Friday, March 6, 2015

Scene in a Sanctuary

Fellow church organists: do you have the doxology memorized?

It is such a small bit of liturgy, and yet I have often noticed, particularly because I was trained as a pianist, that organists say they never memorize anything. I would think that if you played the same liturgical response every week you might want to commit it to memory.

For one thing, there is no grabbing the hymnal between the offertory and the closing hymn, possibly forgetting to get the page open, having little time to do it because of the music before and after: it saves fumbling around. One of my organistic predecessors had taped the Gloria Patri to the music rack so it was there permanently, although you would have to remove the other music to see it.

But there is another reward for committing the piece to memory beside being able to play it at the drop of a hat, without a hymnal, or taking the time to find it, and that is the joy of the distracted.

I have a tendency to look around during the doxology. I am not focused on the notes, and I can play it backward in the dark in my sleep whistling the retrograde inversion of another hymn in a different key while drinking coffee. Or something similar. So I look around. What I see is the congregation singing. Some of them look bored. Some of them are really putting their hearts into it. I will see someone looking beatific with their eyes closed. Another face full of passion. A teenager whose parents dragged them to church who just can't wait for it to be over. I see the choir, full voiced, leading the congregation in song. I see the ushers bringing the plates forward, parents and children on their best liturgical behavior. I see somebody holding a conversation or exchanging a joke. I see the pastor getting ready for the next bit which is a prayer.

I see the people I am serving. I am always listening to them; during hymn playing I am both leader and accompanist. We are in this together. But some of the time, and particularly during the doxology, I watch them. Try to take in the whole service at once. Get out of my little corner and let my gaze, and my spirit, roam abroad. I do that often, but the doxology has become a custom; my place in the service each week to check in with the bigger picture of the church singing, or to be amused at how all the little characteristic pieces add up to the whole.

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