Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Wrong Words

Last Sunday was the very special "Kirkin' of the Tartans" service at the Presbyterian church that I attend. It's a wonderful time of remembering the heritage of the denomination and of recommitment of family and faith.  There was much pageantry with a procession of tartan banners, all the choirs, and "Highland Cathedral" on the bagpipes.  There were the usual readings and prayers, but somehow so much more regal as I looked out onto a congregation splendidly adorned with bits of tartan; a scarf, a kilt, a vest, a skirt, or a ribbon.  Each family selected their certain pattern to represent their sense of pride and unity.  I wore the "Laurie" family plaid even though I should wear the "Wallace" plaid as it is within my ancestry.  But I love the blue and green of the "Laurie" plaid, so I have adopted it as my own. During one of the hymns of the service, the congregation is invited to come to the front of the church and lay a selected piece of the family plaid on the alter. It is a beautiful symbolic act of rededication to the church and family, of thankfulness of the blessings of the year, and a prayer for guidance, comfort, and peace for the coming times. When the hymn is concluded, there is a beautiful mound of cloth in multiple patterns and colors blended together, a symbol of the congregation together in love.  I am always moved to tears by the sight.

This year, however, I was somewhat distracted by the hymn itself.  The organ began the introduction as a very familiar hymn tune, "Hyfrydol", that I know as the hymn "Hallelujah, What A Saviour" or, a bit lesser known, "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus".  I looked down at my book and realized that the words to today's selection were totally unfamiliar to me.  For a moment, I panicked; how could I get down from the choir loft and sing words I didn't know without falling or tripping?!?  It was momentary and I just didn't try to sing and walk at the same time, resuming the song when I was once again stationary at my choir seat.

This brings me to confess my struggle.  I was brought up in the Baptist church; in attendance every time the doors were open.  I had the hymnal practically memorized by age 13 or 14.  I had no idea that other denominations might sing different words until I was invited to sing at a community Christmas service when I was 18.  A friend of mine was responsible for the music for the service and asked me to come and sing "Birthday of a King".  I didn't realize until I arrived that evening that he expected me to also sing in the choir as they lead the carol singing.  Not a problem, really, until we got to one carol that had slightly different wording than I was used to.  Of course, I wasn't really following the hymnal, and got a sharp elbow from the soprano next me when I loudly proclaimed the wrong attribute to the Baby Jesus. At the time, I wondered, "Is that a misprint?!?"   Needless to say, I paid more attention to my hymnal for the rest of the service.

Since that time, I have attended a number of other churches and have seen there are multiple settings of familiar hymn tunes. It always throws me for a loop. Is it really necessary to completely rewrite lyrics to century old established hymns?  I mean, I have sung "Amazing Grace" so many times, but I am often surprised to open a hymnal only to discover that the version printed has yet another unfamiliar verse.  My husband has attended many Christmas concerts to hear me sing, and is quite adamant that Christmas carols should be sung "straight" (his version of the familiar); no fancy arranging, no additional or new lyrics, no "mash-ups".  Some may say new lyrics to old tunes just make you pay attention and think about what you are singing.  Yeah, ok, I'm thinking, "What was wrong with the old lyrics?"

As I settled back to listen to the sermon on Sunday, I wasn't sure what to expect; the sermon title printed in the bulletin was a bit vague.  The pastor began to talk about God speaking to us through each other, using the words of fellow believers around us to convey His message of love and care.  How not only might we be the voice of God to our neighbor but that we should be listening to the voice of God to us through others.  What is God trying to tell us?  Are we open to hearing God speak, even through unconventional words? 

Ah, a light bulb moment.  Was I being too quick to dismiss the poetry and message of a new lyric because it was unfamiliar?  Was I missing an opportunity for a blessing because I wasn't willing to hear?  God is found when we seek Him, and perhaps I was not seeking by being opinionated and closed minded about hymn lyrics.  It won't come easily; I love to sing the familiar hymns and lean on the memories and messages I have already discovered within them.  They will always be with me and I find comfort in them.  Perhaps I can also learn sing those words that are new to me with an open heart and ear, listening for the voice of God anew to me, giving me a new message discover and heed.  Alleluia.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Know Your Role

Having grown up near the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, Fall has always been the most glorious time of year to me.  The crisp, cool air, the temperate sunlight, and the magnificent colors bursting from the trees radiating over the landscape made me feel uplifted and loved.  When I moved South, Fall didn’t feel quite the same.  Not only is Fall still fairly hot here, it seems that the trees don’t change colors all at once as they do in the North, so there isn’t the absorption of Fall color in one place at one time.  It almost seems that Fall sneaks by me here and I nearly miss seeing any colors at all. 
For the last few years, there has hardly been much of a Fall here in the South due to severe drought conditions.  The trees barely turned, and dropped their leaves almost right away.  Since everything stayed kind of brown all summer anyway, Fall was almost unrecognizable.  However, this year we left drought conditions behind, and had a lovely spring and summer of a good mixture of rain and sun.  The azaleas came on beautifully, lawns greened up, and the trees looked livelier and greener than they had in a long time. 
As I was driving to church on Sunday, I was struck once again by the glorious magnificence of Fall.  The late morning sun was just right, and the trees seemed to be in colorful harmony just for me.  Looking down hill as I came over a knoll, the Fall landscape tapestry laid out in front of me, and I caught my breath at the beauty.  It was spectacular.  I fell in love with Fall all over again.
 Then, as I looked closer, I realized that not all the trees were doing the same thing.  Individually, each one was at a different stage of the throes of the Fall palate.  Some were full-on color; brilliantly flamed in red, orange, maroon, or yellow.  Some were past their brilliance and only the deep browns remained.  Some still retained all of their leaves, fluttering in the easy breeze of the day, while others seemed scrawny, with just a few scraggly leaves clinging to the branches closest to the trunk.  How fascinating that all together they create one of the most treasured sights nature has to offer.
This made me think of choral music and the importance of the rule, ‘Know Your Role’.  Let me explain.  Each singer brings various abilities and talents to the choral table.  Individually, a singer might be the one who solos fabulously, or is that wonderful bass anchor for the gospel quartet, or maybe has the soaring straight tone soprano that floats so simply and so high.  There are so many nuances and tambours and styles and sounds, that, on their own, are part of what makes us unique. Just think of how quickly an infant learns to recognize his own mother's voice.  Most of us find comfort in talking to family and loved ones, finding what we need in the sounds of their voices.  But how does what the individual voice has contribute to the choral sound?  There can be no divas; an individual voice may resonate so pleasingly on it's own, but must find its perfect niche within the choral voice.   It is the contribution to the group that becomes the more important task here.  It is knowing when the contribution of one's specific talents and gifts are the leading role, and when they are the support of the talents and gifts of the surrounding voices. It is the giving and the giving up of ourselves for the good of the chorus that creates yet another gloriously unique voice; the choral one we raise together. 
There is rain in the weather forecast for the next few days.  I suppose after the rain has stopped, most of the trees will have dropped their leaves and the grays and browns of Winter will quietly wander in.  I must remember that Winter brings it's own unique sights to the landscapes and can be quite wonderful in it's own way if I am willing to see it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Music Is Memory

So, here I go, throwing my thoughts out into space, wondering if anyone will hear.  It's strange, but exciting.  I've been thinking about my life in music, where I've been and where I'm going, and how did I get here from there?  Could what I know and have experienced in music be helpful to someone else?

I've been a singer nearly all my life.  I say 'singer', not 'musician' because although I am both, I like the identity of 'singer' best. I have sung in multiple church choirs and choruses, been a soloist and worship leader, and sung at more weddings and funerals that I can count.  My musical life took a big turn this year, which is probably why I was prompted to start writing about it.  Suffice it to say, I've done a lot of singing. 

I started singing with my Mom playing the piano for me.  She put me in the children's choir at church, and gave me every opportunity to sing in public.  I remember standing on an apple box in front of a microphone to sing "Jesus Loves Me" on a Sunday morning for the 'big church' people.  I was 5.  Mom had already figured out that I wasn't just a cute little kid with no stage fright, I actually had a voice, and I needed to be using it every time I could .  I sang in every choir available through grade school and high school, and sang the 'special music' for any church service I was asked.  I joined the adult church choir when I was about 12, and stayed with it until I went off to college. 

My memories of my young spiritual life are all connected to music. I have a friend that could tell you, in great detail,  all of the science specifics of the effects of music on the brain; all I know is, music enhances memory.  Who doesn't know what song was playing during those milestone events in our lives?  First kiss?  First time you drove the car alone?  First break-up?  Yeah, we all have memories that include music.  I have all of those, and I have spiritual music memories, too.  Like the first grown-up hymn I ever learned by heart, singing with my family around my Grandmother's piano, and being moved to tears by a song I had to sing.  These are stories I want to tell later, but for now, I remember my life as music.  And I can't imagine it any other way.