­jor ‘‘nov­elty cen­tre’’ of the brain, which re­sponds to novel stim­uli.

On the other hand rep­e­ti­tion is also seen as a great aid to learn­ing. You have prob­a­bly heard the ex­pres­sion ‘‘prac­tise makes per­fect’’ count­less times, and it’s true that our per­for­mance gets bet­ter when we prac­tise do­ing the same things over and over.

Ap­par­ently, this too comes down to the way cells in our brain com­mu­ni­cate, and the phys­i­cal changes that they un­dergo as we prac­tise the same ac­tion over and over.

The fact is there are two ar­eas of the brain called the hip­pocam­pus and the amyg­dala, both of which play large roles in learn­ing and mem­ory.

The hip­pocam­pus com­pares stim­uli against ex­ist­ing mem­o­ries, while the amyg­dala re­sponds to emo­tional stim­uli and strength­ens as­so­ci­ated long-term mem­o­ries.

Our learn­ing, it seems, is im­proved if we have a com­bi­na­tion of the new mixed up with the old.

So maybe I am stuck with prepar­ing wor­ship ser­vices with fa­mil­iar hymns and a new ser­mon.

In teach­ing his dis­ci­ples how to pray Je­sus said ‘‘Do not use mean­ing­less rep­e­ti­tion’’, but then went on to teach us the Lord’s Prayer, which is some­thing that cer­tainly bears re­peat­ing.

This is the gospel, and it’s good news.

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