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   January 2017

Introducing Faculty Meeting

"Faculty Meeting," the new jazz band with Professors David White (guitar), Margaret Aymer (vocals), Paul Hooker (bass), Phil Helsel (keyboard), Carolyn Helsel (drums), and Laurent Oget, spouse of Professor Aymer, (sax) will play during the dinner hour on Tuesday, January 31, of MidWinters. 

What inspired you to form Faculty Meeting?

Paul Hooker: On Fridays at lunch, David and I would work on jazz standards. We often said that it would be fun to find some other instrumentalists—and then the faculty had the enormous good sense to add Carolyn, Phil, and Margaret to the faculty, providing a drummer, pianist, and a saxophone player (Margaret’s husband, Laurent Oget). The five of us started playing jam sessions in the chapel and it wasn’t long before we found out that Margaret had the voice to sing jazz, and, voila, Faculty Meeting was born.

Why is music important to you?

Carolyn Helsel: Music is a way I stay in touch with the rhythm of life outside of my brain. I am in my head so much of the time that music creates a sort of opening to other ways of being and knowing.

Phil Helsel: Music is first of all breath, also the root for spirit. It is continuity and flow. It is a form of knowledge that precedes speech. We are all sung to as children before we learned to talk, so music taps into a preverbal knowledge that can be powerful emotionally.

Margaret Aymer: There is something transcendent about allowing one’s body, one’s voice, to become an instrument vibrating in harmony to the music that surrounds you. This is even more the case when that voice is used in worship, but, in truth, even singing songs about love and loss can be transcendent if they ring true. Music sung with instrumentalists is a joyful act of community; again, something transcendent takes place when we hit our chords and notes together.

Paul Hooker: Music, like other forms of art, can express things that words either can’t express or express more clumsily. There’s also a kind of give-and-take—especially in jazz—that you simply don’t have when you’re playing solo. I live in a world of words; it’s nice to visit another world as part of a group of players as good as my colleagues in Faculty Meeting. 

How does your vocation inform your avocation? Or vice versa.

Carolyn Helsel: Metaphorically, I think playing the drums reminds me of the importance of a steady rhythm to life. I have done so much at a fast pace and have told myself “this is only for this time, and then things will slow down,” when, in reality, I have set the pace for myself. It takes intentionality to slow down the rhythm of our lives to a more manageable and sustainable pace. That’s why keeping a Sabbath is so important.

Margaret Aymer: Hymns were everywhere in my house and in my world, so I learned to express important truths about faith and life through song. Singing, ringing handbells, and other forms of music making—these complete me to some extent. It is often the case that, when leading worship, the sermon is the last thing to which I attend. I will have done the exegetical work, but until I’ve chosen the hymns and written the prayers (or read the ones selected), the sermon won’t come.

Phil Helsel: Music is an important corollary to pastoral care. I begin and end my classes with singing. I've also been interested for a long time in the links between popular music and theological themes. From a pastoral standpoint, I've studied how musicians respond with creativity to the violence and destruction around them, contributing to the healing of the world.

David White: I am currently writing a book on theological aesthetics. As theologians know, music is a way to express such ineffable things as delight and wonder. Music is an event that puts diverse things together—notes, tones, instruments, personalities—and forms something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Music always seems to point to something beyond the forms it takes. The delight and wonder I experience in music cannot be fully accounted for by the mere putting together of the parts. It seems also to speak of mystery and splendor, of God.

What have you learned about each other / yourself by performing together?

Phil Helsel: Everyone has a balance of safety and risk and music pushes you to these edges. It's good to rehearse enough so that you don't feel you're taking too many risks. Also, knowing songs well helps you take more risks together. We're starting to know each other well enough to be honest about how our ideas shaped up.

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The band performed for Manna in December. Here's a taste of what they had to offer; video by Debbie Head.
Interview, cont.

Paul Hooker: Each of us has his or her own skills and ability. Laurent is a truly gifted jazz sax improvisationalist; he takes a melody and develops it creatively without repeating himself or being boring. Phil has an amazing grasp of musical key; he’s also a fine improvisational player. David is the finest guitarist I know personally, and among the finest I know about. He could easily have played professionally. He’s also quiet, generous, and supportive as a musician. Margaret has an impressive vocal range, and when she cuts loose on a number like “St James Infirmary,” she is really exciting to hear. And Carolyn—although she keeps deflecting the comment—is a solid, reliable drummer: steady tempo, never showy, always there when we need her. I love to watch her face when she plays—she gets lost in the rhythm and seems to enter the music physically. As you can tell, it’s really fun to contribute to this mix.

David White: It is interesting how the various instruments we have chosen represent something about our personalities, our disciplines, and our ways of being. For example, Paul Hooker is an expert on church polity, but also a bass guitarist. Bass guitar fulfills a similar function as polity—it provides a solid structure upon which the other good stuff can happen. Phil Helsel is a pianist, an instrument with the most emotional range; it is no surprise that an expert in pastoral care would gravitate to such an instrument. Margaret's discipline is biblical studies, through which God's word speaks relatively directly; so it makes sense to me that Margaret makes music directly through her voice. Carolyn is a professor of preaching and is our drummer. Just as preaching on the Lord's day punctuates the week and provides the basic rhythm for Christian living, so her drumming punctuates our play. Guitar is a funny instrument—it is often in the background and you don't always notice it. Sometimes it steps up and says something very important and rather indispensable. My discipline is Christian education—a practice that sits in the background of the church's ministry. You may not notice it until it is not there. But when the church is able to speak eloquently about some social issue or about the nature of God, it is precisely because someone educated the church's sensibilities in Christian thought.

Why is jazz a good vehicle for a band of academics?

David White: Jurgen Moltmann suggests that the catechetical question "Why did God create the world?" is a trick question. He says there is no reason. God created as an act of play—expressing God's own inner delight; God wove play into the fabric of creation. Jazz is pure play. It starts with a melody, but quickly departs from it as soloists launch into alternate intervals and tunes, only to return in service to the melody. No jazz musician plays the same song in the same way twice. As academics, our work is similar in some ways. We start with solid things like texts, practices, and social realities, but we step around these things to see them from different angles—from the angle of God, the poor, the church, the outsiders, etc. As the Apostle Paul said, "'all things are allowed' but not all is beneficial" (I Cor. 10:23). Jazz, like Christian practice, is the search for the beneficial. 

Margaret Aymer: For me, the sung pieces we do are good story-telling pieces, and as I do Bible for a living, storytelling is right up my alley. I think doing creative, non-academic work is important for academics because it fuels the imagination.

How does this faculty meeting differ from that other one?

David White: When they both are at their best, they are similar—we join around a common theme and contribute our unique perspectives, hopefully arriving at something like a symphonic truth. One might think that the Presbyterian demand to do all things "decently and in order" would prohibit jazz, but for those who look closely, there is indeed order to jazz and faculty meetings. Both faculty meetings are opportunities to make music.

Paul Hooker: The biggest difference is that the faculty meeting doesn’t include a PhD mathematician and computer scientist; Faculty Meeting does (Laurent). 

Phil Helsel: Time flies!

Carolyn Helsel: I don’t bring sticks to the other one.


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