One of my favorite college classes was Jazz Appreciation. “Analyze, imitate, innovate,” Dr. Willy Hill taught, is the pattern that all jazz masters follow to find their own improvisation style and voice. When they do, their music becomes conversation with the audience.
That pattern — analyze, imitate, innovate — can apply to gaining mastery in almost anything. Dr. Hill’s phrase comes to mind as I consider questions and comments I hear from the amazing young people whom I serve as a catechist in the Christian faith. They want to know how to make prayer a conversation with Jesus, and get that close connection to him.
I think prayer is like jazz. And conversational prayer is like conversational jazz. Analyze, imitate, innovate.
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We may first learn to pray by simply learning the words, then phrases, then common prayers. “Now I lay me down to sleep …” Likewise, budding musicians first learn notes, then musical phrases, then written pieces. At first, we merely play the notes. Later, we feel the music, analyze it, consider how others have played it, and begin to bring our own personality into our playing.
We naturally imitate. In Christian prayer we imitate the master, as he taught us: “Our father, in heaven, hallowed be your name …” We imitate the prayers of fellow saints and sinners whom we admire.
The jazz pianist imitates Pinetop Perkins and Oscar Peterson; the horn player, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie; the sax player, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane; the percussionist, Gene Krupa; and so on. In a similar way, many of us imitate, using their prayers, great mystics like John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila; great intellects like Aquinas and Augustine; great witnesses like your sweet old Aunt Lilly. Each has his or her own unique voice that we can analyze and imitate to embrace conversation with God.
Even at a very young age, we can begin to “innovate,” finding our own voice and speaking to Jesus as the Lord, savior, brother and friend that he says he is. Over time, we need to experience many cycles of learning, reciting, analyzing and imitating prayer to strengthen and grow that voice, just as jazz musicians do.
If you question this prayer-jazz analogy, I’ll double down: At its best, jazz itself is prayer. Just listen to John Coltrane’s Nunc Dimittis, and all of his marvelous God-soaked Love Supreme album. I’m certainly not the first to make this claim; apparently there’s even a book on the theology of jazz prayer!
In my own experience, my voice first grew in evangelical protestant communities that encouraged open, personal and often impromptu prayer and gave me many examples to imitate. Now in a more liturgical community, my prayer is further enriched by analyzing and imitating the beautiful prayers of our great cloud of witnesses, the Saints.
Together, Christians have a great treasure of prayer to draw from in the tradition of those who have gone before us for two millennia, and that treasure is deeply indebted to the extraordinary wealth of Jewish prayer reaching back much further. The riches of prayer in the world community of those who love God are boundless.
I am no prayer warrior. My own prayer is usually weak and highly distracted. I have to admit that I too struggle to sense that I am conversing with God. So I don’t have answers for anyone who asks how to improve prayer life.
But I do have a suggestion: Keep praying! Analyze, imitate, innovate!
Ken Jarman is a scientist at Pacific Northwest Laboratory and a member of Christ the King Catholic Church in Richland. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.