Friday, February 13, 2015


The older I get, the more I stress planning ahead, particularly when it comes to church services. The chances are good that by the time the congregation hears the opening voluntary on Sunday, I've been practicing it close to every day for around two weeks. The same will be true of various other elements in the service. The choir usually gets going on the anthem about a month ahead of time; I've chosen most of what I'm going to play as soon as the next sermon series gets disseminated. Only the hymns come the week of the service, and I don't practice those much.

It's odd that I am such a preparer, because I also improvise a lot. I used to improvise entire church services--that offertory you heard this morning? Totally made that up as it was happening. If it's done well, the congregation can't tell. In fact, I remember throwing a change-up at some people in my congregation in Baltimore. When someone asked about the morning prelude one morning and I told them I just made it up, word got around that I sometimes improvised. The next week somebody noticed that there was no music on the rack and said, "You must have made up that postlude." "Nope" said I. "That was a piece I was playing from memory!" I like messing with people.

These days I still incorporate improvisation into a service (hard to avoid). But I emphasize the planned elements more. Still, it is impossible to get through a service without a fair amount of real-time adjustment.  This is not always in the form of create music on the spot, either. It can simply mean listening and watching. Last Sunday, for instance, the pastor wanted to sign through a single-verse hymn twice. He put up two fingers as we were singing. Now he had warned me at the early service just before we sang the hymn, but I didn't think the choir director knew about it. She had planned to conduct the hymn (which she rarely does) nice and slow and with some rubato. So I played the hymn a bit faster and in time for the first round, looking at the pastor and choir loft every so often the whole time. Then I noticed the pastor give the "2" sign again while the choir director was looking. Good, she saw it, I thought. So we went around again. This time, she directed. I know because on the second beat it was clear that the choir was behind me. I suddenly looked up and realized what a dummy I was for not having my eyes on the choir loft (20 feet to the right, by the way) when we started the second verse. Instead, my eyes were on the piano, making sure I didn't miss some octaves in the left hand. The ensemble problem only lasted a second, though; we were synced up by the next measure (I stretched that third beat a lot). I had had some warning about both the extra verse and the directing, but still had to be on the lookout for how these elements would come together. Otherwise they wouldn't!

An incident like that is only a few moments out of a typical Sunday morning. Two weeks ago we had what is possibly our most impromptu service. We've been in the midst of a pastor change at Faith, which, given that it involves medical leave, came up suddenly. So on Sunday morning extra elements (like an announcement to the congregation, followed by question and answers) were added, some were discarded (for time reasons), and some were moved around (such as when the liturgist accidentally skipped the opening voluntary). About a third of the way into the service, the pastor said to the congregation that they'd probably noticed that what was actually happening bore little resemblance to what was in their bulletins and that they could discard their bulletins!

Far from find that sort of thing annoying, I actually enjoy the challenge of a slapdash morning like that. I enjoy them because I know they can be successful but that I had better concentrate because the service(s) will be difficult, and lack of focus and quick and accurate decision making will make a mess of things. Therefore there is a bit of survivalist mode in view. This is going to take everything: no sleepwalking today.

And yet I plan. And most mornings go pretty much according to plan. Never entirely, I think, but mainly. And yet, when the pastor (or someone else) calls an audible, changing the play at the last minute, it can be most interesting. Now for some folks that's a dirty word: interesting. It is a synonym for less-than-good. But that's not what I mean. I actually mean that it piques my interest.

Our church is going through a lot of change these days. I am reminded of the 'Chinese curse': "May you live in interesting times." Whenever yet another development rocks our comfortable world, I tell my colleagues, "Well, it least things aren't boring around here." It's practically become my motto. It does feel sometimes as if there can be too much of a good thing: even for the man who likes change more than most there can be some overload. So when all of this is over, I may order up a couple of weeks of 'boring' just so I can get a bit of rest!

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