Monday, November 23, 2009

Edging away from the abyss

So, we had a rough evening service recently. During the singing, I was regretting some of the choices I had made. The next day I had to deal with emails about some of those unfortunate choices. Emails I can take - they at least are not anonymous. And these were from people whom I respect highly. Well, and while it stung be talked truth to, they were not unkind. They might as well have said, in so many words (and only), "you know better." I guess they stung to the degree they implied that I might not in fact know better. There are other issues (other failures) lurking there, and this particular service was the flashpoint.

"Let a righteous person rebuke me, it is oil on my head..." (Psalm something or other) Enough said? Well, only time will tell. In the course of things, the following service had already been planned. That subsequent service was much more singable, and one of my kindly email chastisers at least took the effort to thank me for the later service. This is the kind of relationship where I don't feel I have to say (which I wanted to say) "well, I had this service planned before you excoriated me last week." Can we be real here? Just because people are correct, and kind, doesn't mean it won't hurt.

Anyway, the lessons for me are, were, have been worth reflecting on:
  • The peoples' song has to be the peoples' song. Never get in the way of their voice.
  • Some sources of new songs are valuable, some aren't. If the source isn't valuable, take it off the shelf, out of the file, and out of circulation.
  • If you don't like it, don't lead it; if you don't embrace it, don't offer it; if you don't love it, don't let others' opinions prevail
  • Beloved hymn melodies are beloved for a reason. Honor them, celebrate them, and use them.
  • If you are given the task of leading the peoples' song, then be a leader.

Boy, do I wish I could be confident that I'll not plan a sub-standard song service again. I've been at this too long to even hope that, much less pledge to be flawless. But I hope I'll blunder in keeping with prinicples (including, but limited to those above) and not by trying to please others, much less to take an easier way.

Last night was quite different from either of the previous two services. I can only speak from my perspective - that of the planner, fretter, and leader; and the one standing in the best spot to hear the people sing.

I assume that the central accompanying instrument of our evening song service is the piano. When last night's songs came together in my plan, they seemed to call for a variety of instruments different from our usual. But I assumed piano would be there at the center, as usual. But Saturday came and went with no pianist committed to the service. I had not gone through the list of all potential players ... the songs seemed to call for a particular approach to the piano ... and had not yet heard back from the final one on my list. Sunday morning I had that final "sorry, I can't do it" message. At that time, with the busy day ahead of me, those vague alternative plans in my head had to coalesce. This became exciting.

Exciting, like the time I was driving out of Minneapolis, talking to my visiting sister in my car, and very narrowly avoided rear-ending the car in front of us, at about 60 miles an hour. That kind of exciting.

But the musicians I had recruited for the service were what we now had, and they had been chosen for specific purposes. All we had to do was make the songs work without piano. Our only job was to help the congregation sing as well as they can. (And they sing, very well.)

We had our faithful guitarist, and the two singers who assist each week. It's good to work with a core! We had a harpist, a cellist, and a trombonist who also sings. So, we had a rhythm instrument, a richly harmonic instrument, a firm and musical bass, and a rich tenor instrument alternating with an alto voice - thus providing full 4-part vocals as needed. Each musician was keenly attentive in our brief rehearsal, understood her/his role, and rememered it in the service. There was variety; not just "oh this is different from usual," but variety within the service. Certainly more (and not just different) than on a normal Sunday evening.

And, my did the people sing. We heard not just sound, but words. Clear melody, and parts when they had them. They jumped pretty quickly into a new psalm setting. They sang an old gospel hymn meaningfully, a song which many know but I couldn't tell you when it was last sung in our services. They even soared on a hymn set to Londonderry Air, high E and all.

It would be a mistake to "bottle" this service; to say this was the magical key to Sunday night singing. I'll be very glad to work with the same people again when I can. But I think the key was starting with the songs which seemed right to sing that night, then considering what instruments would best serve the songs (and getting the right players), then preparing them for the task. That takes a lot more work than simply using a standing weekly group (notwithstanding that it helps to start with a core of committed musicians). But how rich for all involved.

I've learned not to take credit for a good night like this. They happen, and I celebrate it. Sure, I lined up the players, I had the vision, and we got it ready for the people. But it happened by each musician doing her/his part, and by the congregation's willingness to be led, to be released in song. We had to provide access and support. I'm afraid sometimes we bring too much to song-leadership. Somehow, this worked. And we had a sweet evening together.

No comments: