Monday, December 17, 2012

Fiddling for the Lord

Since moving back to Eau Claire I've been participating in my church choir every week. There are a few reasons for this. First, I believe participating in a choir setting and learning how to properly sing will make me a better musician all around. I know this one to be true. Picking out and following one of four voice parts has already improved my ear. Secondly, I wanted to get more involved in my church community this time around and thought choir was a good start. Success on this one, too. I'm reliably attending services twice a week and have built strong relationships with people I've gone to church with for years but hardly spoken to until now. Lastly, I thought taking part in music making at church would aid me on my faith journey and my relationship with God. If I have to be honest, I'm still working on this one. I find myself more often than not focusing on how to properly sing the music instead of the meaning of the music itself. Focusing on how to pronounce the words (talking about consonants here, people) instead of focusing on the Word. But, hey, we're getting there.

This Advent season we had a few pieces come up featuring violin parts. Our church has no shortage of talented musicians, including wonderful violin players. We are a congregation serving students at a university with a strong music program. Normally we got this covered. But on Sunday the 23rd, the Sunday after Finals when everyone has already left, we're playing a version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” in the style of Hebrew folk music, with a rocking violin/fiddle part. We couldn't find anyone to play it and somehow I allowed myself to be volunteered to give it a try, with a big MAYBE stamped on the end. That is where this story begins.

I am a middle school orchestra teacher, so I know my way around a violin. I can tell you all the parts, I can tune it, I can fix it if ain't too broke. I can play anything a good but not exceptional 8th grader can play, but that by no means makes me a violin player. In fact, I'm a bass player, which on the small spectrum of string instruments is about as far away as you can get. I'm used to notes being inches away from each other, not millimeters. I'm used to strings being so far apart that string crossings are a challenge, not something you do accidentally when you're being careless. I'm used to strings tuned to fourths, not fifths. I'm used to my notes being so low and grumbly that they hardly have to be in tune. I don't really do solos.

And yet here I am. Practicing violin every night. Because I have to. For an accomplished adult violinist this piece would probably be a sightread. For me it's a project. I've put in a few weeks on this and it's only now getting there. Granted, I haven't been hitting it hard every night(I do have a job and other things to accomplish), but there have been times when I spend an hour or two straight practicing. It's hard work and even with me taking out a lot of ornamentation in the song I'm not sure it'll be ready by Sunday.

I love Christmas music, at least the good stuff. (I'll talk your ear off about what makes a Christmas song good and what makes one trash, but that will have to wait for another essay.) Since 2005 I've always reached a point somewhere in December where I switch over to only listening to Christmas tunes and never switch back. This year I switched pretty early, partially because of the December 10th snowfall, and partially because Sufjan Stevens released yet another brilliant Chirstmas album. Woe to my roommate for having to hear the same acoustic renditions of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on repeat.

One carol I've always had a complicated relationship with is “The Little Drummer Boy.” Musically I've never cared for it. The melody is pretty weak and the whole “pa-rum-pa-pum-pum” thing is pretty stupid. But the story, the message, is beautiful. It really deserves a better song than the one it has been given. A young boy hears about the birth of baby Jesus, the birth of a new King. He is ecstatic and excited and wants to honor the king, but he hears of wise men bringing extravagant gifts from far away lands and here he has nothing. Nothing but his drum and his song. But he goes anyway and gives what he has, his little song on his little drum. It's really kind of funny if you think about it. A newborn child, the tired parents who have traveled for miles on a donkey and are forced to sleep out in a barn. You know what they really need to help them rest right now? A freaking drum solo. But the drummer boy's bumbling cluelessness is part of what's so endearing and beautiful about the whole thing. What he has is imperfect but he gives it anyway.

I guess this is where I find myself in preparation for Sunday's service. Just trying to scrape together what I can as a gift to show my wonder to the newborn King. Sometimes I feel like that little drummer boy. I'm not poor by any means. I work hard for a comfortable but modest life that I'm thankful for every day. But after my few expenses (which are really just rent and groceries) I don't have much left for tithe. I try to give of myself, through volunteering, through making myself available to help, and now through working hard at learning violin. Of course it's not totally altruistic; as a teacher I will benefit from being better at one of the instruments I teach. But that was not my reason for taking up the song in the first place.

This weekend I played for the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra holiday concert. For our second half we played selections from Handel's Messiah. I don't know how much you know about Baroque basso continuo, but you can probably figure it out from the name; the basses play continuously. Minute after painful minute of ceaseless eighth notes. As it goes on it starts to be like a physical activity, like a sport, where I am focusing on making it through the pain as much as I am focusing on playing the right notes. When the concert was done I was physically defeated and just sort of sat around for 15 minutes. It's a strange feeling creating such beautiful, sacred music but having such focus on just making it through. But it's satisfying giving completely of yourself, to the point of physical exhaustion. And it's gratifying to play with a large group of great musicians to a large group, glorious music that has been repeated for centuries.

Sunday will be very different. Not playing on an instrument that I have mastered in a group of professional musicians. We are a small choir at a small church. Most of us make music as a hobby, not a living. And it will not be a packed auditorium, it will be a small service, with a large part of the flock having already gone home to their families. But this excites me more than some large glorious concert. Just a few of us, trying our best to give what little we can. Quietly giving of ourselves in the best way we know how, hoping our gift will be acceptable.

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