Saturday, July 18, 2009

God's I-Pod

Long ago, the week after I graduated from 8th grade, I got a call from Mr. Richter. the principal of the grade school. Would I like to serve as accompanist for opening services at Vacation Bible School? Up until then, I had always, since 4th grade, been the official class accompanist. St. John's was a parochial school - they were forever having little devotions and prayer intervals at various times of the day - that's why St. John's students were so far behind in science and math by the time we got to high school. Each classroom had a piano, and I worked for free, so it was a pretty handy deal for them, since most of the teachers didn't have any musical background.

I never turned down a job, and this two-week session would accommodate my lawn-mowing hours. So, I met with Mr. Richter to learn the details. He was leaving on vacation the same week that Vacation Bible School opened, so I'd be on my own, answering directly to Pastor Kay. And the other thing, he mentioned in passing - since the church didn't have a piano, I'd have to learn to play the church organ. I was momentarily paralyzed. The church organ! A huge pipe organ, about six times as big as a piano, with two huge banks of brass pipes, and an air pump in the basement about the size of a garbage truck. Mr. Richter told me the organ was an awful lot -- an awful lot like a piano. Just like a piano! Sure it was. How could it be like a piano -- cripes you even needed a key to start it! I wouldn't even have to learn the pedals at first, there were octave couplers to "fake it" from the keyboards. I had always admired Mr. Richter's organ playing -- he always got more out of the church organ than anyone else, so I trusted his word that I could learn to play the organ within the remaining week. Every day that week, I went over to the church and practiced, using the pointers Mr. Richter had given me. Overwhelming at first, but the organ had "preset" combinations, so very soon I was able to "dial up" the same sound combinations the congregation was used to.

The service selections were already pre-determined, but the prelude and recessional music selection was up to me. I came up with a whole list of favorites from Mr. Richter's books. There were some very old, leather-bound yellowing books of songs in German. And, my favorite, there was a book Mr. Richter used on occasion called "Great Hymns of the Faith" - hundreds of familiar hymns, and these were hymns that, although familiar to everyone, were not in the Lutheran Hymnal. I thought it would be good for variety if I used a lot of these. Emotional favorites, such as "The Old Rugged Cross", and "Ivory Palaces". And charismatic, peppy hymns for recessionals, which were sure to send the students marching out joyously and vigorously, such as "Shall We Gather at the River", and "Bringing in the Sheaves". So, when the time came, I was ready.

A little hesitancy at first, but by the end of my first service, I was feeling confident. It was the largest group I had ever led in hymns, so the phrase timing was a little different than in a classroom. And the recessionals filled the church with joy, and sent the students marching off to the classrooms, just as planned. After the second day's service, Pastor Kay called up to the organ loft that I should meet with him in his office after the service. Of course, since I was doing so well, he wanted to congratulate me.

On arrival in his office, Pastor Kay launched into a lecture about the Rich Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church. He asked who had chosen the selections for my incidental music. Not wanting Mr. Richter to steal the credit when he got back from vacation, I proudly told Pastor Kay the truth - that I had chosen the numbers myself. He asked to see my itinerary -- I handed him my notebook. He read over the Coming Attractions, with an amused look. "Bringing in the Sheaves???" he hooted. "BRINGING IN THE SHEAVES!!!" Admiring my own genius, I explained how I saved the peppy ones for the recessionals, the better to march the students out quickly.

Back to the Rich Musical Heritage lecture, this time, though, his tone was darker, and laden with messages between the lines. I might want to consider -- in fact that anybody who wanted to keep working in this man's church would consider -- using selections taken from the Rich Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church. How much it would please the Lord if we were to present the works of Bach, for instance, rather than some of the more "modern" selections which appealed shallowly to the emotions, and not to the true workings of the soul. What a shame if an organist at St. John's would disregard the Rich Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church in favor of 'pop' music.

So, that was it. God didn't like, "Bringing in the Sheaves". And even if he did, he liked Bach better. I was somewhat surprised that God would not be tapping his almighty toes to "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name", given the chance. After all, Bach was already dead, and God could have him play something for Him anytime He wanted.

The rest of the two-week session, though, I reached for the old leather-bound books on top of the organ. Although I couldn't read German at the time, I could tell by familiarity that some of the pieces were by Bach. And there were no further summonses to Pastor Kay's office, so I assumed that these dirges were what he and God wanted to hear. I'm sure if I could go back and find that old book again, the title on the leather-bound volume would translate to "God's Greatest Hits."

Thanks for listening and contributing. For up-to-the-minute thoughts, come on over to twitter.com I'm @dimbulb52

3 comments:

SugarCain said...

Oh, Gary. You tell a tale so well. In our church I always thought the musical director chose the songs that were hardest to sing, had the longest notes to hold, and made the congregation sound like an unpracticed group of strangers who had never heard the songs before. Now I see that perhaps Ms. Groff had a list of God's favorite numbers.

Jennifer said...

So funny! The first time I went to my husband's family church, an old, OLD, country (did I say old?) Southern Baptist church, I cried when the music started. I cried!

It still makes me shudder. Even "pop" music can be appropriate for a funeral, if it's played ploddingly and mechanically enough.

Lydia said...

I have three comments (which of course will mean six by the time I'm done)

1) I finally figured out which of my favorite writers you remind me of - it's Tom Wolfe. When you capitalized the "Rich Musical Heritage" it clicked. You are extraordinarily hilarious, or as paperbat says - "funny as poop".
2)God snapping his fingers when he wanted some dead Bach doing his musical bidding had me rolling!!!
3)Strange coincidence on your close. Last night I was researching Alice for a project I was working on and came across this letter. I'd never read it before last night, and then you went and wrote this!
http://www.aliang.net/literature/the_nursery_alice/tnaappendix1.html