Yesterday (Sunday) was an interesting day for me. While getting ready for church on Sunday morning, I always watch CBS Sunday Morning, a wonderful news-magazine show that features human interest stories, profiles of artists and musicians, music and movie reviews, and commentaries from people like Ben Stein and Mo Rocca. Yesterday’s features were as excellent as always – a profile of Michael Buble (YUM!), an article about the full moon and its supposed effects on human behavior, interviews with people involved in the polygamist cult in El Dorado. There was also a review of a new film documentary, called Young@Heart about folks in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, who sing arrangements of rock’n’roll songs and travel around performing at various functions. Here’s a link to the review. It was ironic that I saw this particular item on the day that I made my “rock” debut.
My church has a praise band that has been in existence for two or three years now. When it was first formed, there was a general invitation for interested musicians and singers to join up. At the time, I felt that I was too old for something like that – I worried that they wouldn’t want somebody as old as me associated with the group. Not that the founders were teenagers or anything, mind you – the organizer, Richard, is in his mid-forties. The other singers and musicians varied in age, from a teenaged drummer to a lead guitarist who is just one or two years younger than I. It was my own perception of my age that was holding me back – that, and the idea that maybe this was just a flash-in-the-pan group that would surge then fade away. I didn’t think I wanted to be associated with that, and I didn’t think I had the time.
But over the years, I’ve become good friends with several of the members of the praise band. The musicians play along with the worship team on regular Sundays, and on one Sunday per month the band with its singers leads worship alone. They also have performed at a couple of outside functions. As my friendship with the praise band members grew, I began to regret my decision to not be involved. They were having fun, growing as friends, and enjoying the opportunity to make music together. I wanted in.
So I started hinting around that maybe I could help out on keyboards. They haven’t had a consistent keyboard player, although the church pianist used to play with them sometimes. A few weeks ago, after our monthly Angel Food distribution, I “jammed” with the guitarists, just for fun. I realize now that the jam session was a sort of informal tryout. The guys wanted to see what I could do, if I could pick up the music quickly, and if I could play in a style that would help rather than hinder. After all, I’m the church organist – not a prime candidate for playing the type of light rock favored by the praise band members.
However, of the three or four keyboardists at our church, I’m probably the one most uniquely qualified to fill this role. The reason goes back to my days in high school. In 1970, my youth minister started a coffee house ministry as a way to reach out to young people. The church owned a rickety old frame house that stood on the edge of property purchased for building a parking lot. We gutted the interior of the house, built a stage in one corner of the main area, painted the walls flat black then painted Christian graffiti-style messages around the perimeter in day-glo paints. The small kitchen was remodelled so that a counter area could be used for serving coffee and cold drinks, and a small bedroom was turned into a prayer chapel. The youth director held auditions and formed a “folk group” to play in the coffee house every Friday night. The coffee house was dubbed “The House of the Risen Son” (get it?) and the band was called “The Residents.” I was a member of that original group. I sang and played the Fender-Rhodes electric piano. Most of the songs we sang were covers of popular folk music songs, and then we would finish each set with a couple of Christian songs and a brief testimony. This was way before the days of the Christian music industry – there were very few original pop-style Christian songs to choose from. As keyboard player, I had to learn how to read chord charts and play by ear while singing.
Although those skills are a bit rusty, they’re still with me thirty-five or so years later. And those are the skills that are needed to support my current church’s praise band. As I was getting dressed and putting on my makeup yesterday morning, I was anticipating my first public performance with the band. Then the CBS Sunday Morning review came on, showing clips of senior citizens singing rock’n’roll with obvious joy. The reviewer was quick to point out that the Rolling Stones are nearing their seventies themselves. So the music that was once considered to be in the strict province of the young – don’t trust anyone over thirty, etc. – is not so anymore. Still, as I left the house and headed for church, I wondered if I was going to be able to pull this off. At least I could hide behind the keyboard, I thought – I wasn’t going to be standing out in front with the other singers.
When we started playing the music, all concerns about age faded away in the rush of excitement I felt in being a part of the band. Making music with other people is an extraordinarily satisfying experience. Even though we had some minor gaffs (as usual), I felt that the music went well, and that the congregation was given the opportunity to worship with us as we sang and played. The whole point of church music is to express corporate worship, after all. We weren’t on the stage to perform, but to lead and provide opportunities for the church members to experience worship. But we wanted to play well, and I think we did. After all, as I have said many times, if you “mess up” – if you play the wrong note or chord or sing the wrong word – that brings the congregation’s attention to you. If you play well, you become transparent, and the people in the pews are freed to sing along and participate in making music that lifts them up, and that allows them to sing praises to God. But the average person in the pew needs to feel confident in the music in order to be able to really let go, forget their inhibitions, and sing. So it’s important that the musicians convey that confidence. I think we did pretty well for the most part. And I have to say that it was one of the most purely enjoyable experiences I have had lately. I don’t care how old I get, I will always treasure the gift of music.