this is at least the 30th christmas. the 30th one that i was responsible for making sure that other people – in various congregations through the years – feeeeel it. the 30th one where i have chosen music to reflect the season, the love, the light…and to be certain that it was all accessible to the people listening, to be certain it touched them, to be certain it made them think and celebrate, to be certain it spoke to their faith.
i am pretty picky. i don’t like kitschy. i don’t like trite endings. i don’t like certain chord progressions. i don’t like when songs, in an inane effort to be interesting, modulate up in key (the kind of modulation where you expect bubbles to be released into the air). i don’t like certain kinds of lyrics or songs that are preachy. i don’t like songs that imply elitism in any way, including any kind of religious denominational dominance.
i have reviewed a zillion cantatas through the years. (a cantata for a church is a combination of narrative and song, telling a story, embracing a theme, usually anywhere from 30-60 minutes in length. the more traditional cantatas are oftentimes stunningly beautiful but are difficult for volunteer choirs to sing and, frankly, for congregations to sit through.) many more recent cantatas are like buying a record album…many of the songs are really good but there’s always one or two that are throwaways. i have revised every cantata i have ever purchased for a choir. ask any choir director and she/he will tell you that they are revising and improvising on the fly. if they aren’t, well, i just don’t even know what to say about that.
one year, in particular, back in the late 90’s, i was particularly displeased with the cantata samples i had been sent. so i sat down one night and started writing my own. it was the beginning of november and, because we published the actual faxes that went back and forth between me and my producer, you can see that i composed all hours of the day and night and he arranged all hours of the day and night. i had the choir working on drafts that were printed out in the wee hours of the morning, as we continued arranging and re-arranging. the pieces pretty much dropped out of the universe to my hands and i loved conducting this cantata THE LIGHT IS HERE! that year and a few more times through the years since, honing the narration and revisiting the language in an attempt to keep it contemporary. after all, surprisingly, the late 90’s were two decades ago now.
a few nights ago at band practice we were running through the pieces i had selected for this year’s special music schmear (my word instead of ‘cantata’ which is sorely outdated and makes people stay away.) one song, though well-intended, was just plain wrong. so i pulled it out.
the next day i reached for paper and a pencil and wrote a new song for that slot. it’s a solo so at least the choir and the ukulele band don’t have to learn it at this late date (although they are used to having to go-with-the-flow).
in my position as a minister of music, it’s not my job to just play any old thing or direct any old piece, dis-regarding how it speaks to the listener, ignoring whether it is accessible, whether its message is relevant or timely, whether it invites someone in. instead, it’s my job – as i see it – to open listeners’ minds and hearts, to wrap them in music and lyric that resonates, that challenges, that reassures.
someday i will no longer be a minister of music. i will sit on a mountaintop or at the edge of a lake or on a riverbed and i will listen to the sounds of this beautiful earth in celebration of every season. i will not be responsible for making sure others feeeeel it. i will just sit quietly, all the music i could ever need surrounding me.
in the meanwhile, i will be picky. it’s a curse. and i guess a blessing, as they say. picky.