Working as a Musician The Iona Community

Margaret McLarty gives an insight into her time as Musician and Programme Support at the Iona Community. 

The Iona Community is a dispersed community, made up of members, associates, friends and staff. The Community’s base is in Glasgow and it is ecumenical, working for peace and social justice, the rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship. The Community began with George MacLeod’s rebuilding of Iona Abbey and now the Community runs two centres on Iona (the Abbey and MacLeod Centre) and one on Mull (Camas). Through the season groups of guests come for a week to share in community life, with a rhythm of daily worship, programme and work with a group of resident and volunteer staff who run the centres. One of the roles in the resident group is ‘Musician and Programme Support’. Between June 2010 and September 2011 that was me. 

When I speak of ‘the Community’, this will be The Iona Community. When I say ‘on Iona’, this will be referring to the Iona Community’s presence on Iona. There is an island community resident on Iona, of which the Iona Community is only a part. 

You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
Their hearts and bones
and they won’t come undone

Paul Simon
‘Hearts and Bones’

Reflecting on my time on Iona as musician for the Iona Community is like trying to describe someone you deeply love. It doesn’t do them justice to simply say, ‘they have brown hair and trained as an acrobat’. Objective facts and quirky anecdotes don’t give anyone a real sense of who they are or what it’s like to be with them.

By the very nature of being ourselves, each musician’s role is unique. While there are core elements to the job, it is individuals’ personalities, gifts and passions, along with those they are in community with, that shape the role. So to speak of the ‘bones’ of the job - the structures, routine, history, responsibilities - without the ‘hearts’ - the people, place, visions and gifts - would only tell you half the story.

summoned by the Son,
they celebrated how God’s call
made work and worship one.

John L. Bell and Graham Maule
‘From Erin’s Shores’

On Iona there is an ethos held that work and worship are one: this idea is that all is sacred, every task in the rhythm of our day an act of prayer. But then, too, that worship is our work, our task is to praise and pray.

As Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians: 12), each member of our community has different gifts and ministries. These spiritual gifts manifest and are reflected in our vocation, and so while some are cooks or housekeepers and others take care of finances, I facilitate music. In the demanding rhythm of community life, each part of the body is important, and each needs to thrive in order for it to function to its full potential. The roles of musician, craft or youth worker can seem idilic (do some arts on a beautiful island!), but because they are really about people and community, they are as full on as any role.

Our team is made up of mostly lay people from different backgrounds, of a wide range of ages and each in a fine balancing act of fulfilling the responsibilities of their particular role, while being part of the communal tasks of the resident group and community life. With new  groups of guests each week and an ever changing volunteer team this is no mean feat!

Fresh as the morning, sure as the sunrise
God always faithful, you do not change

Shirley Erena Murray
Fresh As The Morning

And so to the pattern of our days.

Each day is marked out by meals and worship:
morning worship
(teabreak: scones anyone?)
evening worship

Our morning worship grounds and connects us to the communities on and off the island. (The liturgy used for these services is used by all Community members.) During the day I may have programme sessions with guests, usually some form of singing together, and will prepare for other services. Other daily tasks include managing my volunteer, meetings and other community tasks such as leading pilgrimages around the island or helping with the washing up. Evening worship has a weekly rhythm; different days of the week have a different focus (peace and justice, prayers for healing, a table space etc.).

Worship is prepared and lead by the resident group, with spaces for volunteers and guests to lead. As I mentioned earlier, each member of the staff team has a full schedule and worship can either be a thing that excites and inspires or seems daunting and another thing you have no time or energy for. And that’s one of the places I come in. I am a resource to bounce ideas off, to suggest where, how and what music could be used. I  am constantly expanding my own library of songs and resources as well as doing a bit of experimentation with how they can be played so I can encourage, support and challenge those who are preparing and leading worship.

If our worship is also our task, then it is about more than what you like or is easy or makes you feel good. It’s about more than following traditions or trying out the newest thing. It’s about more than a small set of acceptable emotions or themes we are ‘allowed’ to bring to God. It is all encompassing. As our liturgy should reflect this, so should our music.

So, the role of the team preparing and facilitating worship is to lead people into prayer. We enable the worshipping community to engage with each other and God, to truly bring themselves, and the reality of our world. It is all starting to sound like a very serious business. It is.

So, let’s play.

I’ll sing with every soul,
every language, every race,
which proclaims this world is good
for God has blessed this place.

John L. Bell
‘I Will Sing A Song Of Love’

I’ve got my green wellies on, wrapped up in a favourite hoodie and topped off with my signature turquoise beanie hat. It’s five minutes to nine, I’ve just finished improvising a prelude on piano and am walking down the choir stalls to the crossing where I will teach the gathered congregation a few songs that we’ll be using in worship.

This is the key moment. Some of these folk know you, some you’ve just met and for others this will be the only time they see your face. Are you awkward? Self conscious? Are you worried that you don’t really know the song you’ll be teaching them? Is it all about your ego?

Teaching songs before a service is, to me, one of the most important parts of the musician’s job. By being calm, comfortable, confident in what you are teaching and yourself allows people to engage in what can be an unfamiliar practice. Usually I am playful, welcoming and clear, because for me this is about sharing and relationship. I may only be in relationship with you for 20 minutes, but in that time, as I facilitate the music through which we will pray and praise, there needs to be trust and an openness to each other.

I like to play. People ask musicians, “what do you play?” meaning, “what instruments have you studied and are proficient at?” Rather than playing music, I prefer to think that we play at music.

I have this vivid memory of a particular volunteer during my time. I had renamed Staff Choir “Staff Sing” in an attempt to make it more open to anyone. This volunteer was an American lady with Tourette’s who said she would come along but really wasn’t a singer and didn’t read music, but loved the African and global music we did in worship. She started coming every week and, although she may not have always got the notes, her enthusiasm, love of singing and the way her whole body and face embodied a deep joy and connection with the music made our group into so much more than it could have been without her. She brought life and love and enthusiasm that was contagious and many experienced singers learned more about singing from her than she did from them.

For me it’s about encouraging people to be themselves, to sing in their own voice, to sing through their own body, to really engage with what they are singing, why they are singing that song right now... those are things we should encourage people to think about regarding music in worship. Sometimes, as musicians, we take people places they couldn’t go themselves and sometimes we go to further than we could never go on our own. 

Sing a happy alleluia,
sing it out with heart and style -
we’re the echo of God’s laughter,
we’re the image of God’s smile.

Shirley Erena Murray
‘Sing A Happy Alleluia’

My absolute favourite part of any week is the ‘Big Sing’. It’s a Sunday afternoon, the guests have been here for a night and have just had the big Sunday morning service in the Abbey, which is full of different songs and chants, followed by Sunday Lunch. We could have 20-60 folk coming together with no agenda other than to sing. Some are singers, some aren’t. Some are used to singing parts, others couldn’t tell you tenor from a pound. We start simple; then add parts; sing songs from different parts of the global church; feel what it’s like to sing in other languages; take time to use song for prayer...

There is a moment in that time together, when we are vulnerable enough to learn something new and open enough to give it a bit of welly, when we become the music and the music becomes us. In the creation story we are told that we are made in God’s image and at that point the only thing we know about God is that God creates. Creativity isn’t confined to the arts, but through melody, harmony and rhythm (and with a bit of our hearts mixed in) I can understand Alison Robertson’s beautiful phrase, “love is the touch of intangible joy”.

I’d love to write more thoughts about how and why we use music in worship, but luckily John Bell and Graham Maule of the Wild Goose Resource Group have paved the way. I would particularly recommend “The Singing Thing” and “The Singing Thing Too”  for more thoughts on congregational song.

‘Tell me one last thing,’ said Harry. ‘Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?’
Dumbledore beamed at him... ‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’

J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

When you work on the island for the Iona Community people talk about “The Real World”, with the subtext that what is happening on Iona isn’t reality. With all the ways Iona is described it is hardly surprising that this ‘thin’, ‘liminal’ space, depicted in poetry, paintings and folklore can become a modern day myth. Add to that people coming from all across the world to spend a week in a community that values washing dishes and cleaning toilets as highly as these poetic musings and it can feel a bit different to everyday city life.

I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface in reflecting with you about my time on Iona. Not enough of those funny anecdotes, maybe (like how when I was leaving I would answer queries of my next steps with the fact that I was going to train to become an elephant in the circus). Not much of communal and island life and certainly not enough of the people.

I suppose, though, what I want to leave you with is that as I grappled and grew in the role of musician, so I did with myself. Those hearts and bones won’t come undone and I am only where I am, doing what I am doing today because of all I learned and loved in that role and that community of people. It certainly wasn’t all skipping lambs and rainbows, but I guess that, in itself, is a sign of reality.

Margaret McLarty is based in Glasgow and currently working in Castlemilk Parish Church as a Community Arts Worker and for Fischy Music. She also works in the areas of creative worship, community music and general musical joy. She is an ex-­musician for the Iona Community.