‘Music making is a spiritual experience’ – Interview with Des Yarde Martin

Music taught me about fresh expressions, says Des Yarde Martin, a first year student on he CMS Pioneer Mission leadership Training course. Helen Harwood talked to him about a love of music, a lifetime of teaching and first steps into pioneering mission in his local community.

HH: Tell me more about the last two years of your life and how you have become more involved in leadership in your church, Des?

DYM: Two years ago, I was a member of the Mill Hill East Church leadership team (having just stepped down as church secretary), a house-group leader and a worship leader. I was also employed part-time by the church as building manager. On several occasions, Peter, the minister, discussed with me the possibility of my taking on a wider role in church services, as I had done as church secretary in the interregnum before he was called to Mill Hill East. As a result of this conversation I started leading services and preaching on an occasional basis. It was this that sparked in me the idea of following some sort of theological training course and … well, here I am!

I know you have a long career in education, specifically in music teaching and as the head of music. Can you tell me a bit about your career in teaching and leadership, about the pressures and the joys and how these might come together in mission in your life?

I taught in three schools during my career, one in Salisbury and two in North London. I have many great memories – lessons that really took off, classwork performances that left pupils cheering, concerts, carol services; the time I chose “God is our strength and refuge” to the tune of the Dambusters march followed by the head teacher welcoming a party of exchange students from Germany! I wasn’t allowed to forget that in a hurry.

Teaching was never easy and much of the time I struggled to meet deadlines, devise schemes of work, plan lessons and mark work. I really appreciated being in a larger department at my last school, instead of being a one-man department; it was good to experience being part of larger creative ventures. Two that stand out for me are a production of Beauty and the Beast and show called Remember based on the testimony of Holocaust survivors, which we took to Poland for three performances, including one at Auschwitz.

There are skills that I have acquired in teaching that will be useful in mission – administration, planning and giving talks, for example; but I think there’s one that will be particularly valuable for me in pioneer mission: the experience of meeting and having to adapt to the many changes that have transformed music teaching over the last 30-odd years. The most memorable of these for me was undoubtedly the introduction of GCSE Music, which required the teaching of composition as a creative process rather than the academic exercises familiar to me from my own school and university career. So I can look at fresh expressions of church and see not the loss of what has been important to me in the past but the potential of something new for today’s generation.

I heard you play the guitar at last year’s Pioneer Christmas party, so I know you are very musical! Can you tell me a bit about how music plays into your spirituality?

I can remember as a child, whenever I saw someone playing a musical instrument I wanted to have a go myself. I’ve had piano lessons but have never properly taken to the instrument, preferring the flute and the guitar which I taught myself. I sang in the church choir as a treble then tenor and while at school, formed a folk group with some friends.

I have been involved in leading worship since the mid-70s, when the use of groups with guitars were still quite new and generally disapproved of by older members of the congregation. I remind myself of this quite often when I find that I am not immediately taking to a new worship song – I’m now an older member of the congregation myself! Music for me is an aid to worship and when I plan a worship set, I try to make it a path along which I travel, leading the congregation with me into God’s presence. In a completely different environment I sing in a choral society which has a mainly religious repertoire (we’re rehearsing Brahms’ German Requiem at the moment). Though the choir is secular, I find that in all the discipline and search for perfection in performance, it is also for me a spiritual experience to be part of the music making and sometimes conversations happen – as when someone asked, “Why do we always sing so much Christian music?”

On the ‘low-brow’ side, British folk music keeps popping up to remind me that it’s there, rooted deep in me – since my folk group involvement – a fairly eclectic mix of traditional, modern, folk-rock, jazz … a part of me that I will explore in my Mission Spirituality portfolio.

How have you developed spiritually in recent years? You must have come a long way from that six year old giving your life to the Lord and yet maybe in recent years you have regained some of that child-like quality that faith can have?

I sometimes think the six year old is not far from the surface of me – certainly my sense of humour can be very childish! My faith was shaped by growing up in a family that worshipped at an Anglican church – my father was a lay reader – and by attending Crusaders (Urban Saints as they now are) and family holidays spent at a Scripture Union beach mission in Cornwall.

The present phase of my life began when I took early retirement from teaching in 2008 and this marked the end of wilderness experience which had lasted for some years. It began during an extremely difficult period at work – a failed Ofsted inspection followed by a period in special measures, during which relationships between the head teacher and teaching staff broke down completely. A move to another school for my last seven years in the classroom began the healing process, and when I left, I was once more willing and able to engage with God and with my church. An important part of the healing was sharing with the church for the first time what I had been going through in the preceding years. What I have been through has shown me how feeble my own efforts are and how frail my human nature without the in-dwelling of the Trinity. More than anything I long for fuller communion with Father, Son and Spirit so that I will be able to live a life that pleases my God. I have a long way to go yet.

How has the Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course helped you in your journey?

Getting to know the other people on the course has been really good. It’s so encouraging to hear about what God is calling them to do – each story is different. What I am learning is equipping me to do better what I am already doing, but as to how it might develop, there are more questions than answers at the moment.

What are the ‘best bits’ of your mission life and how do you see your work developing and continuing into the future?

Leading worship – especially when people stop just singing and start worshipping; the fellowship we enjoy in my home group; helping with the weekly Youth Cafe.

In the Church coffee bar, there has developed a small community of mums whose children go to the school across the road; some of these mums now help with the senior citizens lunch club and run a weekly ‘church’ film night – a hopeful sign of the ‘building community’ that is part of the coffee bar’s purpose.

One direction my mission leadership could take might be to develop outreach based on the coffee bar; two fish and chip quiz evenings and an evening with a Christian illusionist are two successful events I have already organized. Or it might be that I become more involved in one of the church’s other initiatives – or something completely new and different. As I say, there are more questions and fewer answers at the moment.

Can we pray for you, Des? And is there anything else happening that you want to tell us about?

Please pray that for me as I continue with the course and that as I do so, I will find the answers to some of the questions.

Two things for prayer:

  • In July, the church is running a fun day and barbecue on a local housing estate, the latest in series of similar events we have put on in the last three years. A small number of families have connections with the church and our long term aim is to plant a worshipping community on the estate.
  • During the next school year, we plan to run a series of short holiday clubs linked to an all age service as an outreach to families who live close to the church.

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