Filling in the Gaps

Our church has a small but dedicated choir, but we often  compliments such as “it sounds like the loft is FULL! It sounds like there’s a lot more people singing up there than there is!” It’s a lovely comment, especially as we’re often more of a quartet than a choir.

My friend (and fellow chorister) Margaret recently observed: “I think that God comes in and fills in the empty spaces for us.”

hymnals

We do sing with intention. We want to give our best to God, to our church family, and to Leon (our choir director who brings out the best in us).  I think Margaret got it just right: God does fill in the spaces and magnifies our efforts. God can enlarge what we do if we allow it. Here’s an example from my own musical life:

On December 27, 2011, I lost my hearing in my left ear.  Unable to find any other explanation for this sudden change (I’m meticulous about hearing protection when performing), my doctors figured it was the result of “a virus.”  Over the next year I went through multiple tests, consultations, and listening to well-meaning folks telling me that it might just be wax in my ears, and why didn’t I just have surgery? I clung to hope of a spontaneous return of hearing (it might happen, my doctor said, we have to give it a year).  I resisted the idea of a hearing aid for a while, and then began to look forward to the one year mark when I could begin the process of being fitted for a hearing aid.

That was not to be.  The sensorineural hearing loss I have does not respond to a hearing aid.  Welcome to life in monaural. I cried a river.

I’ve had to adapt.  In the case of Epiphany’s choir, small is a blessing for me.  I’m able to hear and enjoy the other parts without being distracted or confused.  You can’t sing harmony without listening to what else is going on. While that’s not a problem with two working ears, it’s very tricky with only one. Unison singing can be challenging if we’re not all completely unison.  My fellow choir members have become used to my moving around to find just the right spot to stand in the loft so that I can hear. At least solos are easy.

Recording vocal parts requires adjustment, too.  My music partner Joshua and I recently remixed and re-recorded some demos from our Women at the Well program and released a short CD.  A main objective was to re-record vocals and add vocal harmonies on several of the tracks, and there’s where God filled in the blanks.

Adding the harmonies required overdubbing – me singing different lines over myself.  You can’t do that without hearing everything, and hearing everything with only one ear means the brain is  processing some signals differently.  I can’t exactly describe it, but I do know I had to completely re-learn how to manage this.

Since the only budget for this project was earmarked for CD replication, we were recording at Joshua’s house.  The bathroom was the vocal booth.  Contrary to what you may think, that’s not because of “bathroom acoustics” but rather because it was the quietest room in the house. Since a vocal booth needs to be “dead,” we had a lot of blankets and towels draped everywhere!

It’s a pretty funny picture.  I was standing in a tiny bathroom, blankets draped over the shower curtain rod and piled in the bathtub, a big stuffed teddy bear crammed into the closet-without-a-door, scribbled notation taped to the wall in front of me so I’d remember exactly what to sing (what line am I singing now?) and I’m holding one headphone a couple of inches away from my ear so I can hear where to come in – but not so much as to be confusing….In the middle of all of this, a daddy longlegs spider appeared in the corner to watch.

Our budget also doesn’t allow for autotune, so it had to be perfect.

When I heard the final product, I cried with joy and relief.  I’d feared I’d never be able to do this again, yet there it was, beautiful harmonies and all.

One of the first people to hear the final product was our friend Danny, who plays keyboards and sings backup in a world-touring zydeco band.  Danny knows of my hearing loss, and also understands what’s necessary in overdubbing harmony lines.  How did you do that with just one ear?  he asked.  That’s a miracle.

God stepped in to fill in the blanks inside of my head and ears.  A next-to-nothing budget, Joshua’s considerable production skills and a whole lot of Divine assistance gave us a CD we could be proud of, that we could offer to those who heard our Women at the Well program and wanted to revisit the music again and again.

God fills in the empty spaces wherever we allow God to do so.  My hearing loss makes me realize that if I’m going to keep doing what I love, I need God to fill in those empty spaces.

This morning I was fixing my tea and thinking about Margaret’s comment, our “heavenly choir” and how God fills things out for us.  My eyes fell on a mail order catalog that my husband had left open on the kitchen table.  There was a teeshirt that simply said:

God greater than

God is greater than. Can I get an AMEN? God is greater than anything and will fill in the blank spaces when we allow it.

To learn more about the Women at the Well program, visit www.women-at-the-well.com. For information about the Living Water CD, visit www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbontherock The CD page has the latest recordings.

Hurricane Rita: Ten Years

Ten years ago, hurricane Rita (“the forgotten hurricane”) tore through southwest Louisiana. It was only 3 weeks after hurricane Katrina had captured national attention.  Katrina had slammed New Orleans and coastal areas to the east; obliterating coastline communities throughout Mississippi and Alabama. Rita took care of the rest of Louisiana (and southeast Texas as well).

A few weeks before Katrina was even a blip in the Atlantic, I had pulled out a song I’d written after a concert at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, Mississippi. This area had been hard hit in 1969 by Hurricane Camille, a storm of legend, and the church (which was situated right across the highway from the Gulf) had been destroyed in that storm.  Only the bell tower remained, and photos were on display in the parish hall. The song, Wall of Water, was one that my band, Blue Merlot, agreed was one to include on a CD we were planning.

A few weeks later, Katina hit.  Then Rita.  Our CD project was delayed in a big way.  Eventually, though, it was recorded.  Even later, we pulled together bits of video recorded (some months after Rita) and hurricane photos for a video:

A wall, a wall of water, 30 feet high…where you gonna run to when the sea becomes the sky?

Simple Gifts, Verse 2

Right now I’m preparing for an upcoming musical offering at a church.  Our opening song will be Simple Gifts, which is a traditional Shaker song that I’ve always loved.  Today I took a few minutes away from my regular routine to do some digging into this beloved song’s history.

Simple Gifts was written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848.  The proper name of the denomination is the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (or simply “Believers”).  They were referred to as “Shakers” because of their very active ways of worship.  My college Zen teacher, Fr. Ben Wren, SJ, would have called it “three dimensional prayer.”  They danced (or “labored”), trembled, clapped, fell, and…sang.  Do just a wee bit of digging online on Shaker song history and you’ll find they were prolific songwriters – thousands of songs came from this relatively small denomination.

shakerdance

Simple Gifts is a classic.  The song enjoyed revival after composer Aaron Copland used the melody in Appalachian Spring, a ballet, and then in a collection, Old American Songs. Since then, it’s been recorded by many artists, and has been performed at two presidential inaugurations.

It’s a dance song, with a catchy melody and lyrics that most people can identify with.  Brackett gave us one verse that celebrates the beauty of a simple life:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
and when we find ourself in the place just right
’twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
to turn, turn, will be our delight
’til by turning, turning, we come ’round right.

This single, simple verse is lovely, and impossible to improve upon.  Loving the song, I’ve added my own second verse, inspired by the ideal of doing what we’re called to do, and sharing our gifts:

There are gifts of the spirit, there are gifts of the soul
There are gifts we give and blessings that we hold
and when we feel the touch of the Spirit’s wind
‘twill be a sign for the giving to begin.
When we answer each our call
We spread these gifts to one and all
We hear, do, and each shall give their own
Til by giving and doing we all have grown.*

Today I learned that (according to the Shaker Historical Society) Shakers believed that everyone has gifts and talents and each person was to use those gifts, and that creativity is a form of worship.  Amen to that!

Keep life simple, accept your gifts and share them.

*© 2005 Brenda D. Lowry, all rights reserved.

Reentry

I’ve been absent from these blog pages lately.  My music partner and I returned recently from a week-long tour in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, presenting our Women at the Well music program at several churches there.  It was a wonderful experience, and we were awed and humbled by the responses the music received.  What a blessing!  Then, home in time for the latter part of Holy Week, which meant more wonderful music in liturgy.

The tour was a stretch – it was a challenge to be in community with different congregations in so a short period of time.  You see, I don’t like thinking of myself as a “performer” in this context.  (Performing is what I do with the blues band!) I have no problem singing (or speaking) in front of people, but music focused on God is… focused on God!  I’m just the messenger, and I always hope that my technique enhances the music instead of taking away from it.

Yet, I know that not everyone feels comfortable being “in front.”  For me, it’s just a part of doing what I do.  The message is important, and I’m the one to deliver it, so…here goes.  I step up and sing and speak.

Transfiguration 1

And oh, how I long to know everyone in the room.  What are their stories?  I see individual faces, I get feelings, reactions from many…so I do know you.  Some are more guarded, some are wide open, some are in between.  Doesn’t matter to me.  I see the faces, I ride the ebb and flow, and I pray always that whatever is said and sung will bring comfort or joy or insight to someone.  It is, in my mind, a communal act – even though I won’t have the chance to meet everyone.  It doesn’t matter; we are all a part of this experience, in this moment, in this church.  And we are connected, now and into the future.

You are all part of Women at the Well, I say at the end of the event.  By being there, everyone has certainly given me a gift.  The Gift of Presence, of Witness, is awe-inspiring to me.  I tell everyone that they will be in our hearts.

And you are.

http://www.women-at-the-well.com

High Holy Days

I sing at our local Jewish temple, which is Temple Gates of Prayer in New Iberia, Louisiana.  This is a small congregation, deep in the primarily Christian area of south Louisiana.  The temple, over a hundred years old, is within walking distance of churches that are Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Church of Christ and Methodist Episcopal, with other denominations in the area (just not within walking distance).  I have sung there for over 10 years, and feel very blessed to do so.

Temple Gates of Prayer New Iberia Louisiana Temple Gates of Prayer, New Iberia, LA

When people learn this, they want to know how this Christian musician wound up singing at a Jewish church.  Just lucky, I say. I was in the right place at the right time when their previous vocalist retired, and I was willing (and excited) to tackle something new.

And so it was that I encountered a whole new world of music and of worship.  I learned the Sh’ma and the Bar’chu. I learned that while vowels weren’t exactly an afterthought in Hebrew,  they probably weren’t on the tablets that God gave Moses.  I also learned that different rabbis write transliterations (phonetic spellings) of the same word in many different ways!

I write this in the middle of High Holy Days, which encompass Rosh Hashana (the new year), Yom Kippur (Day of Attonement) and Shabbat Shuvah, which is the Shabbat that falls in between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  For Gates of Prayer, this time also marks the arrival of their new student rabbi.  As a small congregation, they are served by rabbinical students.  This year is extremely unusual as they have the same student as last year, Alex Kress.  (Most of the time there is a new student rabbi every year.)

This personnel change is unusual; most churchgoers, regardless of denomination, are used to having a spiritual leader for longer than 9 months at a time.  The rabbis may change, but the congregation must stand on its own as a community. They do so, and embrace each new rabbi with open arms and open hearts.  (This being south Louisiana, I must add “open kitchens” as well!) The rabbis become a part of the community, and I think they leave a part of themselves here.

Over the years, I’ve been asked questions members of my “Jewish church family” and my “regular church family” (and other curious souls).  I’ve often heard comments / questions about my level of participation in the service at Gates of Prayer.

“You read along with the prayers?” Yes, of course.  Prayers all go to God, regardless of where I’m standing when I pray.  The prayerbook I use doesn’t matter.  Prayer comes from the heart.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of the many I’ve learned from my years with Congregation Gates of Prayer is simply this: There is much more that draws us together than that which separates us.  We pray for peace, for compassion, for redemption and forgiveness. We pray for those we love, and we pray for help in loving those who may be hard to love.  We pray that we may be better people..  Being Christlike is doing (following) mitzvah.  Love God, do good, follow the commandments.

It’s all good.  It’s all God.

Beyond Piano Lessons

“Mama, I want to learn piano. Mama, can I take piano lessons? Mama….Mama….” I don’t remember where this obsession came from.  I just remember my childish frustration with my toy piano with painted-on black keys.  I had no access to a “real” piano, but I KNEW those painted-on keys did NOT SOUND RIGHT.

Then, too, was also the frustration of how to play songs.  I could pick things out by ear, but there had to be other ways, to put music together like I’d seen on TV.  I had been so excited to start school and adored reading, but by the second grade I had seen this other mysterious printed language that promised something even more wonderful than a story: Music!  I knew that if I could read words, I could learn to read music, I just needed someone to teach me.

One day, Mom saw something in the paper about piano lessons.  “Mrs. Clark!” she exclaimed, “why, she taught me Geometry in high school!” A phone call was made, and not long afterwards we were heading to town where I was introduced to a lovely older lady with tight grey curls, orthopedic shoes, thick bifocal cat-eye glasses and a twinkle in her eyes.  Her home was small and simple and smelled of pine, furniture oil, Cashmere Bouquet and baked goodies that I couldn’t quite identify.  Best of all, there, was an upright piano in a place of honor, right in the front room.

Mom sat with us during my first lesson.  At the end of that lesson, we all agreed that we would continue.  I went home with Eric Steiner’s Junior Approach to the Piano, and headed to my aunt’s house to practice, as she had a piano.  Within a week or two, a rental piano was delivered to our home, and Mom was bringing me twice a week to Mrs. Clark’s house.

I suppose other teachers could have guided me through learning to play, but Mrs. Clark taught me more than that.  She never hosted recitals (saying she was too old), but focused on a student learning to play whatever music they loved.  To be sure, we worked through entire courses from Eric Steiner, John Thompson, and Michael Aaron (along with Czerny’s School of Velocity and quite a few theory books), but she also welcomed anything I happened upon that I brought in to tackle.  From the Reader’s Digest Fireside Book of Folk Songs to books of popular songs and various “Greatest Hits of……” it was welcomed in Mrs. Clark’s home.

I didn’t just learn to read music and play piano.  I also learned to make graham cracker brownies (she always had a bag of these for me, and for every student after each lesson) and I loved hearing her stories of playing for the silent movies when she was a teen.  She was born in the late 1800s, and I began taking lessons from her in the late 1960s, so you do the math.  She had fallen in love with a man considerably older than she was.  They had fewer years together than many couples, but those years were precious and filled with joy.  They had one son. She saw both World Wars, and told me what it was like “back home” during those difficult years.  She listened to my joys and frustrations at school and dispensed advice without my even realizing it.  Over the years, she became more housebound, but her students brought her joy and, she said, “kept her young.”  She wasn’t able to attend church often, but would get dressed up to watch Sunday services on television.  She would also make it a point to watch every Alabama football game that was televised; Coach “Bear” Bryant had been a student of hers some years before, so needless to say, she was a huge fan of the Crimson Tide.

I learned from Mrs. Clark that making music is more than just playing in perfect time with a metronome; it’s about playing with joy.  If you miss a note, she’d say, just keep going and carry an attitude that said everything was perfect.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but playing piano for a silent movie demanded that, just as does any situation of performing live for an audience.

When I was halfway through high school, she announced that she would be retiring from teaching piano and moving away to be closer to her only son.  Before leaving, she gave me a stack of her sheet music from the early 1900s.

mrs clark music upload

I couldn’t imagine having any other piano teacher; what could they possibly teach me that Mrs. Clark had not already taught?  I could practice on my own, and did so.  I poured my focus into other high school activities and trying to figure out what to do with my life. We kept up through letters, and I was able to visit her in her new home (about an hour away) on a couple of occasions.

She moved into a nursing home when I was in college, but we would still correspond.  I was busy with classes, and she and my mom corresponded as well.  Her mind was sharp as ever, and she asked the nursing home staff what she could do to assist with recordkeeping, letter writing, etc.  Health care privacy laws were not quite as strict then as they are now, and she was a welcome help to the staff. Her one complaint?  “All these old people around here who complain all the time!”

She died not long after I had graduated from college.  I went to the funeral home early in the morning on the day of her funeral, and sat quietly in the parlor and gave thanks for the incredible gift that she was in my life.  Even today, 3 decades later, I think of her and give thanks for her presence in her life.  I didn’t realize then that her teachings were applicable to life:  Do things you love with joy. If you mess up, just keep going with the attitude that everything is fine, because it really is.

In memory of Mrs. Edna Reynaud Clark, 1891 – 1984