Look for Me Sitting on the Piano Bench


Dear friends,

I have been AWOL here at the blog for a couple weeks. Another trip to California. Upcoming books to promote, music to play, dog to walk, bla, bla, bla. I have been working through some poems from a few years ago and would like to share this one with you today. Most of it is true. There are moments when I see myself sitting at the piano at Sacred Heart playing songs I learned in my childhood and I’m amazed. Without lessons or encouragement, I never stopped learning to play those 88 keys. I’m still learning a little more every day and grateful for the privilege.


Her mother says, “Go change your clothes,”
but instead she runs to the piano.
Climbing up on the stool, feet swinging
in her Oxford shoes with lace-trimmed socks,
she picks out the notes of the hymns
the sisters sang at catechism class.
“Ave, ave, ave Maria.”
“Holy God, we praise thy name.”
Her fingers half the size of the keys,
she finds the tunes and sings along,
grinning through the gap in her teeth.
“Stop that noise,” her father says,
turning on the baseball game.

But she cannot stop. She plays anything
that makes a noise—toy xylophones
and saxophones, plastic ukuleles—
and sneaks minutes at the piano when
her dad goes out to mow the lawn
or her mother leaves for the grocery store.
From a yellowed old instruction book,
she learns to clap out time and beats,
four-four, three-four, six eight,
quarter notes, half notes, whole notes
allegretto, andante, pianissimo.
Blocked by the family photographs,
she moves them to expose the keys.

At school, she finds the practice rooms,
a bench, a piano, an unlocked door.
But still she has to sneak. She’s
never had proper lessons, isn’t
authorized to be there, but
she’s drawn to it like a lover
she meets secretly at lunch,
then runs, breathless, to her English class.
One day, outside, a young man hears.
She blushes as he claps his hands.
When they marry, he buys a Wurlitzer
spinet, all 88 keys just for her.
He never tells her to hush, not once.

She’s widowed nearly a decade now,
but her wedding band shines in the light
as her wrinkled fingers dance,
playing the notes of the “Gloria.”
Her right foot pedals, beating time.
Behind her, the congregation sings,
one man in the back especially loud
and half a beat or so behind.
Leading the choir with nods and waves,
she smiles up at Jesus on the cross,
remembers that child with tiny hands
sneaking songs so many years ago,
because The Almighty told her to.


Copyright Sue Fagalde Lick 2019



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.


Church Kids Get That Joy, Joy, Joy

“I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,” I sang, standing at the mic watching kids from kindergarten through fifth grade waving their arms and singing along. The setting sun was shining through the windows, and we were rocking the church. It doesn’t get better than this, I thought.

Every Wednesday, as part of my music minister duties at Sacred Heart Church in Newport, Oregon, I lead music for the children, singing and playing guitar. It’s usually only four songs, fifteen minutes before they adjourn to the classrooms for their religious education lessons. It takes me longer to set up before and put away my music afterward, but there’s a wild freedom to it that I love. I’m an aging woman with a Joan Baez voice, but to the little ones looking up at me, I’m a rock star. To Sandy Cramer, the religious education director, I’m the one who saves her from having to lead the singing herself. And I get to share my favorite religious songs with a new generation.

Grownups in Catholic churches are notoriously reluctant to sing. They sit in their pews staring at the missalettes, their lips firmly sealed. But the kids are young enough to let it out, even if they’re off-key. Some have big voices while other kids have little butterfly-wing voices, so soft you have to get within inches to hear them.

They don’t just sing. Sandy has paired gestures from American Sign Language with the songs. I’m often grateful that my hands are busy with my guitar because it can be like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Joy: raise your arms high and wiggle your hands. Love: cross your hands over your chest. God: Point your index finger skyward. Work: Make like you’re hammering. Bird: make like you’re flying. If you’re five and can’t read the words projected on the screen, you can still wave your arms.

If only grownups put this much energy into the music. Sitting at the piano on a Sunday morning, I often hear only a few singers, with maybe one or two who sing extra loud, not necessarily on the beat. The best times are when I hear a wave of singing behind me and suddenly feel like we’re all together in this music, in this love of God, in this service. But usually when I look around, I see most people not singing. Somewhere between the “Joy, Joy, Joy” of fifth grade and now, the adults have decided they can’t sing, shouldn’t sing, have bad voices, or would be too embarrassed, so they sit silent no matter how much we urge them to let God hear the voices He gave them or tell them “he who sings prays twice.” Nope, not singing. Which is why our “choir” sometimes consists of two people with the courage to give it a shot.

Last week, I looked out and saw a pretty blonde third-grader singing her heart out. Behind her, a husky Mexican boy belted out the words. Right in front of me, a kindergarten girl didn’t know what she was singing, but she was making noises and waving her hands, smiling like crazy.

As was I. When I was a kid–back when we called it Catechism and our teachers were nuns in black habits–the music was my favorite part of our Saturday lessons. We’d file into the church to sing songs like “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and “Immaculate Mary.” No gestures. No wiggling allowed. But that music filled me up. I took those songs home and figured out how to play them on the piano and sing them to myself. Today’s songs are more rowdy. We have no nuns at Sacred Heart, just Sandy and I in our jeans, projecting the words from a PowerPoint file onto the screen and singing that “Joy, Joy, Joy,” hoping these kids will never stop singing.

Post-Vatican II, the choirs in Catholic churches are not supposed to do all the singing. This is not a performance. We are leading the congregation, who should be singing with us. But that message has not trickled down to everyone yet, especially to those who grew up in the days when the priest spoke Latin and faced away from the people. I worry that as music programs get cut from the schools, church may be the only place the kids are exposed to music. But maybe, God willing, someday everybody will sing.

Meanwhile, I’m having a ball helping the kids rock out with Jesus.

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