Like the fashion industry, church choir directors think two seasons ahead.
My irises are blooming, and we have yet to put on this Easter’s program, but already it is Christmas around my dining room table and piano. As I play through sample copies of various arrangements, I sort them into piles: “forget it,” “maybe – come back to it,” and “show Janet,” our organist/pianist. Janet and I have worked together for many years, and we share programming sensibilities.
She and I also have been fortunate to have been part of a close set of professional and professionally-trained musicians in the Pasadena Stake. Somehow we’ve always managed to have a pretty deep musical bench. Our ward in particular has had among us a soprano with LA Opera and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, a violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a conductor of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. We’ve had any number of piano majors move in and out, and our stake right now has two Doctor of Musical Arts students at the USC Thornton School of Music.
Our church has a great music heritage, what with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (which we affectionately call the “MoTabs”) and all, but the reality is, it is a struggle to maintain a standard of high-quality music in our church services and events. We are all volunteers, so singing or lending instrumental support comes on top of everything else everyone is busy doing in their lives. We may have our stand-out talents, but most of my ward choir singers do not read music, have not ever had any vocal training, and have not ever sung in any other choir. Yet the goal is to sound as though everyone is a stand-out talent.
So those of us here in Pasadena who bring our musical training to the metaphorical stable, like the Magi with their gifts, have had a “one for all, and all for one” attitude. We constantly cover for one another, which includes taking time off of work whenever there is a funeral, to sing, play the piano, or direct the congregational hymns, occasionally for a family member of someone we may not even have known.
Janet and I, and others, have talked about this over the years, and we think that perhaps our biggest church musician responsibility has been to raise children who themselves have become church musicians, trained not only in what to do – the music competencies-- but also in how to do it – to serve unconditionally. At Janet’s request, I taught her daughters piano about 20 years ago; one of them has become a beautiful organist in her own right. Many in our ward have hosted Akemi in their homes to have a “practice audience” before a competition or recital. Just the other night, Akemi, home on spring break, played through a few pieces for her recital next Saturday night for one ward family, and we got to hear their son and daughter play their upcoming recital pieces, as well. We all had such fun, and it was the kind of “pay it forward” evening I cherish.
One Sunday morning a few years back, Janet, Deanne, and I stood in the back of the chapel, watching our daughters Shannon, Allison, and Akemi rehearse a number together. We put our arms around each other’s shoulders and told ourselves, “Look at that; we did it.” Our children are taking their places not only as musicians, but also as music administrators and leaders in their own right.
Tonight in between Akemi practicing Bloch’s “Baal Shem” and her other recital pieces, she has been taking breaks by plunking away at a few hymns, the results of NEC keyboard technique classes. I’ve rotated in on the piano bench, reading a few more Christmas pieces at a time, and am proud I can ask her what she thinks of an arrangement.
It’s Christmas in March, not only because of the advance seasonal choir planning, but because the Magi have brought the heritage of musical training to the stable.