Saturday, January 01, 2005

Musical Chairs

I’m enjoying my new keyboard immensely. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to play an “organ”. I’ve been making my way through several hymnals, my fingers automatically making the correct moves to play the songs I’ve played hundreds of times in the distant past.

I spent many years serving as a musician for the church. I enjoyed it, but I did feel a certain amount of resentment about being taken for granted. Whenever one of the other musicians felt like missing a service, they knew that I would more than likely be there to substitute. After all, I lived next door to the church and my father was the pastor so there was little chance I would be playing hooky from any service. Mostly I substituted as pianist, but sometimes I served as organist. Eventually I was playing on the first string, so to speak, when the usual pianist decided she was ready to retire from her weekly duties.

The organist was a lady who had taught just about everyone in the community at some point in their school life, including me. Everyone was a little in awe of her. When it came to her duties as organist, she lived by a couple of simple rules. No. 1 was that she wasn’t doing her job if anyone could hear the pianist. The louder I played, the louder she played. In fact, the only time anyone was really aware that I was actually making any noise at all was during the offertory, when she usually took the back seat and allowed the piano to shine.

Her second rule was that she refused to play in any key involving more than 1 sharp. Keys with 2 sharps or more were converted to a key in flats. Having played Beethoven sonatas for many years, I was capable of playing in just about any key, but I played the game by her rules. Two sharps were converted to 5 flats, 3 sharps to 4 flats, 4 sharps to 3 flats. It was automatic and an understood policy with all the musicians who played with her.

One of life’s embarrassing moments came as a result of this little conspiracy amongst the musicians. One day she was absent and we had a substitute at piano while I filled in at the organ. The visiting pianist was not a regular at our church, but she was a daughter of one of our members and had visited and filled in on one instrument or the other many times. It was just luck that one of the chosen songs that day was one written in 4 sharps. I had been making the required conversion to 3 flats for so long that I didn’t even think about it – just began playing the introduction in the customary 3 flats. Our guest pianist dived in, playing in the key as written. Needless to say, the resulting dischord was fairly awesome. And then we had the problem of which of us was going to shift to the other’s key. I have no memory of what happened then, but I do remember hoping that the earth would open up and swallow me.

It wasn’t the last time I would live to regret the day I started music lessons. My services began to be requested for graduation exercises and for weddings. It was expected that if a school program required a pianist, I would be available. I remember once being yanked into a rehearsal, having a piece of music plopped down in front of me, and expected to immediately play it flawlessly. It was a popular song, but I had never heard it and had no idea how it was supposed to sound, so I was feeling my way through the piece cautiously. The teacher in charge listened for a few minutes in irritation and then informed me that he had been told that I was the best musician available. Unspoken, but hanging visibly in the air, was his own opinion that if I was the best, he would hate to see the worst. I was a good child and resisted the temptation to tell him what he could do with the piece of sheet music. I stewed and felt humiliated, but it never occurred to me to walk away from the assignment.

One of my friends scheduled her wedding for shortly after our graduation and I agreed to play the organ. The services were to be held at the local Catholic Church. I had never been inside, but I felt no trepidation. My role was merely to play a little mood music at some point during the service, so I didn’t even need to attend the rehearsal. I was confident that whatever kind of organ they had, I could figure it out with a few minutes study.

I could not have been more wrong. Having no idea how Catholic services were conducted, I just assumed there would be an organ available that was somewhat similar to the ones I had played at the Baptist and Methodist churches. I was dismayed to discover that their “organ” was a small electric keyboard that barely functioned. Every few notes or so, the sound just wasn’t there. I have no idea how I managed to make it through, and I’m sure my reputation as a musician suffered another blow.

You would think I might learn my lesson eventually, but I continued to accept wedding and funeral assignments for quite awhile longer. One wedding stands out in my memory as the one that made me begin to think seriously of retiring my copy of the Wedding March.

The church was a historic building with beautiful stained glass windows and antique pews. It was really a lovely place for a wedding. But the antiquity of the building did have a few drawbacks. One of these was there was no plug in the area of the auditorium where the organ resided. So a long extension cord was run from the organ to the nearest plug, which was located at dead center of the dais, where the pulpit normally stood, hiding the plug. For the wedding the pulpit was moved aside, but since the plug was located on the riser of the step, it didn’t seem to be a big problem.

The wedding began, the soloist performed beautifully and I began the wedding march. My father, who was performing the ceremony, stood below the dais and waited for the bride to approach. Everything was proceeding according to plan, the organ was swelling as the bride entered the aisle and began her approach. My father stepped backward to move up onto the dais and kicked the plug out of the socket. There is nothing to describe the sound of an organ that has suddenly lost power. And the only thing worse would be the sound of an organ that has had its power hastily restored. The death throes of a water buffalo might come close. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do but continue as if nothing had happened, while the wedding guests all tried to keep from laughing. Not my finest performance.

My career as a church musician came to an abrupt halt thanks to the intervention of a new pastor. At the time, I was the only musician in the entire church membership. I had agreed to attend both Sunday services, but Wednesday evening services were just out of the question with my difficult work schedule. Our kindly pastor approached one Sunday evening and asked me if I could reconsider attending on Wednesdays. He was sure that if I were to pray on it, I would be moved to make the right decision in the matter. I mailed in my resignation the next day. God works in mysterious ways.

My days as community musician were long ago and I've never missed the butterflies that always preceded the dive into the wedding processional and I don't regret giving up my regular post on Sundays. But I do sometimes miss playing for the congregational singing. The occasional Sunday night when we had a service where the members requested their favorite hymns for an evening of song were my favorites. Most of the members were much older than I and many requested the old four-part harmony "Stamps-Baxter" songs that had gone out of fashion and that I might never have learned otherwise. The memories live on in my fingers.


No comments: