When Christian and I left our previous parish so I could I start working full-time as liturgy & music director in 2000, it was a tough transition. We had met, fallen in love, gotten engaged and married within the arms of the music ensemble at Newman, and the idea of leaving for a place where I knew almost no one was heartbreaking.
But in my new position I was in charge of a small army of volunteers, so I met a lot of people in a hurry. Christian wasn’t so fortunate. He didn’t even have assigned slots to play piano for a while. He’d sub in with a cantor, but he was a pretty sad little Italian piano player for a couple months.
Shortly after I got him onto the schedule, a guitar player came up and asked if he could play along. Then a bass player. Then a second guitarist. A couple months later, one singer joined, and then another, and another. The husband/“roadie” for one of the guitar players picked up a triangle and became the percussionist. And without ever recruiting or making any effort at all, the Contemporary Group was born.
The thing people outside a regular church music group don’t really “get” is that it’s not just about singing or playing, and it’s not just about worship. Choir is a safe place. People who make music together are bound by some mysterious alchemy no one can really explain but everyone knows is there. People who share a faith and make music together become a community.
In the fall of 2000, I didn’t really appreciate what was happening, and what it would mean for my (and our) future. The CG took over the 10:00 Mass most weekends. I sang with them so I could worship with my husband, but they rehearsed at the same time as “my” choir, so I felt a little on the outside for a few years.
But when I stopped working, I became an official member—and co-director. People kept coming and coming. Young people, with babies and little kids. Middle-aged people and retirees. My aunt volunteered to watch kids for a while. Then one of the teachers at the school. We started having Christmas parties, then mid-summer pool parties at a member’s house. We started Christmas caroling outside Wal Mart and Schnucks to boost the kettle ringers’ success. Then we started caroling around neighborhoods and collecting canned goods for the Food Bank. This fall, one of our members began bringing a woman from the community who has a disability. And now every week at some point during rehearsal we sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider.
It’s the most amazing group of people. We don’t audition, and I know from other pastoral musicians that there are some really strong and difficult personalities out in the world of church music–but for some reason our group hasn’t attracted those. We have people who don’t read a note, and people who read solfege only, and we have band directors—in the plural. (It can be intimidating to conduct that ensemble these days, me with my one semester of basic conducting.) We have a high school flutist and two brass players. We’ve been through two drummers and are currently without.
It’s often exhausting to do this with four kids. It would be easier to tell the music director to stick the two of us on the schedule as a pair and leave it at that. We’d never have to practice a note. But when it’s just the two of us these days, it feels flat—musically flat (though not pitch-flat), emotionally flat, spiritually flat. Our choir members support each other, and they support us.
They make fun of us, actually. (I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that we probably deserve it.)
We pray. We laugh until we cry. Sometimes we just cry. They go through every piece of music I write before it gets submitted to the publishers, and they’re even starting to be honest with me when I wrote it wrong. (Sometimes.)
When I think back to that group of four who started playing for Mass together sixteen years ago, I’m always in awe. How did something so small become so central to the expression of our faith? How can it have been that many years? What did we do to deserve this group of people with whom we are maturing into a knowledge that doing music for Mass isn’t all we’re called to do? That there is more we can give to the world?
This year, we’re doing something new. We realized we spend the entire fall preparing prelude music for Christmas, and after that one night it’s done. We decided to pull that program back out after New Year’s, after school is back in session, for a “Farewell to Christmas” concert on Epiphany weekend, as a free will offering to benefit our local St. Vincent de Paul Society. (January 7. 7p.m. Our Lady of Lourdes.)
This is my–our–love letter, our Christmas message, to our choir. You guys have made us who we are. We are privileged to be among you, to walk with you, and we appreciate everything you are and everything you do. You are God’s gift to us.
(P.S. to my CG members: I have once again demonstrated my complete technological ineptitude. Apparently I did not even get that brilliant rendition of Rise Up Shepherd on video last night. Maybe we really SHOULD do it that way on Christmas Eve! 😉 )