We’re Never Too Old to Sing and Play

Gus & Trish 91315
Gus Willemin and Trish Morningstar at the South Beach open mic

 

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.

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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.

 

If I Wanted to Slide Down a Hill, I’d Buy a Toboggan

I prefer my ice cubed and floating in a drink, but that’s not what I see this Sunday morning. As music leader for the 8:30 Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Newport, I need to leave the house by 7:30. I’m ready by 7:15, but it’s still dark. My indoor-outdoor thermometer tells me it’s 53 degrees inside and 30 degrees outside. This makes me nervous.

At 7:30, I see a glimmer of daylight. Time to go. I know this trip is going to be tricky when I set my foot on the sidewalk to walk to the garage, and it slides—the foot, not the garage, although in view of recent events, that could happen, too. I walk on the grass, say a prayer and back the car out at 1 mph. Okay . . . now down the road, make the turn, make the next turn. Whoa! The road to the highway slants downhill. Suddenly I’m flying. Press the brakes. Crunching sound, no stopping. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Here comes the highway. Can’t see whether anyone is coming, but I am. I can’t stop.

I spin out onto the road, chanting Oh God, oh God, oh God. Nobody else is fool enough to be there. I right myself and aim the car north toward Newport. Everywhere I look is a sheet of ice. Living here on the Oregon Coast, we get used to looking for patches of black ice. It’s all black ice. It’s a skating rink with not a Zamboni in sight. Just get me into town, Lord, just get me into town. Please don’t make the stoplight red, it’s green, whew, cross the bridge, now I’m in town, still icy, going slow, going very slow. Oh God, I have to stop and turn left into the church. Parking lot is sheer ice. I land in a spot next to Father Palmer’s car. Shut off the engine and send up a thank you prayer. My hands are shaking. My whole body is shaking as I hold onto the car and inch my way to the back door of the church.

The church is nearly empty. I’m surprised that I have three brave singers for the early Mass. All everybody is talking about is ice. I’m thinking I might stay in town until it thaws, whether that’s in a day or six months. Over coffee and donuts between Masses, I mention to the burly guy serving that I have chains in the car. Maybe I should put them on for the return trip. Won’t do any good, he says. I have four-wheel drive, I say. Useless with ice, he says.

Okay. Shoot. A person can’t even walk home because the sidewalks are, to use a popular local saying, “slippery as snot.”

Meanwhile, choir members for the 10:30 Mass are texting en masse. Not coming, too much ice. I prepare to do a solo act. But two singers do come, two good ones, both from my neighborhood. The roads are slightly better, and the sand trucks have been around.

I keep asking the usher if he’ll go defrost the parking lot. Not his job. But it turns out there are bags of sand in the gift shop. Somebody pours the sand around. So far, no broken hips.

The Mass is good, the music is good, but all I can think about is the ice. How will I get home? How will I get up that hill I slid down? Oh God, my cell phone is now saying we’re going to have sleet. It’s snowing in Portland. Wasn’t it enough punishment to have 26 inches of rain in December, almost an inch a day? God have mercy. I’m from California.

On the way home, the roads are not so shiny. Plus there’s a layer of sand. But it’s only up to 32 degrees, and something wet is falling on my window. All I can think is get home and stay there. Defrost the dog, eat lunch, build a fire and hibernate until spring.

For the last two days, when Annie and I walked our wilderness trail, the ground was oddly crunchy. Ice crystals everywhere. The dirt caved underfoot. All the puddles left over from the rain had frozen. I touched one to see how solid it was. Annie jumped on it with both feet. It cracked into shards, like broken glass. I’ll bet it’s still there, but the puppy and I are not hiking today. We’re staying in and drinking something with ice cubes, which is how ice should be formed at all times. Note that as I slid past Hoover’s Bar at 7:44 a.m., I saw several cars in the parking lot, no doubt locals getting ice in its proper form.

A day later, the ice is gone, and the temperature is up to 39 degrees when I get up. Hallelujah. Unfortunately, other parts of Oregon are still iced in. Oregon weather is always interesting.

God be with you, whatever weather you’re having where you live. Do you have weather stories to share? Feel free to add them in the comments.