Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Past and Future Moments -or- Getting the Band Back Together

[Ed. Note: this is an article which will be published later this week in The Chronicle, the weekly newsletter of the church wherein I do my church-musician work. Easter was weird this year…]

 

Hi all…

As I write this, I’ve just finished watching the live-streamed SUMC 9:30am Easter service, as I imagine many of you did, either in real time or afterward. It was surely odd, to be on the outside looking in.

One interesting moment in the live-streamed broadcast was before the service even started. The stream went live at around 9 o’clock … so we got a little look at Pastor Joel and Heather “huddling at the mound”, planning a few last-minute details of the service. Being a very enthusiastic viewer of behind-the-scenes documentaries, I found this one curious to see — usually I’m right in the middle of this particular behind-the-scenes environment. Usually we all are.

So, I was imagining myself (as I imagine our choir members were also) mentally placing myself up on the Chancel, conjuring up images of what we all would be doing at various moments during that service. Processing (but not waddling!), perhaps? Moving from the choir loft chairs to the front steps and avoiding the massed instrumentalists? Listening to the sermon (but only seeing the back of Pastor Joel’s robe)? Passing out extra “Hallelujah” score copies to folks who came forward to sing a little Handel? Mentally urging Kevin on to victory over the Widor “Toccata” organ postlude?

Clearly, the “dismissal with blessing” was going to be a little quieter than usual. Very odd. Something was definitely missing.

So after the service concluded, I fired up a YouTube video that contained not only audio of the “Hallelujah” Chorus, but images of the choral score. I grabbed my conducting baton (yes, I keep it in a specific place near my desk — just so I can find the darn thing on the two occasions per year that I need it) … ran the video … and conducted. You’ll be happy to know that I didn’t miss a single cue.

And I made a little list of moments that I look forward to experiencing again, next Easter, when (God willing) we’ll have figured out how to deal with the social-distance demands of COVID-19.

[] Looking over at the alto section as we all sing “The kingdom of this world…” and smiling as we all cue each other to correctly come in one beat before any of the other choral sections, singing “… IS… become…”

[] Shortly thereafter, looking over at the bass section to cue their entrance, the octave jump of the very first “and HE! shall reign forever and ev—er…”

[] Immediately thereafter, looking over at the tenor section sympathetically as they get to crank out the ridiculous Handelian high A for that same text — “… and HE!!!!! shall reign…”

[] A little while later, looking over at the soprano section and making a wide-eyed expression of “hang in there!” as the notes of “King of Kings!” rise inexorably to the high F-sharp and G. They can do it fine; but clearly the composer was not himself a soprano!

[] Just before the Grand Pause that precedes the last, slow, triumphant “Hal-LE—lu-jah” … making eye contact with absolutely everybody, to make sure no one takes an unfortunate unintentional solo during that hopefully-silent Grand Pause …

[] … and then, during the last chord, continuing to look at all the singers and mouth the words, “Happy Easter”. It’s been my pleasure to do that for the last eighteen Easters.

It will be my immense pleasure, when this is all over, to mouth those words again … to see us all get back together under SUMC’s roof … and specifically to see us all “get the band back together”, so that the music can rise again, too.

April 12, 2020 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Connections

Well, I think I know how TV talking heads feel, now.

Ya know – the evening news comes on, the camera swoops in (never used to swoop in, when I was a kid, but whatever), and there are two news anchors, tailored suit, primary-color dress, well-coiffed, serious but inviting.

Good evening everyone.”

That’s what they say first. And what is being said inside their heads (probably… I assume… come to think of it, I do have a former student whom I could ask about this) is: “everyone whom we presume and pray are out there, watching their televisions… watching our specific program… we hope…”

But they look into the camera in such a way that we are convinced that they’re looking at us, talking to us, and knowing that we’re listening.

It’s a skill.

Fortunately, this past Friday night, that skill was not required of me, so much as it was asked of the gentleman running the session.

 

You’re aware, perhaps, that all over the country, indeed all over the world, precautions are being taken to try to slow down the spread of a virus. (“Oh,” says my dear reader, “I am aware and then some, to the point that I am a walking talking definition of the word paranoia, but prithee continue as if you need to explain.”)

So, large-group gatherings are postponed, canceled, not spoken of in polite society. For heaven’s sake, they cancelled March Madness. That’s how big this is.

You may also be aware, if you’re a regular reader of this blog (not that I’ve been an especially regular post-er, but that’s not your fault), that one of my professional activities kinda involves crowds.

As a church musician, every Thursday evening, I get together with a church choir. Over the course of my nearly two decades in that job, the choir I’ve conducted has been ten, twenty, thirty strong. And our choir room is just not that big. We sing, so we breathe on each other.

And every Sunday, even during the summer when the choir is officially given a couple of months to take a breath, I interact with a couple hundred people or more. Morning service, hello howdy handshake hug; coffee hour afterward, hello howdy handshake hug. In retrospect, when I consider how many other non-COVID-19 contagions are out there, not to mention germy door handles, it’s remarkable that I haven’t gotten sick more often.

But now, all around us, school districts are closing (they also deal with crowds, and not always with crowds of people who are well-practiced in conscious hygiene). And since the schools in the town where we do our church-gigging have closed down for two solid weeks at least … we have been advised to do the same.

For me, this is a first. Growing up in this church, I recall the senior pastor being housed in a parsonage located right next to the church building – so even if the snow is falling at seven inches an hour, he or she could make it to church, so there would be an opportunity for worshippers to worship. Even though our current senior pastor lives in a parsonage a short drive away, on snowy Sundays, he gets there. On a couple of specific recent very-snowy Sundays, we’ve held services that featured congregations small enough to fit into the chancel – please don’t sit on the organ or the altar, but other than that, welcome in! – but as the Bible says: where two or three are gathered…

So now they’re telling us it’s a bad idea for two or three or several dozen to gather.

What to do?

Well, clearly, don’t hold services for several dozen people on Sunday morning, at least for the next few weeks.

No services.

So there are those of us who will definitely will miss it. And not just those of us on the payroll. No indeed.

Every Sunday, our choir sings and belly-laughs in equal measure. Every Sunday, go away from the sermon having learned something, genuinely. Every Sunday, I look forward to seeing friends, checking in, commiserating, celebrating.

And: we have a congregation that mirrors the current trends – all ages, but a great many older members. Who, we are told, are particularly at risk for severe illness and death as a result of contracting COVID-19. So, best not to expose them to the risk of exposure.

But, for them as much as anyone and arguably more, the church community represents a great majority of their connection to other people, their social interaction, their feelings of utility (through our Christian-education programs and community outreach and all the rest of our activities). So if we shut down our church’s activities entirely, and they’re encouraged to stay in their homes … and if they’re not necessarily comfortable with (or conversant in) social media and other forms of electronic communication that would otherwise help keep them connected and such …

Important, then, to maintain some connection.

 

So, this project emerged: after numerous conversations of past years in which the opportunities and challenges of broadcasting our services out into the world via cable-access TV or the Internet or whatever mass-media option may one day exist but doesn’t yet … Nature has forced our hand, at least in the short term. So, we’re doing that. This week, next week, and the week after, we’ll have a pre-recorded Sunday worship service available on-demand. Thanks to our town’s cable-access TV organization, we’re doing this thing.

This past Friday night, about a half-dozen of us, including our senior pastor and my music-staff colleague and I, gathered in our Sanctuary to pre-record the first of these services.

It was weird, but good. Or it was good, but weird. Both, really.

It was weird to be conducting a Sunday-morning worship service without a congregation. There is a certain energy, obviously, that was missing here. In a similar way to holding basketball games without spectators, or a presidential-candidate debate without a studio audience. There’s a give-and-take, audible and not, in our usual gatherings that was missing on Friday night. We expected that going in.

Pastor makes a funny in the middle of the sermon, and no laugh. Musicians sing a little “We’ll Understand It Better By and By”, and at the end, not even an “mmmm” from the absent congregation. (We don’t require applause; we don’t require any particular reaction at all, really, but it’s still odd.) Liturgist says “let us pray”, and the seven people in the room read the printed prayer together, but it’s not the same as when two hundred people read it in a Collective Voice.

But, as I noted at the beginning of all this, this is how it is when Rachel Maddow or Bob Costas or name-your-talking-head sit in a television studio somewhere and say what they have to say. Apart from an unseen off-camera production assistant chuckling at a funny turn of phrase, there’s no one there to react. The only sounding board in the room is a literal one: the back wall.

They have to assume that there’s someone out there, in another place, who is reacting and, to whatever extent, interacting with them. It’s not easy; but it’s their training … or at least they’ve made their peace with it. They do their thing, and, I assume, they don’t think consciously about the people they’re addressing.

So, I didn’t expect to feel quite the way I did, as I sat at the piano, or toted my bass guitar, or helped speak the congregational responses into my microphone.

 

My imagination went to work. As I sang, or played, or spoke, I found myself (or I found a tenth of the back of my mind) keeping the potential audience in mind. No – I was keeping the potential congregation in mind.

And not in the way that a televangelist probably does. Your average mass-media preacher accepts that thousands, millions of people are watching, but he or she can’t possibly know them all.

Friday night, I was thinking of this choir member who sits a few feet away from me in the alto section … or that couple who usually sits about two-thirds of the way to the back of the Sanctuary with their two completely adorable children … or this pillar of the church who usually sits up front and all the way over by the windows … or this particular young acolyte who is a stellar candle-lighter even though she’s hardly four feet tall …

and I was imagining that they might be watching on Sunday afternoon (specifically 2 PM, when the recording is available). They could well be watching, and participating in, the service we were conducting in that moment.

Further: as befits my “weird but good, good but weird” thought at the beginning of this … I found that I was doing my best to connect with those people, in whatever small way, as if they were watching and participating right then.

Maybe it was wishful thinking.

Or maybe those news anchors actually have those senses, too, but they’re too professional to let anyone know, in the moment.

On the other hand, they’re reading the news, and keeping people out there connected to information they needed to have, sometimes in order to stay safe in various ways. Not unimportant, most times; but …

Friday night, we were doing our little bit to help keep people safe; and to maintain a more personal connection; and to keep communicating the Good News.

 

<<<>>>

 

P.S. Here’s how to access our church’s pre-recorded services, if you like:

[1] Go to www.sudburytv.org.

[2] Select the “Watch” option at the top of the computer screen and click “video on demand”.

[3] A new page will appear, where the most recent videos will be listed on the bottom. Our service will likely be the most recent. You can also search “SUMC.” The video will play.

(We’re also researching ways to live-stream Sunday worship so that you may tune-in while the service is happening. When a live option is found, more instructions will be made available for joining remotely with a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Watch this space, and wash your hands!)

March 14, 2020 Posted by | current events, media, religion, social media, SUMC, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Institutional Knowledge

[Ed. Note: Here’s an article that will appear in The Chronicle, the weekly newsletter published by the church at which I do my church-musician thing. This past Sunday, we participated in an annual event known as “A Cappella Sunday”, originated by the Center for Congregational Singing. The Center advocates the advancement of singing in worship and especially unaccompanied singing.]

 

So, did everybody survive A Cappella Sunday all right?

As was the case last year, I think there was a perceptible shiver that ran through the congregation for the first few moments of our morning worship service this past Sunday. No organ? No piano? No instruments? I can handle the lack of handshakes today, but no accompaniment for hymns? Aieee!

And then, by the time we’d completed the first hymn, we were back on an even keel. A complete service, end to end, full of hymns and sung litany responses and doxologies and such, and all conducted using only our voices. Imagine!

Well, you can’t do this without two things: one, the tried-and-true Methodist singin’ spirit, and that means everybody in that Sanctuary. I’ll never forget being the high school choral director in charge of the musical content of the upcoming senior-class Baccalaureate service, and connecting with a local Episcopal priest at his church, where the service would be held. I described how I was a church musician and so was familiar with terms like “prelude” and also knew how to make sure the music was appropriate for the space, et cetera. He asked, “where are you a church musician?” I said, “the Methodist church in Sudbury,” and the priest got this wistful look on his face, sighed, and said, “ah yes. The Methodists. They sing.”

And we do.

The other thing you can’t pull off National A Cappella Sunday without: an absolutely rock-solid choir. Which (I say, recognizing that it will sound a bit, oh, self-aware) Sudbury UMC has, in spades. Just before service started, I had a chance to say this to the robed throng:

The reason this is going to work is because every single person on this Chancel right now brings with them experience in choir singing, and especially the institutional knowledge about how to sing together with these specific people.”

So when I say to folks at coffee hour or during hymn sings or whenever, “hey, give us a try!” and they say, oh, I’m not that good a singer to be able to do that… (a) some of the current choir members thought that, once; and some still do, mystifyingly. And (b) if you decide to take the plunge and try the choir out, you will be surrounded and supported by that pack of experienced voices.

In a cappella singing especially, but in any singing really: “safety in numbers” is always helpful. In these particular numbers? It’s more than safety. It’s camaraderie, and really good jokes, too.

March 2, 2020 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment