Variety, Godliness and a Theology of Difference
I spent hours upon hours in practices rooms as a graduate student, singing the same exercises and colouratura phrases over and over and over again in the hopes that, come competition time, my mind could focus on expression and vocal technique rather than basic and mundane things like notes and rhythms. And then after the notes and rhythms had been practiced ad nauseum, then came the focus on technique. I think I practiced those high As more than just about any other note (thank heavens for being a mezzo, right? At least they weren’t high Cs). But dang it, I was going to make sure they were perfect and practice (and practice, practice, practice and more practice) makes perfect. 100 times, I was told. Sing it correctly 100 times and then you’ll never get it wrong. If you do get it wrong one time, start over. It’s the stuff inspirational movies. The mundane pays off, the protagonist succeeds, the hard work was worth it. Only, unlike the movies, those 100 drills take 10 hours rather than 20 seconds. And it was painfully boring.
Imagine my surprise when I read this post shortly after graduating the flew in the face of all of that 100 times conventional wisdom. Rather than practicing the same passage 100 times *exactly as I am supposed to perform it,* I could have saved myself a lot of practice hours and learned my music quicker and more effectively by utilizing change–change in tempo, change in dynamics, change in technique. You name it.
The key is variation. Our brains are wired to recognize differences and change in patterns and we are far more likely to remember those variations in the future than we are the regular and mundane. In studies where musicians were asked to participate in random practice sessions which required the musician to practice sections out of order, thereby restarting and reconstructing with every section, there was more brain activity. More brain activity = long-term learning, adaptability, and the likelihood that you won’t be starting back at square one in the practice room tomorrow. This also means there’s more time for reruns of Gilmore Girls. Everyone wins.
I find my experiences with God and spirituality are a lot like those practice sessions. I grew up with the belief that we heard the same lessons over and over and over again because we, as a religious people, had not fully or properly internalized the lessons God would have know. We still were not obedient enough. And so, Sundays looked the same week after week. “Maybe someday,” we thought, “we will be righteous enough to have more scripture, more revelation, more ___________.” “If only we could do all of these things over here right all the time, maybe we could have more.”
More than week-after-week sameness. More than homogeneity. More than the mundane. More meant that we were righteous enough to get it, and righteousness meant more of God’s glory.
But what if it wasn’t about doing the same thing week-after-week until we got it right? What if this was actually holding us back from a deeper, more meaningful and memorable experience with the Divine?
I burst into tears in the middle of a production of The Lion King. Nala was in the middle of singing a soulful and forlorn song about going off into the unknown when Rafiki entered and performed a blessing ritual. Unlike the Disney film, in the musical, Rafiki is played by a woman. The sight of a woman acting as the spiritual guide for the community ignited my deep-seated ache for female-led ritual in my own faith tradition.
As I mulled over that moment in my mind, I wondered if I would have the same reaction in a post-patriarchy world (dreaming that such a thing might actually exist someday). Was there something inherent in the act of woman-led, woman-centered ritual? Or was it simply because it was so different from the male-centric religious practice that had dominated my life?