Sunday, June 18, 2006

lesson from a funeral

I am currently in Winkler, Manitoba (the centre of the universe, my husband would say) for a family visit. I flew out to play at my niece's wedding and one of the first things I did was attend a small family funeral service for my uncle who had just passed away.

Now, you should know that I HATE funerals and have not been to one since my father's in 1983. But in Winkler you are expected to attend the funeral of anyone you know, and there was no way I could gracefully bow out of this one. I did want to see my aunt and let her know she was in my prayers and thoughts, so I decided I could probably handle the small family gathering the day before the funeral and then it would be okay to skip the more formal public funeral the next day. I borrowed some funeral clothes (I had not brought anything sombre enough - a black strappy sundress was voted as unacceptable by my family) and let my mother drive me to the funeral home. We visited with some relatives outside for a bit because my mom had insisted on doing the culturally acceptable thing and being way too early, but finally the time came to go inside and view the body and as we opened the door and I smelled that funeral home smell, I took a deep breath, bolstered my internal fortitude, and said a quick prayer for grace.

The evening turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The bittersweet mix of tears and laughter, smiles and sadness, and conservative stoicism and people showing genuine affection (often rare in Mennonite circles) was an atmosphere that touched me quite profoundly. The awkwardness that I have always felt around death seemed to have been lost somewhere along the way as I have walked with Jesus these past 23 years and I suffered from no lingering, haunting images.

Aside from the warmth of family and friends, one "eureka" moment during the evening will remain in my memory for a long time. There was a gospel quintet that sang wondrous songs about the love of God and the joy of heaven, but that wondrousness seemed to be stuck in the words on the page and never reflected on their faces which remained expressionless throughout their musical renditions. In fact, their countenances were somewhat similar to someone straining to swallow a large pill or perhaps a parent disappointed in the report card their child had just brought home. Anyone growing up among the Mennonites is used to this detached form of singing just as the Irish are used to the immobile torsos in Celtic dancing, but now coming in as an outsider, it looked somewhat odd to me. And while I was listening to this quintet, I clearly heard a voice in my head ask me, "Do you believe it?" and I knew it meant...do you believe the music?

I had been rehearsing for several days since I arrived in town for the wedding I was playing at and was having difficulty with focusing and "getting" the music. I thought perhaps I was just tired or getting used to a new piano or perhaps needed more meat in my diet (at least that's what my friend says is the answer to ALL my problems), but I knew this question was a key to the music, the words, the whole shebang we pay lip service to and sing and say and act on. Do I believe it? The answer was, "Yes, of course I do." And again I heard, "Then play like you believe it," and I knew the core of my problems with the music was not a physical or practical one, it was a spiritual one. I had not been playing like I believed the music - I was hesitant and timid and slightly bored with the repetition and even begrudging the duty that had been thrust upon me and afraid to make a mistake and disappoint people.

I changed my attitude and after two more days of rehearsing, I went on to play at the wedding (not perfectly) but with more depth than I think I have played with in a long time. I was able to enjoy the simple beauty of a single note and not feel I had to add embellishments to keep people's interest. I played with more clarity and enjoyed the cadences of old, old hymns like they were a breath of fresh air. I became less aware of the proceedings going on around me (and that can be dangerous at a wedding), but I determined to enjoy the music and play it to its fullest instead of continually checking to see how things were going and if perhaps I should cut it short or stretch it to accommodate the circumstances. At the beginning of the day I had told God that I trusted his timing (the trickiest thing in wedding music) and the only time I did second-guess it and looked to people for my cue instead of God, I made a mistake and started the wrong song (easily fixed, don't worry).

This is a big lesson, this one: trusting God and his timing, and a big part of this is letting it show by playing loudly, fully, confidently, simply, without hesitation and without apology.

I believe it. And most days, I hope you are able to tell just by looking at me or listening to me sing, talk, play, laugh, cry and live.

Friday, June 09, 2006

playing and working

I am rehearsing the music for a wedding I am playing at in 8 days. Playing for weddings is an interesting thing…I do not really find it all that enjoyable, though I get a great deal of satisfaction from doing it well and making someone’s special day everything they want it to be. You have to leave your own personal taste and artistic ego aside, for you usually end up playing pieces you do not like, having to learn some challenging selections that you would rather not put into your repertoire, playing some boring music (surely these people know there are more than 3 chords!!!), and spending hours and hours of your life preparing to play basically background music which most of the people attending will never remember and in fact, during much of your fine performance, will most likely end up talking over it. To be fair, there are usually a few pieces that I truly enjoy and some friends have given me much liberty in song selection, but the thought of being a professional wedding musician –it just holds no appeal for me.

I have spent most of my life as a volunteer church musician, and the occasions on which I have received any remuneration are few and far between. Truly, I do this because I love it, because music gives me joy, but I have also had to develop the attitude of a servant in order to not become a bitter, under-appreciated artist with a chip on my shoulder. One cannot be upset at being overlooked, taken for granted, or thought of as difficult when you balk at a request, for most people have no concept of the amount of effort that goes into rehearsing or the money you have invested in your instrument and training. Just because you make it look easy, people assume it IS easy, and they are quick to ask you to play just a little something for their occasion and usually don’t think twice about what it costs you.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining, and though I would love to be handsomely compensated every time I place my fingers on a keyboard (who wouldn’t?) I realise it is not realistic. The reality is that in most church circles, preachers and teachers are regularly paid for their 30-minute presentations, while the faithful musicians who show up week after week and set up gear and rehearse never see any part of that. I don’t really know the reason for this (the rare exception was one church that my husband used to play at as a guest drummer and they always paid him for his services…it really lent an air of integrity to their leadership). Does the church as a whole undervalue its artists? Do we truly believe that teaching is more vital to the life of the church than worship?

While I was working at an office job at a world-class theatre, one of my colleagues found out that I regularly played without any pay and was appalled at the way the religious establishment was taking advantage of my talents. Hmmm…it was interesting to see it from the point of view of someone who worked in the arts. Artists can be some of the most highly paid people in the world, yet in the world of faith…they are notoriously underpaid or never paid at all, yet absolutely vital to every meeting.

Now before this gets to be a poor artist pity party, which I really did not set out to do, let me say that musicians and artists will always do what they love to do, to get together and create and play and make something out of almost nothing, but when they are exercising their creativity at the request of another party, when repertoires and demands and song lists and time limits and expectations are thrust in their way, perhaps those who are making the demands should offer some compensation in keeping with the quality and quantity of artistic endeavour they are asking to be graced with.

And to all those pianists and organists and singers and songwriters and guitarists and bass players and drummers and dramatists and any other creative artists, and even those under-appreciated soundmen, THANK YOU for your faithful and generous hearts. You are among the most humble and interesting people I have ever known. May the measure of your true value and the realisation of what your gifts and sacrifices are worth come from the Master Creator himself, and never be diminished by any lack of appreciation or ignorance you may encounter in humankind.