I was sitting at the piano at the Saturday evening Mass when I got a vision of me and my three-woman choir in Newport, Oregon being echoed at churches all over the world, singing and chanting the same songs at the same Mass. It was beautiful.
Behind me that night sat two visiting couples, probably in their 70s. Both of the men sang out, one in a strong voice, the other in a reedy rasp. Both came up to talk afterward. The burly guy from Vancouver thanked me for lowering the key on a couple of the songs, making them easier to sing. The other man, thin, balding, with an earring in his left ear, shared that he is losing his voice to cancer. “Did any of you girls ever smoke?” he asked us. We shook our heads. “Well, good.”
All three of my Saturday singers are over 70. I’m getting closer every day. Our Sunday choir also has its share of septuagenarians. But none of these singers are “geezers.” Nobody is ready to settle in their easy chair to watch TV till they die. In fact, they’re so active it’s difficult to keep up with their schedules, whether they’re singing with Sweet Adelines, hosting charity events, working at the rec center, serving as Master Gardeners, taking classes, visiting grandchildren, or traveling to the Bahamas.
To most of the congregation, I’m a fixture. They only see the back of my head, if they can see me at all. The music automatically happens. Maybe the teenagers think I’m corny with my button earrings and my pixie cut hair playing the moldy old songs like “Holy Holy Holy,” then rocking out to “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness.” But I catch the little kids staring at me as they come up for Communion. When I smile at them, they smile back, star struck. The piano lady smiled at me!
Of course to some of them I’m the guitar lady because I play for the kids in the religious education on Wednesday nights. Some of our big hits are “Alle, Alle, Alleluia” and “The Butterfly Song.” The little kids sing with gusto, but when they become teenagers, they seem to lose their enthusiasm for the music. Why is that? Will they get it back when they’re old like me? It’s hard for me to understand because I never stopped loving music.
I had a very musical weekend. Every Friday from 3 to 5 p.m., the Waldport song circle meets at the community center. We have a blend of “young” guitar guys just starting to turn gray, a steady group in their 70s and 80s, and Doug, 97, who can’t wait to get to the piano. The music is rarely perfect, but it feels good.
Yesterday, we had our monthly South Beach open mic—second Sunday, 5 to7 p.m. at the South Beach Community Center. Again, it’s a majority of gray hairs. We get ukuleles, mandolins, guitars, fiddles, flutes, saxophones, cellos, and drums. We sing gospel, folk, rock, pop, Beatles, Dylan, Grateful Dead. Anything goes. We accompany each other and harmonize. This wave of sound builds up. Riding it is better than surfing, I swear.
We share a language of music in common, songs that we all know from school, church, the radio, and American Bandstand: “This Little Light of Mine,” “Mr. Bojangles,” “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” We grew up in an era when teachers made time for music. I remember loving those thick books full of songs that we sang while teachers played clunky old school pianos. “Waltzing Matilda,” “Funiculi Funicula,” “Little Brown Jug.” Do you remember? I wonder if children do that at all now.
Kids whose parents can afford it, still take music lessons, but do they get together and just sing? Are they too busy fiddling with their phones? Do they think listening to Granddad strum and sing is too corny to think about?
We old folks are still learning new songs and new skills. We battle arthritis and hearing aids. We struggle to figure out which pair of glasses will let us actually read the sheet music, but there are too many great songs to ever stop. We may have to lower the key a little these days, but like that man at church who is losing his voice to cancer, we’re going to sing until we can’t sing anymore. Then, like one of my favorite songs says, we’ll whistle, and when we can’t do that, we’ll listen.