Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

First Impressions

Have you ever entertained visitors from out of town?

Suddenly you’re faced with an exciting opportunity to host people who may not have been to your part of the world, ever … but perhaps a limited amount of time in which to prepare.

You get to show off the place! … You look around and perhaps realize, holy smokes, the place is a wreck. Or maybe not; but to your eyes – oh my, lots to do.

So you desperately dust, mop, throw random scraps of paper (and other things) out, straighten all the pictures hanging on the wall … and perhaps realize there’s really no way on God’s green Earth that you will be able to make the place look like you want it to, i.e. museum-quality. But if you know the people well enough, perhaps you know that they’ll be excited to see you and they won’t focus so much on good LORD! the dust bunnies!!

The church where I do my church-giggin’ – certainly the musical people therein, and a number of other people who helped immensely – had this experience this week, or at least portions of it.

Roberts Wesleyan College is a Methodist-affiliated college in Rochester, New York. Their Chorale is currently undertaking a tour, as collegiate ensembles will do from time to time. Apparently, in planning this tour, their director went to the local Internet, typed “Methodist churches near Boston” into the search box, and conducted a tour of local church websites, to see if there might be one or two at which they might present concerts. He found us (our website made us look kinda active, apparently), and got in contact.

I will reveal a tiny fact about church musicians: every so often we get gentle eMails that say things like, “hey, our ensemble, chorus, praise band, trio, me!! (e.g. I’m a great Christian-music pianist!, although I’m not attaching any media files to prove it!), … whatever, I or we would like to come visit your church and present a Great and Inspiring and Spiritually Life-Changing program of music!”

I will confess that when I receive this sort of communication, my initial knee-jerk reaction isn’t that different from when I receive an eMail that seems to be from an exiled Nigerian prince with a lot of time and money on his hands.

It’s not fair, I know. Most of these people may well be very well-meaning, and in fact may have an entertaining and uplifting evening in them. Forgive me, but as I have chronicled occasionally, presenting Inspiring and Spiritual and Uplifting music in support of our worship program is my church gig’s main job, and I think we do it fairly well.

But it’s good to keep an open mind; and I would not want to be known as a person who thought he had all the answers, who thought that nothing about his musical program could possibly be improved upon, who thought that he or his ensemble couldn’t learn a little bit from some other person or ensemble.

So, when our church’s staff was presented with this communication from Dr. Jamie Spillane, the conductor of the Roberts Wesleyan College Chorale, we conducted a quick Internet research junket of our own, and based upon that and the experience and knowledge of our senior pastor, we decided to reply and see what could be set up.

The RWCC’s hope was to present a concert on the Saturday of their tour, stay overnight with some host families, and then the next morning they hoped to participate in our Sunday worship service.

To my knowledge, our church has never done this before. I can’t remember a time when another church choir (or related group) has provided all the musical content for one of our services. I don’t know whether this is because we’re relentlessly territorial, or we’ve just never been offered this sort of idea before, but my four decades of institutional memory don’t include anything like this.

But we’re big kids, and we can play nicely with others, and we’re at least confident enough in our own musical groups and people that we didn’t feel threatened. And we didn’t think that our congregation was going to hear some other choir and demand that they stay forever and ever and that we disband our own choir. Just not very likely.

So, we made plans. One of our parishioners volunteered to organize a Saturday pre-concert supper and a Sunday post-service brunch for the college musicians (and also, crucially, found people who would be willing to host pairs and trios and quartets of them overnight). We eMailed back and forth with Dr. Spillane and found that he was amenable to having one of the Sunday morning musical offerings be a “combined forces”, Roberts-Wesleyan-and-our-choir-together anthem – luckily, we had some experience with a couple of the Roberts Wesleyan tour repertoire items. Very exciting! The RWCC plus our choir bringing forth “The Heavens Are Telling”, from Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Creation” … this oughta be good. We canvassed our congregation’s instrumentalists, and found seven or eight who were willing to jump in and read down a little Baroque music.

So, last night and today, we pulled it off. (Actually the Roberts Wesleyan musicians did the lion’s share of the pulling. I should be honest.) The RWCC repertoire included Baroque anthems and spirituals, African noels and Mozart opera, contemporary Finnish composition and Hebrew love songs. They can sing, clearly, many different things. Our choir heard a couple of kinds of music that may not come naturally to us but which we thought we might like to try, now that we’ve heard it done very well.

[Because humans are humans, I was prepared to hear church members wonder aloud why our choir couldn’t do this sort of music, or that sort of music; hey, if college kids can do it, we should be able to, as well. I actually only heard one or two people say this sort of thing, and I gently noted that the Roberts Wesleyan musicians, as busy as their music major lives are (trust me, I get it!), don’t have: full-time jobs, kids, mortgages, other church and community meetings, etc etc etc. And your average church choir prepares a couple of new and different anthems every single week, rather than a dozen items over the course of a five-month semester. None of which diminishes either a church choir’s output or a collegiate chorale’s. It’s just the world that each ensemble lives in.]

On top of all that, Dr. Spillane and his charges just seemed to us like the kind of people whom we would like to have back whenever they’d like to come back, whether it’s on their next New England tour, or next year, or next week … Fun. Friendly. Fine musicians with something of a sense of humor.

But my musings about all this have only a bit to do with the actual music; perhaps a little more to do with the kind of fine people Roberts Wesleyan College sent our way; but a lot more to do with this: the kind of introspection and self-analysis and, well, okay, mild navel-gazing that comes with hosting out-of-town visitors.

Saturday afternoon I arrived at church, saw that the Roberts Wesleyan tour bus was parked neatly along the outskirts of our parking lot, noted that they were having supper in our fellowship hall, and headed to our choir room. And straightened up the rows of chairs, threw out random bits of paper, did all those frantic “neating up the living room” things that we do when we’re preparing our houses for guests. (The Chorale never actually formally used the choir room as a warmup area, but it was a worthy effort, I think. The room is clean.) Soon it was time for concertizing, and then the concert was over, and the host families collected their guests; and the next morning, we all converged on the church again and had ourselves a grand morning. (For the Haydn, Dr. Spillane conducted, which was entirely appropriate – the majority of singers were RWCC, at least slightly; and it allowed me the opportunity to play tympani, which I will shamelessly admit I was looking forward to, a tiny bit.) Afterward we exchanged very pleasant pleasantries. In an infinite universe anything is possible, but only some things are likely; yet some of those pleasantries seemed to suggest that our two institutions might yet collaborate musically again. Who knows?

But the very strong sense I got, over and over, this weekend, was a fresh and positive view of the church – the building and the people.

When we have houseguests, we tend to look at the kitchen, the bedrooms, dear Lord! the bathrooms, every corner of every room … differently. We look at them as if we were new to the place, too. And we have the opportunity to look at them hyper-critically, but we hope to be able to view them positively.

Indeed, I looked at our sanctuary … our fellowship hall … the hallways … the bathrooms! … the website! … and tried to imagine myself as a member of that visiting ensemble, and tried to imagine what I would think of it all. Not so much “do we look decent compared with other churches the group might visit?” but “do we look decent?”

And also, how does our congregation come off? Friendly? Reserved? Over-ebullient to the point that it’s a bit unnerving? Helpful? Cloying? Bunch of dorks? Cool people to know? If “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together; if the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people” … then as much as visitors are checking out the digs, they’re checking out the people who populate the place.

I was pleased to note that the rooms looked in good shape … no cracks in the walls, no shoddy painting jobs, no floor tiles out of place … and our sanctuary is indeed a beautiful room with some pretty good, live acoustics going on. I was (just a bit territorially) pleased that we were able to augment the Haydn anthem with flute, violin, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, and alto recorder, all played by members of our congregation; no ringers. (We can do a little music!)

Just as pleasingly, I saw lots of church members making a point to be a welcoming bunch. It wasn’t just that the congregation clapped loudly after the Roberts Wesleyans sang William Dawson’s arrangement of the spiritual “Ain’-a That Good News” at postlude time (and hit it out of the park) … but it was also that afterward, our guests couldn’t take five steps in any direction without some congregation member running at them (gently!) and thanking them for coming, admiring their musicianship, asking how the tour was going, all those good things.

Sometimes I think it might be possible to make the world a better place than it is, if we only did this and this and this. For a stretch of not quite 24 hours this weekend, this and this and this were fully on display. And I just smiled, and smiled, and smiled: it was one of those days that you know is special, and you know you’re going to remember it for a long time, as it’s happening.

It’s been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This weekend, I think we had a winner: some pretty fine first impressions were flying back and forth, in both directions.

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February 19, 2012 - Posted by | choir, music, Starred Thoughts, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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