Printer-friendly version
Emily Grossman


December 23, 2005 at 8:53 PM

George and I are unattached for the Christmas holidays. With no prior plans, I passively found myself accepting a paid gig for a midnight mass at the town’s catholic church. Midnight mass? I’ve never been, and George agreed that it was at least something to do. “One rehearsal. Easy Christmas carols.” I believe that’s how the email read, if memory serves me. Of course, it’s assumed that one rehearsal will always propagate a second, but oh, it doesn’t stop there.

As the rehearsal unfolded, I witnessed a metamorphosis, a transformation. Suddenly, I was no longer protestant Emily playing protestant hymn arrangements. My violin became an organ, and I found myself sight reading liturgical plainsong while fumbling around on foot pedals.

A plainsong, for those who are not catholic, is a one-measure piece. This measure has many beats--I suppose as many as needed--and uses lots of rubato. A plainsong can come in a variety of modes, as well. Theoretically, I was supposed to keep a consistent bass line with my feet while following the person singing the liturgy with my two hands. This would be a simple job, if I were in fact an organist, and if I had ever even seen a plainsong before. But alas, I was lost, my ears grasping for downbeats that never happened, my fingers searching for traditional Baptist cadences in vain.

The choir director was doing his best, but was actually a doctor. I did what any good back stand fiddler would do and buried my head in the music, hoping I could just blend with whatever everyone else was doing. If the responsibility of introducing a tempo fell on me, I made sure it was upbeat, since the addition of the choir automatically shot us into the “funeral dirge” mode. Every chord became heavy laden, and I strained to heave the mass forward. After a break, the choir director inquired about the reluctant tempo. In the midst of confused muttering, the lone bassist spoke up: “It would help if the keyboard could maybe pick up the tempo.” She looked at me. I stared back in amazement. You sing bass? Meanwhile, the other choir members pondered aloud whether it was, in fact, possible to sing both legato and fast at the same time. After one more agonizing bout with Agnus Dei, the choir director waved his hands and called it an evening.

I’m still not comfortable with the rubato-infested tempi of the plainsong. I don’t know whether it’s more ethical to follow the director, the strings, or the choir. Something inside me has the urge to choose my own tempo and let out all the stops, maybe insert a little toccata in D minor right between the Gloria and the Kyrie. Yeah, a little Bach does the heart good at Christmas time, or any time for that matter. I can’t help but feel that way; I’m a protestant at heart.

As I gathered my music, a first violinist piped up from across the room: “Emily, did you make sure to write a ritard on that last part there?” All the way, baby, all the way.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on December 23, 2005 at 10:50 PM
Emily, you've got to be good to even try to do that. I'll bet you sounded a lot better than you think you did. Merry Xmas.
From Aimee Liou
Posted on December 24, 2005 at 3:27 AM
Ahem. AHEM. Hnnh, mmm hmh!

Just clearing my throat before making this, my long-awaited first comment on your big blog, Em.

Now. What's this about making doctorhood sound like a shortcoming?! Maybe I should say physicianship.

I'll keep you in mind next time someone asks me if I know anyone who does one-man band stuff. Maybe you could get one of those harmonica braces and hang it over your ears while you play violin and organ. Oh! That and a nose flute too!

From Emily Grossman
Posted on December 24, 2005 at 6:58 AM
He is a doctor and not a choir director, just like I'm a violinist and not an organist. For both of us, it's our first attempt.


From Clare Chu
Posted on December 24, 2005 at 7:50 AM
Well Emily, you're sure brave. I've never been to a catholic mass and I'm sure I would not have held composure. I'm Baptist born-again too and I do love the old familiar hymns. I imagine catholic pieces are pretty formal and grand, designed to subdue and awe. I'm sure you did well (even though protesting inside).
From Mellisa Nill
Posted on December 24, 2005 at 10:44 PM

You should also mention that the director/doctor is also a tuba player. (Any inferences drawn from that are strictly your own, and not the opinions of Steele String Studio or Smith Rd. Strings.)

Also, the rehearsal with the choir was in a room, not the santuary with good acoustics, (I couldn't hear the choir at all, and they were maybe 4 feet behind me) and you were playing a keyboard, not an organ. So that more than contributed to your stuggle.

I think all things considered, you are doing a fine job. As a Protestant who has attended several masses with family, relax, and enjoy the beauty in the service. It may be different than what you're used to, but still beautiful nonetheless.


From Mellisa Nill
Posted on December 24, 2005 at 10:55 PM
PS: The strings and choir are supposed to be following the director....

But you know how that works out! :)

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on December 24, 2005 at 11:24 PM
Listen. We know to give Emily with a little artistic license. Don't blow it for her.
And yes, a Catholic service might be unsettling to the denominationally inclined, but as I often tell people, just relax and enjoy this. And if it means you go to hell, well s*** happens.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on December 24, 2005 at 11:30 PM
- with
From Emily Grossman
Posted on December 25, 2005 at 12:26 AM
That synthesizer was pretty cheesy. I was embarrassed. The organ will be much more aesthetic. Gotta run. I have to practice to get that ritard absolutely perfect.

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

The Wallis Presents

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine