Music is a Gift That Must Be Shared

I was not thrilled to be at church yesterday morning at 8:15 to prepare for Mass. I wanted more sleep, my car’s tire light was on the whole way to St. Anthony’s in Waldport (low pressure, not a flat), and I was wiped out from volunteering at the Willamette Writers’ conference. Nor was I thrilled when I realized I’d be doing this Mass alone because guitar-playing, big-singing Tim was waylaid by a situation at home, and the other singer I had expected was not there to sing. But God gave me a voice to sing and a piano to play, so here I was, grateful I had taken time to practice.

Tim made it in eventually, and the Mass went well. Afterward, a man came up to tell us how grateful he was to hear our music. He broke into tears. “My wife just died two weeks ago,” he said. “Usually the 9:00 Mass is so quiet. I’m so glad to have music.” I clasped his hand, but he pulled away and left, clearly embarrassed to be weeping in public, even though he had every right to weep. “My husband died, too,” I called after him. But he was gone, and it was time to get ready for the 10:30 Mass.

As much as I hated getting up early and playing back-to-back Masses, I vowed to keep doing as much church music as I could for as long as I could. I used to get paid for it at my previous church. I don’t at St. Anthony’s. I don’t care. I don’t need the money; I need the music.

Music touches people. It heals and soothes. Not all music for all people. Hip-hop, for example, just annoys me, and I hate the meandering organ music sometimes played at funerals or before church services. Give me a good melody and an earnest voice, even if it isn’t perfect.

I’ll be 70 next year. What is this little old lady still doing behind a microphone? Until I was 30, I sang mostly in school and community choirs, but as 30 approached, I had an “if not now, when?” moment when I decided it was time to step out and start performing on my own. I still did the choir thing with The Valley Chorale in Sunnyvale, California, the Coastal Harmony Vocal Band in Pacifica, and the Billy Vogue Country Singers tour that was supposed to make us all famous–and didn’t, but I also took my originals and cover songs to art galleries, festivals, sidewalk markets, senior centers, nursing homes, garden tours, coffee shops, and stage shows of various sorts.

In the early days, I had a nylon-string guitar and no sound equipment. I was too chicken to play piano in public, but eventually I had a carload of gear and played guitar, mandolin and piano while continuing to sing. My late husband Fred was my roadie and my biggest fan. It’s not the same without him.

Did I ever make much money at it? Precious little. Ages ago, I decided I could not pursue two careers full-tilt at once, and I was a better writer than musician, so I would write for work and do music for God, my only goal to do as much of it as possible as well as I could.

COVID knocked out all in-person gigs. While some churches had no music at all, we were lucky to continue offering music at St. Anthony’s. For a while, we sang with masks on to pictures taped to the pews and a camera sharing the Mass via Zoom and YouTube. Gradually the restrictions eased. The people came back, and the masks came off. Now we may be looking another surge of the virus with renewed restrictions, but meanwhile, I’m still playing and singing.

I’m not the only one. One day last week, I felt really depressed. I had cried a few tears at my desk, asking God why I had to be alone. Then Facebook notified me of an “Open Your Hymnal” concert being offered live. Three Catholic singers offered healing songs and prayers. My tears dried. I grabbed my guitar and played along, watching their fingers to “read” the chords. I was comforted.

I hated getting up early for church. I hated driving all the way to Waldport with the tire light on because I didn’t have time to stop and there are no gas stations or tire shops between South Beach and Waldport. I still feel a little stage fright wherever I sing and play. But I love the music, and I thank God we could give something to that heartbroken man who just lost his wife.

Whatever your gift, let it shine. Someone needs it.

****

P.S. The monthly South Beach acoustic jam/open mic is happening Sunday, Aug. 8, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the South Beach Community Center, 3024 SE Ferry Slip Road, across from Pirate’s Plunder. Bring your instrument and join us.

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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.