And they poured out their joy in song

She looked a little dowdy in her white Salvation Army shirt and blue skirt. Her guitar was too loud as she strummed it in plain down-strokes, but oh the joy in her face as she closed her eyes, smiled, and sang of her love for God in a clear, high voice that could have been an angel’s. Her name was Corrin. Her husband Nathan, a fuzzy-faced man also in Salvation Army garb, sang along behind me. The Holy Spirit was there, I swear.

Corrin was one of several acts at the Christian music festival and potluck held Saturday at First Presbyterian in Newport as a benefit for Inter-Christian Outreach. I was the opening act because I had to scoot to Sacred Heart to play piano for the 5:00 Mass. Like Corrine, I played alone. Getting our choir together for Mass is challenge enough; with their busy schedules, an extra performance requiring extra practices was not going to happen.

I played guitar and sang “Pescador de Hombres (Lord You have Come)” and “Alleluia! Give the Glory.” My voice was better at the dress rehearsal. My throat felt dry after the long wait for the show to begin. But it was all right. Used to singing from the corner or at the piano, I stood up on that polished wood altar in front of the fancy organ, the grand piano, and all kinds of sound equipment facing an audience of mostly Protestants and represented the Catholics. The words to the refrains for my songs appeared on giant screens behind me, and people sang along. We didn’t have as much of a crowd as I had hoped. The other performers made up most of the audience, but we all sang and shared the joy.

I introduced the next act, the group from Newport Christian Church, some of whom I knew from the monthly South Beach open mic. They had fiddle, bass, and guitar. Two women sang harmony in the middle. A tall barefoot woman sat on a box drum and kept the beat. None of them dressed up, but they led with a prayer and finished their songs with heartfelt amens. They were good. Tight. In tune. Filled with grace.

Even better was the group from First Baptist. Such harmony! They had several guitars, a young man on a box drum and another man on the piano. They sang without sheet music, one of the altos often raising her hand toward heaven. I didn’t know the songs, but I found myself singing along anyway.

Then came Corrin, followed by First Baptist’s Hispanic group, all dressed up in red and black, including a little girl who played a massive white tambourine. They had guitar and piano, too, with one man and five women singing. Their sound was a little shrill, but they too seemed to be filled with joy, the older woman closing her eyes as she sang.

As I left to play at my own church, four girls in flowy white costumes did a liturgical dance. I knew a collection and a sing-along would follow. Then folks would adjourn to the hall where plates of cookies, vegetables and fruit awaited.

It was warm at First Pres. I was sweating under Mom’s teal sweater and shaking a little as I snuck out with my ratty duct-taped guitar case, breathed in the cool air, and drove to Sacred Heart. As I put up the song numbers, Father Palmer sat in the back room hearing confessions. Gregorian chant played through the speakers.

Catholics are different. They are not comfortable showing their faith or talking about it outside of church. We don’t know the same songs the Protestants share. We do chants and our “services” are the same every time. We don’t do Christian rock songs that go on for 10 minutes. They don’t fit into the liturgy, and in Fr. Palmer’s view, they’re not appropriate. There’s comfort in the familiar routine; we always know what to expect, but sometimes I worry that we’re lacking the joy I saw in the others at the concert.

SB open mic 7917CThat joy doesn’t exist just in church. Yesterday we had our monthly open mic and jam session at the South Beach Community Center. A friend  of mine who tried it last month declared it too noisy, but I loved it. This month, we had two mandolins, a ukulele, a cello, two fiddles, three guitars and a saxophone. Renae Richmond, who announced her retirement as our leader, traded among her mandolin, flute and harmonica. We all sang and played on everything we could. Sometimes it came together beautifully. Sometimes it was just a joyful noise, not always in tune or in time but full out. My fingers and my strumming arm are weary. My vocal cords, too, but it doesn’t matter.

We sat in a circle around the green rug in the center of the hardwood dance floor. Spencer, the Beckers’ dachshund, visited everyone then dozed at Randy’s feet. We sang bluegrass, Jackson Browne, Keb Mo, Rod McKuen, a jazzy “Summertime,” old-time fiddle tunes, an original, “Worried Man Blues” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It was raucous and wonderful. It didn’t matter if you screwed up. In fact, it was almost required.

Some of us just met while others have known each other since the turn of the 21st century. People have died, babies have been born, and marriages have begun and ended. We just keep playing. It’s never the same two jams in a row, and that’s the glory of it. Like a big soup into which you add whatever you have, whether it’s delicious or so-so, you can’t quite duplicate it ever again.

The South Beach jam takes place on the second Sunday of the month from 2 to 5 p.m. at the South Beach Community Center on Ferry Slip Road across from Pirate’s Plunder.

To find out more about Inter-Christian Outreach, click http://interchristianoutreach.org.

 

 

Don’t be afraid to sing. Whatever voice you have, it’s the one God gave you, so to Him, it’s beautiful.

 

Copyright 2018 Sue Fagalde Lick 

 

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Choir nightmares echo waking mishaps

valley-choralex
Valley Chorale back in the 1990s. I’m in the third row, far left.

You know those dreams where you find yourself walking into a class where somehow you have failed to show up for the whole semester and now it’s finals and you don’t know anything and the teacher doesn’t even know your name and you’re for sure going to fail because you never studied or did any homework? You know that dream, the oh-shit-I-forgot-to-go-to-school nightmare? I get those. My shrink says everybody does.

But more often I get choir nightmares. I have been involved in various singing groups since fourth grade. I sang in school choirs, glee clubs and madrigal groups from elementary school through college, followed by a serious of adult ensembles, including the Coastal Harmony Vocal Band, the Billy Vogue Country Singers, the Skillet Likkers (not the famous ones), the Lincoln Community Chorus, the Central Coast Chorale, and for 14 years, the Valley Chorale in Sunnyvale, California. I have sung in church choirs since 1989, joined the choir at Sacred Heart Church here in Newport in 1996 and have been accompanying and co-directing since 2003.

In my dreams, the church choir and the Valley Chorale stand out.

Directing the choir at a small-town church like ours means simultaneously singing, playing piano and leading the choir—which may be only two people at some Masses. It’s watching the priest and listening for cues. When he says the last Kyrie Eleison, I need to be ready to play the “Gloria.” When he raises the cup, I need to wrap up the Offertory song. These days, with our chant-happy priest, our Masses are almost constant singing. By the end of the 10:30 Mass on Sunday mornings, my throat is raw, and my brain is shorting out. I keep thinking about lunch and other non-religious subjects.

The anxiety plays out in dreams. I’m late, I find someone else sitting at the piano. I can’t find my music and the priest is already walking into the church. My hands don’t work, my voice quits, somebody moved the piano or unplugged it. I wake up with some song from church playing over and over in my head until I want to dig it out with a grapefruit spoon.

Although I have sung in many other choirs, The Valley Chorale is the one that keeps showing up in my dreams. The Chorale (not “choral,” not “corral”) is still going back in California. It was started by a group of friends with a strong religious component that has faded away over the years. I joined when I was only 23, newly married to my first husband. They called me “Little Susie.” Through the years of that marriage, the divorce that followed, and the second marriage to Fred, the chorale was my family. Under the direction of mother-daughter team Marian Gay and Cathy Beaupre, we rehearsed every Monday night, sang almost every weekend during our fall and spring concert seasons, went on a weekend bus tour twice a year, and gathered for parties and dinners, weddings and funerals.

The men wore black tuxedos. The women wore loose pastel gowns that we declared a good fit if we could get them on and they didn’t fall off. We perched on the risers in jeweled sandals at senior centers, mobile home parks, shopping centers, churches, retirement homes, and the occasional concert hall. We’d break into song in restaurants, on buses, or at people’s houses. We were not out to make money or get rich. We just loved to sing.

The concerts, billed as Bach to rock, always included some classics, some gospel tunes, some folk and pop, and a medley from a Broadway musical, complete with costumes. It was corny. Think Lawrence Welk Show, if you can remember back that far, but it was fun.

Illness forced me to quit in 1995. The following year, we moved to Oregon, where I joined new choirs, but I never dream about them. I dream about the Valley Chorale. In those dreams, I show up after years away. I don’t have the right gown or I don’t know the music. Sometimes I have changed so much they don’t know me. God knows I have changed. When I left, I was in my 40s with curly black hair and a much higher range. They have changed, too. Member have died or retired. New people have joined. They have learned new songs. But I keep going back to those dreams. I’m on the bus, I’m at the semi-annual “bash,” or we’re getting on the risers about to sing and there’s no place for me to stand.

Some of the dreams are based on reality. There’s always a moment of panic when you’re changing clothes between numbers and your zipper gets stuck or you can’t find your shoes and you’re terrified you’re not going to get back to the stage on time—but I always did. Yes, your music goes missing, you suddenly can’t remember the second verse, you trip coming down the aisle, the strap breaks on your sandal, or you start coughing and can’t stop. Stuff happens. You sing on.

This morning I had a different dream. I can’t call it a nightmare, and I can’t remember many details, but I do remember I was introducing a new, young singer to the Chorale, offering her the experience of this wonderful musical family.

That’s progress, I think. Valley Chorale, I miss you. I still have my jeweled sandals. Keep singing. And church choir, please show up for practice tomorrow night. Father P. is making us change the service music again.

What do you dream about? Do you have school nightmares? Choir dreams? Sports dreams? Dreams about your kids? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Playing the Funeral Circuit

Why is it that as soon as I sink into a hot bubble bath I get ideas? But for you, I got out, tracked water and bubbles all over my carpet and passed by my window naked—hi neighbor!—to get this down because God forbid I relax when there’s an idea buzzing around my head. Here goes.

Most of you know I’m a musician. I sing, play piano and guitar and write the occasional song. I have played here, there and everywhere, but these days, in addition to playing the Masses at Sacred Heart Church, I play the funeral circuit. Most of your major showbiz performers play clubs, fairs and concerts, but funerals? Not so much. Me, I check the obits as soon as the newspaper arrives so I can plan my life.

I always hope nobody I know has died. Beyond that, I hope nobody Catholic has died. Lots of people in our rural coastal community are not having services these days. It’s expensive, their families live elsewhere, and who needs all that commotion? Many others opt for non-church functions, such as potlucks, barbecues and other gatherings at local lodges, restaurants, or people’s homes. I have played for funerals/celebrations of life at community centers and funeral homes, for the religious and the nonreligious, but with my music minister job, most of my funerals are Catholic. I always feel relieved when I read that the Baptists, Presbyterians or Lutherans are taking care of things.

I  usually have only a few days to plan, especially if there’s going to be a body in a casket instead of ashes in an urn. We start with a phone call. I’m always nervous about talking to the recently bereaved. I’m afraid they’re going to fall apart, but most of the time they’re calm and just want to take care of things.

Ideally, they either have a list of songs they have picked out from the church hymnal or they let me pick the songs. We have a pretty standard list to work with. Frequently, they want the dreaded “Ave Maria.” It’s a gorgeous song. I want it at my funeral, too, but it’s a bear to play, so I never suggest it. I cannot sing it and play it at the same time, and I have been saddled with soloists who come in at the last minute. It’s not always pretty. I still feel bad about the guy whom I assured I would lower the pitch and I forgot. That poor fellow was hurting trying to get those high notes out.

Sometimes they want a choir, sometimes just me singing, sometimes no singing at all. Whatever. I’m easy. Although the next time somebody wants me to play “Wagon Wheels” on my guitar at a funeral, I think I’ll decline. Or “You’ll Never Know.” Scratch that one, too.

I just did a funeral in Waldport at a tiny church that is not my own with a priest whose ways I did not know. The people planning it picked songs out of the air that I was sure the priest would veto. Nope. This priest is easy-going. I hit musicnotes.com, downloaded the songs and was half-way to learning them when the person arranging the funeral changed the song list. Yikes. “Wind Beneath My Wings” in church? Really? Okay. First time in history the bread and wine were consecrated to a Bette Midler hit.

Like mortuary workers, you have to have a funeral wardrobe to play the funeral circuit. Black is still the standard. I own a lot of black slacks, skirts, shirts, jackets and sweaters. In other performing situations, you go for the bling, but not at funerals. No sequins, red scarves, or sassy hats. The folks in the pews may wear anything from jeans to black cocktail dresses, but my job is to be invisible.

In a standard Catholic funeral Mass, I play about 12 pieces of music, including four or five full-length songs and various Mass parts such as the psalm, gospel acclamation, and Holy, Holy. Before the Mass, I play instrumentals for about 15 minutes, all songs designed to console the bereaved. Then the Mass starts with its usual sitting standing kneeling sitting kneeling bowing sign of the cross aerobics while the non-Catholics sit looking confused.

Funerals are naturally emotional. People may be crying, sobbing, fighting to hold back tears, or grabbing for the Kleenex box in the front row. More often than you might expect, they are calm, especially if the person who died was old and had been sick for a long time. The worst funeral I ever played was for a 21-year-old man who died of a brain tumor. His hysterical fiancée had to be taken outside, and the front rows were filled with sobbing young men. I struggled to keep my eyes on the sheet music and think about anything but death.

There’s usually at least one baby ratcheting from giggles to tears and back to giggles or a toddler running up and down the aisles. That’s okay. It helps us all know that life goes on. And yes, somebody’s cell phone inevitably goes off during the service.

Family members giving the eulogies nearly always choke up, which causes the rest of us to do likewise. I get teary, too, missing the person who died if I knew him or thinking about my own loved ones who have died or may die soon. I also get the willies when there’s a casket, usually placed very close to the piano. I start picturing the body inside.

When my husband died (five years ago this month), I sat in the front row while my choir and his friends from the barbershop chorus sang. I was dying to jump up and join the music, but my dad was next to me giving me the sit-and-be-quiet look. I would much rather be the musician than the bereaved. I don’t want a front row seat for that show.

The funeral circuit isn’t so bad. My name is on the program, I get paid, and sometimes at the reception afterward, I get cake. But if you’ve got a gig where I don’t have to wear black, I’m available.