Monday, 22 December 2014

The musical breaking point

I love music.  I love hearing it, making it, being a part of it. Christmastime is a particularly busy time for me as a musician.  There are always recitals and concerts and cantatas and programs to write, lead, play, and participate in.  For as long as I can remember I have been asked to share my musical abilities at this time of year.

This past Sunday was no different.  Our Sunday church Christmas program was coming together a little last minute, and I was asked if I would contribute in a few ways.  I had two choir songs for which I was the pianist, and then I offered to play the violin in a piano/violin/vocal number.  This is actually a scaled back involvement for me, as I'm usually writing and coordinating, as well as playing.  But we have an unusual amount of extraordinary musical talent in our congregation, which not only eases the load but also creates beautiful opportunities to work with other musicians.

8:45 am, Sunday morning, I got a phone call.  Our organist was ill and wouldn't be able to play.  Would I mind?  No, I offered, of course not.  The Christmas hymns are familiar enough I can jump in.  Oh, and there is also a group number, a song the young women (ages 12-18) are singing, and would I accompany them also?  I tensed a little; I had not heard the song and had no idea what I was getting myself into.  But I know how often these girls practice, and to not sing would be heartbreaking.  I agreed, with more than a little trepidation.  I had choir practice at 9am, but if we ended at 9:45 and I excused myself from the prelude choir, I could run through the song once because tuning up the violin and getting all my music in order...

Then choir ran long.  Right smack up to 10am when the service was ready to start.  And since I was now on the organ for the congregation hymns, I couldn't slip out during the announcements and church business to get ready.  I scanned the music, played a couple passages and prayed I had the right feel and tempo of the piece.  Then I apologized to the Bishop as I slipped out to get my instruments and music, promising to return soon and hoping that would ease the panic look in his eyes.

Go time.

I usually find my groove in these kinds of presentations, moving between songs, taking a moment to reorient myself to the next performance and then jumping in.  But I have discovered that I have a limit, and 7 out of 9 numbers was it.  Every time I sat down in front of a piece of music, I felt my head spinning, unsure of the key, the time, the notes.  My finger memory failed.  The organ sound was getting lost in the crowd, I was standing holding my violin and still thinking about the piano.

The young women ascended to the choir seats.  My sight reading number.  I started in, maybe a little fast, but the girls' voices blended in nicely.  Not bad.  Thank goodness sight reading is my forte, and very few people would notice my lack of technical precision.

A congregation song was announced, which would start with the first verse on flute.  I sat at the organ, my friend at the piano, the flutist behind me.  Am I playing?  The piano?  For a few drawn out seconds I realized we had never talked about how this piece would go.  I was filling in for the organist and had no idea what the plan had been.  It seemed the flutist nodded to me, so I started.  She started.  Then after a line the pianist came in.  And there we were, on the stand, in front of 200 people, music improvisation.  I've heard it was beautiful, but in my muddled frame of mind it was slightly terrifying.

In the end, people seemed to love it, but as a musician I was frazzled.  I have never considered that there is a limit to the number of pieces I can perform; I've never hit it before.  But Sunday, I finally did. It was an interesting and unique musical experience.  If faced with it again, of course I would jump in to help a friend in need.  But at least I will be aware of my own limitations and try to take an extra minute here and there in the program to reorient myself more fully.  A little performance fermata.

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