"Play Us A Song Mr. Pianoman (Pianowoman)"
This discourse is inspired by the item on the original list of "You Might Have Grown Up In Worldwide Church of God If...You listened to Special Music that was neither special nor music." I personally have a lot of experience in the field of church "music" and all the idiosyncrasies of the system of musical worship as it existed in the Worldwide Church of God.
As a child growing up the church I was fascinated by the pianists who accompanied the song service. It seemed to be solely a woman's job, and as there were very few important things women could do at the church service besides serve coffee and scrub toilets, it held a mystical appeal for me, especially when the piano actually shared the same stage as the podium and wasn't on the floor in front of the elevated stage! I began playing the piano at age 7 and almost immediately upon mastering the basic skills began practicing "Blest and Happy is the Man"(page 1).
My debut came at age 14 and my life at church was never the same again. Please don't misunderstand, I loved playing the piano, at church or otherwise. I've always enjoyed creating music for the enjoyment of others, but little did I know at that time what a negative impact this "opportunity" would ultimately have on my church experience.
It was Christmas Day in Minnesota and we headed off for church in what quickly turned into a blizzard. The temperature was about 30 below zero with a wind-chill of 70 below. No one should have even attempted to attend services on such a day, but that's another story, for another day. My father, who had been a song leader for many years, was pressed into service as he was the most qualified of our little group of 30 or so people. The regular piano lady hadn't made it that day (smart gal...she stayed home so she wouldn't freeze to death) and Dad asked me to pitch in and play as he knew I had mastered enough of the hymns to constitute the 5 required for a song service. I must admit, it was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time to be given such an important role in the service. From that point on I worked at learning more of the hundred or so songs which were used from the purple "Bible Hymnal" and soon had a regular gig accompanying hymns once or twice a month.
From there I progressed to accompanying the choir, of which my Dad was director. We had a good thing going, since I inherited my musical ability from my father and we worked well together. We also had a fairly good little group of singers for such a small church, although we did have a screecher or two in the soprano section, as most church choirs usually did.
The next logical step was "Special Music". I launched my solo career at 15 during a normal, run-of-the-mill weekly church service, where there were only 100 or so people I could embarrass myself in front of. I remember the sheer terror of the few moments preceding my name being announced. I felt like I had to go to the bathroom and simultaneously wanted to run from the room. Strangely enough, for the entire 13 or so years I performed at church, that feeling never went away or dulled in its intensity.
My solo career proved to be modestly successful enough to be added to the regular schedule and a full fledged church pianist was born. Ironically, that so-called "schedule" was the thing, above any other, that made playing the piano at church an absolute nightmare!
As a female, I have never been privy to the inner workings of the local church infrastructure. I assume someone, namely the pastor or an elder or deacon, was responsible for deciding the who's, where's, how's and when's of the weekly service, including appointing the song leader. I was not deemed important enough to receive any sort of schedule as to when I was expected to play, that was to be communicated to me by the song leader. Well, guess what...there were men in positions of "importance" in the church who didn't know how to do their jobs! (I sure hope that doesn't come as a surprise to anyone.)
So most weeks I would arrive at church and the chase was on! I would begin by asking around to find out who the song leader was and then would frantically try to pin him down to get the list of songs for the day and still have enough time left over to practice before the service started. I was only 15 years old!! I certainly was no Liberace and I needed some warm up time before I could produce anything resembling a decent performance. Perhaps I was too hard on myself, but I took my job seriously and I didn't want to butterfinger my way through the songs, hitting more wrong notes than right, as I had seen others do. After all, we were singing to God, weren't we? I also hadn't mastered all 128 songs, much to the surprise of most song leaders, even though they themselves had no musical ability. More often than not were just up there flapping their arms like an angry chicken and had no clue of any relation between what their arms were doing and what the piano and the congregation were doing. Thankfully, most congregations had their heads buried in their purple books trying to master the complicated rhythms and lyrics like "Praise Ye the Lord-O" and the one about the owl, the melancholy sparrow and the lonely pelican.
I realized early on that I *gasp* was the one leading the congregation, NOT the man on the stage. What power! What an awesome responsibility! What a drag! I would sit on the bench, hands poised, watching vainly for a nod or some sign that I was to begin while the "leader" on stage would stand, arms outstretched, all the blood drained from their hands, fingers tingling, no doubt, until they remembered that THEY were the song leader! Then they would turn to glower at me as if the long, expectant, uncomfortable pause between turning to the right page and beginning to sing was somehow my fault!
Over the years I adapted and discovered a new respect for those ladies I had watched pounding away week after week as I was growing up in the church. I learned to anticipate when the inane opening comments were about to end and I should start the introduction. I learned when to pause and how to lead the congregation to sing in the correct rhythm(and notes). I learned how to surreptitiously speed up songs that were being "lead" like funeral dirges and how to very carefully slow down the pace of the ones which were being "lead" at the speed of light. Although I admit I enjoyed watching the song leaders get a workout on some of the racier tunes, flapping and waving maniacally as the congregation tripped over the words and couldn't catch their breath.
I learned to refuse to play the songs with 5 flats if I didn't know them well enough. I realize now that was probably perceived as direct rebellion, but I was the only one there who could tickle the ivories, so what could they do? (Except get frustrated and pick from the songs I actually COULD play) I learned all the different types of song leaders:
Those who actually knew what they were doing (About 10%);
2. Those who had a vague idea of what they were doing (About 10%);
3. Those who had no idea but gave it a good try (About 20%);
4. Those who knew they had no idea and were happy to leave it up to me (About 10%, and my personal favorites!);
5. Those who had no idea what they were doing but were so hung up on the power and authority of the position that they made the whole experience miserable for me and usually the congregation (About 50%)
It was this last type, men with no musical talent or ability, but so smitten with the perceived power they had to "lead" the congregation in song, that made me finally quit playing the piano in church altogether. These were the guys that wouldn't give me the song schedule until 2 minutes before services and it was scribbled on some crumpled scrap of paper that still had lint from their pocket clinging to it. They picked any song they pleased, even if I couldn't play it. They picked ONLY songs with 4 and 5 verses(I guess they were more "spiritual") and the opening song service would last for 20 minutes while we plowed and plodded our way through verse after verse after verse. They steered clear of the "Suggested Hymns For Holy Days", except DURING the Holy Days, and always chose "Go Ye Therefore Into All the World" as the closing hymn. They chose "secular" hymns sparingly. Hymns like "God Speaks to Us", "Praise Ye the Lord, The Almighty" and "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" which were my personal favorites and sung enthusiastically by the congregation because they were actually musical and somewhat rousing to sing. These were the guys that made us substitute "O Israel", instead of "America" in "America the Beautiful", a song about the natural beauty and rich resources of this great nation, not a group of "chosen" people!
I could go on and on, and unfortunately I did. As a teenager in the church I played hymns, accompanied the adult and children's choirs, accompanied solo vocalists and instrumentalists, played solo pieces myself and performed at a few weddings. I continued at AC, helping out in practice sessions, accompanying an outreach group and playing background music during formal dinner functions which necessitated me gulping down my food and abandoning my date during dinner.
After college I had a brief respite while spending a year in a church area with musical talent to spare and therefore only played an occasional song service or special music performance. Then, after my husband and I married, I ended up in what I look back on now as an abusive situation. I was the only person they had in the congregation in years that could play the piano. Previously they had relied on tapes, an occasional guest pianist from a neighboring church, or they just sang a cappella. The over enthusiastic minister immediately set up a schedule for me to accompany hymns weekly, formed an adult and children's choir and scheduled special music (me) at least once a month.
Along with everything else which was disillusioning me about church at the time (the early to mid 90's with the "changes" and Mr. Tkach's death, Joe, Jr.'s subsequent takeover, etc) I was being forced to sit at the piano literally from the time I walked in the door before services until they were clearing the hall to lock up. It only got worse after my daughter was born and I couldn't attend to her or spend the service with my husband and daughter, as a family, because I was always jumping up and running to play something for someone on the piano. I attended that relatively small congregation for about 5 years and didn't get to know anyone, because I never got the chance to visit before or after services. I felt like my leg was chained to the piano bench.
Finally, after watching me drive home in tears week after week, my husband requested the local minister discuss the situation and explained my dilemma. His response was to take me off ONE sabbath a month, and requested that I record music onto tapes the choir could use to practice by. Within a few months, I was back on the schedule full time. When I questioned him he said he thought it was OK because my daughter was a few months old by then and it would be easier for my husband to care for her while I played the piano. Which, of course, was not his decision to make! Within a few months of returning to the insanity I issued an ultimatum that I would not play at all, for any reason. Feel free to imagine what kind of treatment I got after that! My guilt caused me to agree to play occasionally, but thankfully, it was only a month or two later we wised up, walked out in the middle of services one day and finally stopped attending altogether. The ultimate irony...I was playing hymns that day...I still don't know what happened when the service was over and I wasn't there to play!
I haven't touched the piano for a long time...years, in fact. As with most things the church messed up in my life, it was easier to just ignore the pain than to try to deal with it. For some reason today I dug out my copy of the old purple book and started to play. I played from "Blest and Happy is the Man" to "Blessed Is the Nation God is For" I played "Turn Thou From Evil" and "Holy, Mighty Majesty". I played "Blow the Horn, Let Zion Hear" and "Behold, The Day Will Come". I played "Not Many Wise Men Now Are Called" (which seems to have been prophetic) and I played "God Speaks To Us" (who can forget "Trumpets before each stanza") I played all the way to end of the book. It felt good. It brought back memories. It made me sad.
I think I'll go to the music store and buy a book of Broadway show tunes and remember how much I loved to play the piano. I think I'll get a beginner's book while I'm there. I should teach my daughter, too.
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