Thursday, April 28, 2011

Turn Your Lights Off and Close Your Eyes

Yes. You read right. I want you to turn off your lights and close your eyes while you are listening to the piece of music at the end of this post.

When I was much younger, I discovered that I heard music more fully if I listened to it in the darkness with my eyes closed. I guess, without visual distractions, my ears and my mind are more capable of hearing and seeing the music I'm  listening to if I listen to it in the dark with my eyes closed.

The piece I'm sharing with you here is "God So Loved The World" by John Stainer. It is a classic standard of sacred music. Every choir with a sacred repertoire has sung it. Or should have. It is a gorgeous piece of music, yet so deceptive. At first hearing, it sounds very simple, but that is further from the truth. The harmonies are so close and oh so difficult to master. While I admit that my little church choir hasn't mastered this piece, we do sing it with much success and with great conviction.

When I think of how we rehearse our music without a pianist and that we dare approach difficult music, I am truly amazed. Our choir rehearsals late Saturday afternoons are such a creative challenge and pleasure. We start at 4:00 and are always surprised and disappointed when we look up at the clock to see 6:00 swiftly approaching. During the Easter Sunday service, after hearing this piece, our preacher, Norman Lee, encouraged the congregation to applaud for us and he explained why he was encouraging the applause. He said that most people do not realize the time, effort, challenge, talent and training that is involved in what we do, nor do people realize how difficult it is to produce such music given temperaments and personalities that can be present in such a group, and how rare it is that a group of people can actually get along and enjoy the time and effort they share as we do. I love to go to a fine restaurant and savor well prepared, spectacular ingredients. Saturdays at 4:00 at The United Church of New Marlborough gives me the exact same pleasure.

So, as I said earlier, turn off your lights and close your eyes to listen to this piece. Don't just think "yeah, yeah, whatever". Turn off the lights, close your eyes, and listen to the music and the message. (In case you're wondering, I'm the bass.)

Thank you, Lord.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

The Holy City

There's so much I could say, but I just don't know where to begin. I've contemplated for a while how I don't post the "ugly stuff" in my life - the struggle and frustrations - and when I do include such stuff in my posts, I wrap it up in so much humor instead of just letting the ugly bones lie. 

In church each week, we have a time to tell about our blessings or to ask for prayers - prayers for ourselves or others - and usually I sit there with my hands in my lap, waiting for the next hymn to lead. I guess I should explain. I no longer just sing in the choir of the little church next door, I am now the official interim choir director. Our organist/choir director, who toured in "Annie Get Your Gun" with Mary Martin (which should tell you a lot about her and the church I've become a part of), had a stroke a couple months back, and since then I've been selecting the congregational hymns and choral anthems. Also since, we've added a choir rehearsal on Saturday afternoons apart from our rehearsal just before the Sunday morning service. 

I have a lot of mixed feelings here. I hate that Fran, our organist/choir director is in such poor health. Her husband died a few years back, and she's had some sort of brain surgery subsequent to his death and not been in right health since. I feel some sort of camaraderie with her, she being a stage performer and all, but what with my own family obligations, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to lend her my care as well, the care I'd really like to extend to her. On the other hand, I feel truly honored and blessed to have the opportunity to guide the music of this little country church.

After I graduated from college, I moved back to Kansas City and lived with Mom. As soon as I was back in Kansas City, I was asked to direct the choir of the church in which I grew up. I have said before and will say again, those three years directing that choir were three of the most creative years of my life. I'm no Mozart, no Bernstein or Yascha Heifitz. No Pavarotti or Robert Shaw. But I do acknowledge that the music and theater I have within me are God-given gifts, and as such, I must foster them and express them as best I as can, as hard and as long as I can. And to be able to walk into a house of God and feel, well, as Pastor Norman Lee said to me in front of the congregation a couple of Sundays ago, to be where I am celebrated and not just tolerated, well, I know I am truly blest.
And this brings me to where I am now. Tom and I are struggling financially, which often feels like all there is to life. Life here in the country, living in this 112 year old house, in this tiny country village, is quite a struggle. But would I trade it for the life we had in New York City. Absolutely not. We lived in an apartment building built in 1914. So it had all the character of age that sing to me, but then so does our old crank of a house. And we had some neighbors there in that old building that we will cherish always, but we are, miraculously, surrounded by incredible, loving and generous neighbors here. I've always felt right at home here and instantly welcomed. Before I moved here, I discovered online the little cafe up the road where I knew that I would work. And so I did, and so I probably always will when I need that extra income. I have a great job doing important work in the scheme of life, working as the office manager for a free health care clinic for those who cannot afford health care but really, really need it. But such important efforts are not financially rewarding, like that other vastly important vocation, teaching. But it is fulfilling. And if there weren't a 7 year old in the house, I wouldn't be so worried. But. On the other hand. What a great and important lesson for a 7 year old to learn. Do what sings to your soul and what helps your friend and neighbor. 

And so when the struggle feels too much to bear, I think of all this. And then I speak to friends and neighbors around me, and, oh, the struggles I hear about. Late bills, tax bills, lost jobs, no jobs, hurting families, hurting minds and hearts. I know that I am blest. But. I have a hard time with that. There's that old saying that I am really having a hard time with these days: "There but for the grace of God go I."  At first hearing it sounds good, but then turn it around to those who, what?, don't have the grace of God? and then it just doesn't sound good at all. Pastor Norman Lee says that God doesn't hand us what we aren't capable of handling. And that sounds good at first, too, but then. Well. I'm just not convinced that God is going around handing us all levels of difficulties. I think that those difficulties come as a part of our human existence, and it is how we handle them and how we are still able to love and worship God as our great creator that is important. 

I work to remind myself what I try to teach Mickey. There will always be those that have more than me, that sing greater than me, that act greater than me, and there will always be those that sing less than me and act less than me and have less than me. I have to cherish what I have, and to always, always do the very best I can, no matter what it is I do. 

I am truly blest. I have a family I wake to and put to bed every night, which is what I've always wanted. I have an old house with more character than I deserve, which is what I have always wanted. I have animals traipsing through my yard eating my crocus, like it or not, which is kind of what I want. There is more silence outside my front door than I have ever heard, which is what I wanted but didn't know existed. I witness the most beautiful sunsets every evening through the woods across the street summer, winter, spring and fall. And the stars. Oh, my God. The stars! And I have neighbors that I love and cherish, which is what I want. I have jobs that put money into my bank account regularly, and the physical and mental energy to execute what is asked of me wherever I work, which I pray that I will always have. I have a place to sing, and act and play the violin, which I deeply need and intensely want. Are things tough? You bet, but oh, dear God, am I blest!

Below is a recording of the choir of my church - all four of us - singing an old piece, written by the same composer of "O Holy Night!", Stephen Adams. When I was in college, I learned a violin arrangement of this piece, which was my introduction to it. Years since, I discovered it actually had words and was a song first, and then it became a song that I absolutely had to sing. But the opportunity to sing it eluded me. I introduced it to members of the church choir back home, and after I left, they found the music and sang it. Without me. Years and years passed. Not until I took over the leadership of my present church choir did it come back to me, but the opportunity just didn't seem right. I actually gave the music to our organist but it was just too big a piece for her to handle at this stage in her game. And so, within the last few weeks, I thought, maybe, I could sing the song and the choir could just come in on the chorus. I presented the idea and it was immediately dismissed. They would sing the entire thing with me. Are you sure? But it's long and it isn't easy. We'll do it. And so we did. The performance you'll hear below could be criticized till kingdom come. But don't bother. Because, you see, it's really perfect. It is sung by four people who love what they are doing and who they are doing it for, and there is more love and passion in this performance than you'll pay big bucks for at any of the theaters or great halls around the world.

I listen to it over and over, and I know that I am so very blest.

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