Grand Pause

I haven’t sung since the second week of March. Well, that’s not completely true since I recorded (with much angst and frustration) a piece for a virtual choir and a few hymns for a friend’s church service, but that’s it. This is the longest stretch in my adult life that I haven’t sung. When I try to sing along with the hymns and familiar liturgy of live-streamed worship, my voice sounds the way I feel, which is miserable and sad. Those of us who sing are stuck in one Grand Pause—a seemingly eternal fermata of silence.

I know there are far worse situations in the midst of this pandemic than not being able to sing. I know there is unspeakable suffering and catastrophic financial hardship and whining about the loss of music-making seems petty and self-serving. But until it was taken away, I don’t think I realized what a huge role singing with others plays in my spiritual support system. Choir is part of who I am, and I suspect I’m not alone in this feeling.

I miss being shoulder to shoulder on the risers. I miss the intensity of watching the director and keeping my head up out of the music and fighting that fourth line D which is my break note and feeling the hair raise on my  arms at the sound of the organ introduction to a favorite hymn. I even miss the annoying stuff–the hokey church anthems that inspire eye-rolls, or the dress rehearsals where your feet go numb and your shoulders ache from hours of standing and holding a folder. Right now, I’d give just about anything to sing a lame anthem or endure a grueling dress rehearsal.

And yes, I read the optimistic posts about virtual choirs and being creative and singing with masks and rehearsing outdoors but the harsh reality is we’re stuck in this nightmare until there is a vaccine. That which so many of us love either as participants or listeners and which has lifted us up out of the muck so many times is now forbidden because it’s dangerous. Take the hymnals out of the pews and don’t even hum along behind that mask. No singing with your favorite group in a sold-out stadium filled with adoring fans. No live singing for weddings or funerals or even family birthdays. I simply can’t  wrap my head around that. The loss of the human voice raised in song, whether it’s on the Broadway stage or in the elementary classroom, leaves us bereft and grieving.

Part of what makes this so hard is the not knowing. If we knew that as of a certain date, this would be over, it would be a little easier. We could check off the days on our calendar, like a child anxiously waiting for Christmas. But right now that’s not a realistic expectation. We remain stuck in this purgatory, hoping and praying for a vaccine or a treatment that will eliminate the fear of creating and enjoying live music.

A Grand Pause in music indicates the musician is to rest indefinitely. Everything stops, and the choir stands frozen, waiting for that pivotal moment when the conductor’s arms come down and his or her face lights up and we are released to sing again. The music always comes back after a Grand Pause, no matter how long it lasts.

Should Have Been

My husband and I should have been singing our spring choral concerts this weekend. Should have been describes all of our lives right now. Should have been getting married, running a business, taking the trip, going to the gym. Should have been visiting family, watching a ball game, graduating from high school, dining in a favorite restaurant. The list, like this quarantine time, is endless.

Our calendars are virtually empty except for the harsh lines crossing out the rehearsals, meetings and  appointments that comprise our retirement life. As a Type A person who constantly looks ahead to the next thing, seeing that blank page on the calendar is disconcerting. I feel cast adrift without the anchor of having to be somewhere. I’m grateful to not be one of those who must provide care or food or community safety, on whom our survival depends. I realize it’s a privilege to sit in my nice suburban home and navel-gaze about not having enough to do, but it’s an odd feeling for someone who thrives on showing up and fulfilling obligations.

So as my world shrinks, I try to adjust my vision. Those who know me know I am not one for waxing poetic about spiritual practices. I have a low tolerance for the word “mindful” and don’t even get me started on  “intentional.” But I will admit to having developed a deeper appreciation for that which is right in front of me, that would have just whizzed by the window in my frantic rush to be somewhere I should have been.

The hummingbirds who graciously showed up the day after I hung the feeders. The long-simmering essay I finally submitted to a publication where it will probably be rejected, but I know it’s some of my best work and will eventually find a home. My almost child-like delight in walking into the dining room to see how my vegetable seedlings are doing. The elderly and chronically ill dog we keep alive with expensive drugs and gourmet meals who rewards us by toddling out of his crate every morning, waiting to be lifted into our bed for a snuggle. A good read on the porch in the afternoon and Netflix at night without guilt. An out of town shopping trip to a favorite grocery store, a walk in the local park, a deliciously gossipy two-hour phone call with a church friend.

These small things are life rafts keeping me afloat in the unrelenting tidal wave of the pandemic. I find myself grabbing the phone every time I hear a push alert from the local TV station, thinking, “My God, what now?” The constant bombardment of grim statistics followed by everyone shouting at each other on social media keeps me in a roiling sea of fear and anxiety and yet it’s like an addiction. I crave the fix of the latest news.

Tonight my husband and I will order take-out meals from a local restaurant and settle into our TV chairs. We may stream The King and I from Lincoln Center or watch another episode of The Wire. It’s a far cry from stepping into formal concert clothes and singing exquisite music we worked months to prepare and that makes me sad. I miss all the should-have-beens, but they will come back. In the meantime, appreciation for what we do have, for what makes our lives richer and better right now, is enough.

 

A Perspective on the Demise of Midnight Mass

I realize I’m a curmudgeonly dinosaur, but I miss late-night church on Christmas Eve. I know, I know, everyone’s exhausted and has obligations the next day, and no one wants to come out at that hour anymore, but I still miss it.

I was about seven when my parents decided I was old enough to go to midnight mass with them on Christmas Eve, and I could barely contain my excitement. After the starkness of Advent, I was awestruck walking into the candlelit church, bedecked with garlands of real pine and laurel and with banks of brilliant poinsettias filling the chancel. That child-like joy has remained with me over the years, and I don’t think I have missed a Christmas Eve late service ever since.

There is something about going to church in the middle of the night that makes the mystery of Christ’s birth all the more meaningful. Once a year, we make the effort to say this is special, this is a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. In the church where I grew up, at the stroke of midnight, the service paused as the baby Jesus was gently placed in the manger. To me, that was Christmas, and everything else was just window-dressing.

But like so many things in mainline churches, all has changed in an effort to keep getting those elusive bodies into the pews. I suspect God doesn’t care when you worship, and it’s better to be practical and offer services when people are willing to come. The first time I attended the midnight service in my current church, the ushers wore tuxes. Now, sadly, we struggle to get enough ushers to volunteer. After years of decreasing attendance at the late service and threats of mutiny amongst the choir members, the decision was made to move the service earlier, and it looks like that will stand for the foreseeable future.

Last year, we fulfilled our commitments at our home church and then attended a midnight service in a nearby town. The sanctuary was filled to capacity and it was a glorious celebration. I shed a few tears for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it just felt so good and so much like the Christmases I knew growing up. When we looked at church websites to find a late service for this year, there were few listed, so I’m not sure if we’ll get to one or not.

In the meantime, my husband and I have been rehearsing with the choir of a church where a friend and former teaching colleague is the director. We’re helping to sing their cantata because it might be the last time I get to do this. My friend is fighting a deadly form of cancer and he’s tired and the treatment has taken its toll. I’m there partly because I want to sing and partly in case he needs a back-up conductor.  He’s still very much himself, though, full of snarky remarks and loving his music schmaltzy and over-the-top. But as we sang Dan Forrest’s gorgeous arrangement of Silent Night, and I watched my friend’s face glow with pride and emotion, I thought this cantata service may well be my midnight mass this year–a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. Everything else is just window-dressing.

St. John's star

 

 

 

Sacred Service

I’ve spent a lot of time recently learning Hebrew. Well, not really learning it, but learning how to pronounce it. The clunky consonants, unusual vowel pronunciations and that “ch” sound that feels like scraping a piece of paper across the roof of your mouth have caused me to develop a whole new respect for our Jewish brothers and sisters who speak Hebrew fluently for their bar- and bat-mitzvahs. Even the word amen is pronounced differently. “Ah-Main” instead of “Ah-Men.”

The chorale that I sing with is preparing a performance of Ernest Bloch’s “Sacred Service,” written in the early 1930’s and described on the title page as “A Sabbath Morning Service according to the Union Prayer Book.” I think all of us were intimidated by a score of 90-plus pages of Hebrew, very little of which is repetitive, not to mention the fact that the music is rhythmically complex and just plain difficult. I sit with my laptop listening to a downloaded file that goes through the music phrase-by-phrase, first pronouncing the words slowly and distinctly, followed by a sung rendition from a somewhat wobbly-voiced quartet. Kind of like Rosetta Stone for Hebrew.

hebrew-105435_1280

I’ve sung a lot of sacred works – masses and requiems and glorias, the great Bach “B Minor Mass” and “Christmas Oratorio” and of course, the “Messiah,” all of which have biblical texts but heavily slanted toward the New Testament. This is the first time I have ever sung music intended for, in the composer’s own words, “the congregation of the Children of Israel.”

It is heart-wrenchingly beautiful, holy music. A solo baritone cantor, requiring a truly virtuosic singer, soars above the orchestra and is interwoven with the choral parts throughout the entire work. The texts are powerful hymns of praise to God and interestingly, the translations not unfamiliar words— “We adore Thee and worship Thee, and we bow the head before Thee.” “He the King of the Kings of Kings.” “For all things in heav’n and earth are Thine.”

Ernst Bloch

Bloch, like us, knew no Hebrew when he was commissioned to compose the piece but according to program notes, “embarked upon intense study of the text” and intended to express “not only the literal meanings of the Hebrew words but their widest possible connotations.” He even insisted that one movement always be sung in the native language of the country where it was being performed to make sure the audience understood the message. He chose not to just skim the surface of the text, but present it in all its depth and complexity, and it is our job as choral musicians to do the same thing. We have our work cut out for us.

We spend hours of rehearsal time, grinding through the music, sometimes note-by-note, singing sections at painfully slow tempos just to get some grasp of the rhythm. We gather in small groups to sing excerpts as our director circulates through the room listening for wrong notes and hesitant Hebrew. We stand in circles so that we can watch and listen to each other, gleaning help from another singer when we falter and smiling with our eyes when we make it through a difficult passage without a mistake.

In mid-April, a combined choir of 120 voices will sing the “Sacred Service” accompanied by a world-class regional orchestra. Many of the choir members are local college students for whom this may be their first exposure to music, or anything else, representing the Jewish faith. That’s probably true for most of us adult singers as well. The orchestra conductor himself is Jewish, and I suspect the opportunity for him to present this magnificent work goes way beyond artistic interpretation of notes on the page.

We frequently hear about the power of music and its ability heal a troubled world, to help us figure out a way to talk to each other and more importantly, how to listen to each other. One of the articles I read about Bloch mentioned that he announced at the tender age of nine, “I would compose music that would bring peace and happiness to mankind!” If only it were that simple.

I must get back to practicing since I am still struggling with the fifth movement. I want to learn this to the best of my abilities. I owe that to the chorale, the music directors, the audience. I owe that to the faithful people for whom this work is their “Messiah,” their Vivaldi “Gloria.”  And, to be honest, it’s kind of cool to learn a foreign language and a different way of praising God from a piece of music.

There is something to be said for immersing oneself in new learning, not only to preserve artistic integrity but to respect another culture or religious tradition. It would be a travesty for the “Sacred Service” to be performed in English, and yes, it’s hard work to learn the Hebrew, but that effort places us in the temple, shoulder to shoulder and voice to voice with our Jewish brethren, all worshipping God together. We develop the skills we need to sing with those who may be different from us rather than standing in the corner with crossed arms and an angry face, steadfastly refusing to learn a new song.

 Jewish worship