Last Friday, I played a funeral for a 95 year-old woman I did not know (or, perhaps more accurately, for her family, who I also did not know). I've been doing this sort of gig regularly for two years now. (Someday, I suppose, I will provide you with a better idea of what it's like to be an agnostic who makes a good portion of his living providing live music for religious services. Hint: it's not a strange as I thought it would be, though of course I have a high tolerance for strangeness.)
Sometimes it's hard to tell ahead of time whether a particular hymn, sung by the church congregation, is going to "work," musically. After all, most of the congregants are in their 70s and 80s. Some of them are hard of hearing. Some possess what could only be called a "delayed" sense of rhythm. And at the funerals, anyway, there is no choir to help guide everybody else's singing. Add to that the fact that I'm playing the organ, from the choir loft -- so the sound is more diaphanous than focused -- and the chances that we're all actually going to be together on any given piece are, I would say, about 50/50.
This is true even for a well-known tune like "Amazing Grace," which was one of the hymns included in Friday's service. And since the deceased was 95, I stupidly assumed that her family had been well-prepared for her death, and that their grief, however genuine, would be pretty muted as a result. In other words, I wasn't expecting a terribly moving performance.
I was wrong. I'm not sure if it was the gloominess of the day, or the tearful eulogy delivered by one of the grandchildren, or the fact that I had been listening to DM Stith on the way in to work, or the possibility that I am basically a big sap -- but I discovered, after a few notes into that morning's rendition of "Amazing Grace," that sometimes beautiful things can happen in a church. It was quite moving, to hear those untrained voices singing strongly, with sad acceptance, and a palpable recognition of the mystery that afflicts us all. I know I am guilty of reading into the sounds I heard, based on my own physical and philosophical vantage point -- but I could swear I detected more poignant uncertainty in that piece than ever before. More importantly, it seemed to me to be vital in a way that I haven't heard in live music for awhile. And not at all because of the organ player.
One of the cooler features of my daughter's school is that students are encouraged to use drama and performance as a tool with which to understand history. They refer to it as a "living history curriculum." We went to one of the student productions last night.
The show had the typical middle-school flaws -- actors who struggled to enunciate, cheap costumes, the student's tendency to overact, the educator's tendency to over-direct -- and yet there were some beautiful moments. One came halfway through, with a little cotillion interlude that took place in the aisles created by the arrangement of audience folding chairs. The auditorium lights were off, but several spotlights awkwardly followed the student dancers as they moved in procession around the room.
There was something terribly strange and wonderful about this dance, as watched by us "grown-ups" (who, it seems to me, were middle schoolers ourselves only yesterday) -- some of us with our own kids, not yet old enough to be in the play. The music was typical Ken Burns-ish Civil War banjo and dulcimer stuff. Maudlin in any other setting, but somehow, at this moment, in the midst of this very obvious display of the various (fleeting) stages of human existence -- somehow it worked, and was, again, beautiful, vital.
Today I found myself wondering: how can a professional ever hope to make art with the raw directness and vitality of an amateur?