What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Vessel’ for Music?

April 12, 2021 Updated: April 12, 2021

A phrase one hears from time to time among instrumentalists, but especially singers, is their desire to “be a vessel” when performing. As a composer, I have my own version of this sentiment, too, but wondered what it really means. First of all, behind this idea is a certain psychology that goes with performing or creating music, especially in public. Part of that is the same vulnerability that any lecturer or actor feels when walking out in front of a crowd of people to speak words.

It is true that one must gain the confidence to make any kind of public presentation, but I will not go into that here, other than to say that I count among the most valuable components of my own elementary education, back in the dark ages, that I was made to memorize poems like “Hiawatha” and “Jabberwocky” and the “Gettysburg Address” and stand, terrified, in front of the class alone and recite them. We thought it was great, once we had accomplished it.

Once the basic fear of doing anything alone and in front of a crowd has been conquered, the “vessel” question comes in. Just as preachers pray before their sermons that God will use them to say the right things, so musicians often express the hope that somehow they will not be a source unto themselves but a conduit for some greater spiritual force. And when they do “lose themselves” in their performance, which perhaps is to say lose all inhibiting self-consciousness and are “in the zone,” they believe that they are indeed serving as a vessel.

A Vessel Described

The word “vessel” is a decidedly biblical metaphor, especially in the King James translation, with synonyms like “container” used in more modern translations. The former frequently speaks of vessels of sanctification, vessels of honor, vessels of lofty use, vessels of mercy, and so on. Saint Paul was called “a chosen vessel” (Acts 9:15). So let us examine what a biblical vessel, the object of that metaphor, actually was.

A clay vessel in biblical times was a container, usually for transporting either liquid or grain. First, we can observe that before it can, in some spiritual sense, be filled it must be empty. By that, I mean that if the musician is preoccupied with any kind of distraction, like a personal conflict with someone, vanity, or jealousy toward another performer, fear, or insecurity, then the container is already full and has no room for the things you want to pour out upon the audience.

So, one might first need to be “emptied” of all these things and then “filled” with things that will serve the end of a great performance: a clear mind, a spirit of humble gratitude for the opportunity to do it, a sense of inward peace, and even a love for the people who will hear the performance.

Second, we are used to seeing rows of vessels in the store, like flowerpots that came off of an assembly line looking exactly alike. But biblical vessels were individually handmade, with no two exactly alike. So, I have been known to coach a singer or two to “remember that no one else sounds, or is supposed to sound, exactly like you, so please stop comparing yourself to other singers. God wants to use who you are.”

No two ancient vessels were ever alike, anymore than a performer can ever interpret a piece of music exactly as another might. (Courtesy of Michael Kurek)

Third, a vessel is different from a “channel,” because it is filled up, stores its contents for some period of time, and is transported to some location before being poured out. A channel, by contrast, such as a garden hose or a telephone, conveys its contents in real time, without storing or transporting it.

A so-called medium, who claims to “channel” the words of some departed souls and even speaks in their voices, does not contribute anything of his own personality but only conveys theirs. A vessel, however, like a mother carrying a child in the womb for a period of time, is a profound contributor to the nature of the thing being carried. A musical vessel’s contents, the compositions being performed, are fundamentally influenced by that carrier’s personal interpretation.

Finally, when the contents of a vessel are at last dispensed, the vessel itself has no further control over what happens to them. Likewise, when a performer walks out on stage, he or she can have no assurance whether even the most inspired of performances will be appreciated or fall on deaf ears. Therefore, performers must completely let go of what people will think before walking out there, for such concerns will only be a distraction to performing well. Their job is just to perform the best they can and let the chips fall where they may.

In spiritual terms, we could say that once the vessel’s contents are poured out upon the audience, it is God’s job, not the performer’s, to use it or not use it in the hearer’s soul, depending on whether the hearer is open to receive that gift of beauty.

The Matter of ‘Detachment’

Another way of explaining the last point, not worrying over whether people will like what one does, is addressed in different philosophies and traditions, including Buddhism, as a matter of losing attachments, often called simply “detachment.” Saint Francis de Sales discussed this at length in his spiritual classic book, “Introduction to the Devout Life” (1609), appreciated by both Protestants and Roman Catholics.

The essence of detachment is freedom from the tyranny of such things as material possessions, to be sure that they do not possess you instead of the reverse. If a performer’s sense of self-esteem or value as a person is dependent upon how good or bad his last performance was, or upon what a newspaper reviewer wrote about it, his life will be a roller coaster of highs and lows.

For that reason, even when one is a “vessel,” it is important to find one’s self-esteem elsewhere. It is entirely possible to do an excellent job as a performer (and ironically, perhaps an even better job) while maintaining a perspective of healthy detachment from one’s ego.

For more on this topic and others like it, see the author’s 2019 book, “The Sound of Beauty: A Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life,” Ignatius Press.

American composer Michael Kurek is the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com