Sunday, 3 April 2016

Growth Pains of a Pianist

Once again I am calling an Anglican church home. It's small. The priest says that since I started coming, he brags about having a millennial in his flock. Nevertheless, "small" carries some perks. It means that volunteer opportunities are easy to spot, and since volunteering is how you get plugged into any church community, this is a bonus. On the third or fourth Sunday that I attended, the priest and his wife, Joanne, were doing a funeral service or something elsewhere, so a lay member ran the show.

"Since Joanne isn't here this week, we have no music," he announced at the beginning, "so we'll just carry on."

In very short order (as it was a very short service), I was shaking his hand on the way out the door. "Do you really have only one pianist?" I asked.

"Well, two," he replied, "but the other is on vacation."

"I have grade 8 piano," I said. "I can read music."

His face lit up.

So that is how I ended up dusting off years of musical inactivity to become what the congregation calls a "master pianist". It's been a crash course. The first Sunday that I played, Joanne sat down with me to carefully choose songs based on tunes and titles that I said I already knew. She played guitar and organ along with me (but not both simultaneously, of course) to boost my confidence and cover my rather pathetic fumbling. Today was my fourth go round. A bit of disorganization meant that I didn't have the music for today until late this Wednesday. Joanne taught Sunday School in the basement.

When I ponder the concept of "church pianist", certain images come to my mind. I remember the guy at our old church that played when I was a kid. He released his own CD and got so into what he was playing that we all feared he'd literally knock himself out. I think about the pianists at my church back in Calgary. Concert performance ability, all of them. I contemplate my uncle and my cousins who can improvise, transpose, sing, and play anything with keys or frets (and also drums and probably a few more things).

And then I think of me. I forgot what an A major chord was today. No kidding.

I'm not entirely useless. Given enough time to practice, I won't necessarily play a piece through flawlessly, but my fingers will at least know when they're about to hit something wrong and they will either dampen the sound or refuse to press the keys at all. When my left hand drops out, my right hand carries on until it can catch up, and vice versa. I still live in fear of the day that both hands lose it at the same time.

The other spectre looming bleak above my head is the probability of losing count of the number of verses I've already played.

"Oh, me, too!" exclaimed Joanne when I admitted this to her. "I just look over to the first row. The people who sit there are always the first to close their song books when the song is over. I just take my cue from them."

Which is all well and good if you're playing the organ. From the organ you can actually see the congregation. I would have to stand up and crane my neck over the top of the piano or transpose up a few octaves to get me close enough to the end of the instrument to allow me to peer around the corner. Never mind the sheer skill I would need to have to be able to pull that off; I can imagine some astute individual dryly commenting to their spouse: "Oh, look, there's Carla's forehead furtively growing out of the piano again. I wonder what verse she thinks we on?"

Joanne and I have already lost count together once. The priest called our extra play-through of Jesus Christ is Risen Today the "hum-along verse", as per the choir's response.

That's the neat thing about this place and this role. Nobody boos at you.

"Well, I would hope that nobody in a church would boo at you," said my friend Mark.

"I'm aiming to avoid making my church the first one to do so," I replied.

Admittedly, I was a little nervous about playing today. Not super nervous, because, as noted before, they have already decided that I'm their "master pianist". Nevertheless, churches often put a lot of pressure to perform on its worship teams and musicians, and even if this church isn't one of them, I am aware of my own shortcomings.

Today was my first day playing solo. Piano only. It was also the first day that I was the one to play the fiddly little Anglican bits that are interspersed among the rest of the prayers and liturgy. Joanne reminded her husband to cue me for those, but either he forgot or I was so excited that I jumped the gun.

I was particularly nervous about the fiddly bits because the music I have for them is only a plain Jane right hand melody. Chords for the left hand are indicated, but I have never before in my life done chording. I had enough wherewithal while I was practicing to know that it sounded stupid when I played every chord in root position, so I aimed to play it with inversions. All was well during home practice, but only after a bit of initial groping to find the right combination of notes. Not wanting to grope in service, I scribbled down the note combinations on my church bulletin so that if I had trouble finding the right keys to play, I'd be able to glance up and solve all my problems.

Unfortunately, you can't pleasure read the bulletin while playing a half-practiced song. And that's why I played through the First Sanctus without the A chord.
Nothing replaced the A chord. In hindsight, I could have played root A or even just A. I guess engaging two fingers simultaneously was too much for me. Instead, we dealt with the gaping holes. The priest informed me after the service that I could also have played the diminished G7 suspended 1st inversion chord to fill the gap. I told him that next time I'd just mash my forearm against the keyboard.

The rest of the songs I played with varying levels of success. I didn't lose count (thanks largely to the priest uncharacteristically bellowing out "VERSE SIX!" before the final verse). I did flub up things that I had never flubbed up before and forgot the key signature a few times.

But, gun-jumping or not, A major-less Sanctus or not, trips, skips, lurches, and besmirches or not, at the end of the service, as I was playing music in the background for the dismissal, one of the elderly ladies from the choir walked up behind me, put her hands on my shoulders and her cheek against my ear.

"Absolutely perfect," she said.

*     *     *     *     *

"He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight." Ephesians 1:4

"I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best." Walt Whitman

1 comment:

Art said...

This was good to read. Soon you will be rockin on the piano, swinging your head like Guy was at the old church. It must be nice to play in a worship band where they encourage people rather than say you are a big mistake.