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Pauline Lerner

January 27, 2005 at 8:20 AM

I had a simple, fun gig last Sunday. I played for two services at a nearby church. This is somewhat unusual for me because I am not a Christian. (I belong to a Unitarian church.) My community symphony orchestra rehearses rent free in a local church and, in return, musicians from the orchestra donate their services to the church. When I contacted the music director of the church, he was happy to find that I play several genres in addition to classical music. He was especially interested in gospel music. I suddenly realized that I don't know a whole lot of gospel music, and a lot of the gospel songs I know have short verses, but many of them. I tried a Google image search in the hope of finding sheet music for gospel songs, but there was very little. However, I found lots of collections of lyrics, including the trusty Cyber Hymnal. When I sort of know a song, I can remember the melody if I see the words. Now I had several gospel songs for the music director, J, to choose among. I also suggested a slow, sweet Irish traditional song, Carrickfergus, to play during the offertory. I told J that in my own church, I always give more during the offertory if the organist is playing Bach. J didn't know Carrickfergus, so I told him that I'd get him a copy of the sheet music. I had learned the tune from a CD which I couldn't find, so I did another Google image search. I found Carrickfergus, but not the way I play it. I set out to write down the music my own way and confirmed what I already knew, that the folk tradition is aural and the written version is only an approximation of the sound. I wrote it all down, tried playing it, made corrections to my written version, and played it again. It was as close as it was going to get. I explained this to J and told him that in Celtic music, two consecutive notes are generally not played for exactly the same length of time. For example, two consecutive eighth notes are often played as a dotted eight followed by a sixteenth. I made some subjective decisions about when to write down two eighth notes and when to write down a dotted eighth and a sixteenth, and I told J that the truth was probably somewhere between the two possibilities. When we played it together, I played my written version, so that we would both be literally reading from the same score. All the music I played sounded really good with J's piano back up. It's so nice when something works out so well.

Being in the church was an interesting experience for me. The sanctuary was small and very pretty. It was round, with an A frame type roof, and glass panels going most of the way around the circumference. The view of the woods was beautiful, and you almost felt that you were outdoors. J told me that he often saw birds, squirrels, and even deer through the glass panels. All that glass made the sanctuary hard to heat, and the temperature remained at about 63 degrees Fahrenheit during the services. The minister mentioned at the beginning of the service that the Presbyterian church has a strong singing tradition. The singing and the piano and organ music were all very good. J played the organ really beautifully. The choral number that I liked the most was an excerpt from Schubert's Mass #2. (I didn't even know that Schubert wrote masses. I associate him with lieder and chamber music, as well as nine symphonies.) There were two soloists, one male and one female, and they both sounded so good. Although the theology was alien to me, I was quite happy with the music.

The people in the church were nice, too. There was a fellowship break, with coffee and pastries, between the two services, and I went to partake. Several people came up to me, said that they had noticed that I was new, introduced themselves, and talked with me. Those who had been at the first service thanked me for playing and told me they enjoyed it. I also got lots of appreciation after the second service. Members of the congregation praised J highly in their conversations with me. They told me that the church organ was only one year old, and J had given an organ recital to celebrate, with plenty of Bach. They all said that it was a great concert, and, based on the music I heard J make, it must have been. I got another perspective from talking to members of the choir, since J served as choir director. They just loved him.

The church is near my home, the congregation is friendly, and the music is great. If I could only tolerate the theology, I'd join the church. I will get on their mailing list so that I can attend some of their music events, including an organ concert by J if I'm lucky. Also, I told J that I'd like to come back and play for services again. In addition to having a good time, I had the satisfaction of helping my community orchestra pay the rent.

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