Friday, March 18, 2011
When gospel meets dominance
Unfortunately, a friend of mine from church, Cheri, passed away suddenly last week. I didn't know much about her apart from what I learned being with her. While this information was not comprehensive, it was enough. Cheri was, in a word, beautiful. Thursday was her memorial service. And I volunteered to play piano in the service when asked.
Before getting into the performance, I'd like to say a few things about Cheri. Some of which I knew, for as I said she was simply beautiful. She was a spirit of light. As some who spoke at the funeral described her, she was "a saint", "an angel in disguise", and "simply an angel. Not in disguise, but clearly seen". These and other superlatives were used to describe her along with anecdotes that verified the fact. At memorials, the deceased are always spoken well of. However, this is typically done out of respect for the dead, where we focus on the fond memories and skirt around the bad. There was no need for embellishment in Cheri's case. Sweetness and goodness shot from her eyes and love for the King was her every action. And love for others. To hear the speakers tell it, the picture was painted and worth far more than a thousand words. So, we celebrate her life and have the hope of seeing her again soon. But the world lost a treasure. And one that is irreplaceable.
The song we were to perform-for I was simply playing the piano, Kim sang it-was one that I'd never heard. It was called "We Shall Behold Him". Wednesday night at around 9pm we listened to it and started rehearsing. Well, I was given a piece of sheet music, which I don't know how to read. We began with me trying to play off the sheet music and it was ugly. There were around ten people there to see the opening salvo and I could feel their desperation, and a few 'outs', like "if you can't get it, just play a song that you know". After some embarrassing attempts a few of the onlookers filtered out, likely in an effort to distance themselves from what could realistically only be projected as a disaster. I took a step back and told Kim that I needed a minute to get some chords together.
She printed the lyrics out so I could just write the chords above them. There was literally no way I could follow along and play with the sheet music. So, with a non-existent chance of reading off the sheet and a minimal ability to decipher the music, I set about making my own chords. The song began to take shape. But I was still playing it differently each time with hopes of stumbling upon those 'right' chords. We got it together, to a degree, and it sounded good. That is, the parts that we got through sounded good.
But our lone audience member, for the rest had made a clean break, had to go home. Kim was her ride. Even with only a rudimentary version of a song down, we-and when I say we, I mean everyone but me-decided that we would come early the next day to work on it before the service. The next day rolled around and Kim was late picking me up. Practice schmactice. Pfft. I was a little bit nervous.
I hadn't felt nerves like this since my baseball playing days. I had pre-game jitters. But, unlike baseball or writing papers at the last minute, I didn't rely on bravado or being a self described "clutch performer". There was certainly a bit of that, but it didn't feel right to tackle this on my own merits. I called on a few of my friends and asked for prayer. This might sound quaint to some of you, but I not only believe in God, but the power of prayer. And a humble bearing made more sense to me under the circumstances than hyping myself up as the next coming of Liberace.
Kim showed up a mere 45 minutes late and we bee lined it for the church. We worked on it for a minute and she said to me, "if you can play it like that, we'll be fine." I wasn't entirely sure how I played it, but I said "OK". The song was ingrained sufficiently so that I could feel my way through it. She asked, "What are we going to do about the beginning and end?" I said, "give me a couple bars in the beginning and when I get to the F chord, that's your cue. I'll start playing after you start singing." With some confusion and uncertainty on her face, she said "OK". She asked, "What do you want to do about the end?". I said, "Let's not do any tags or anything. When you stop singing, I'll whip up a little coda (or alternate ending) and we'll bag it." She said, "OK".
We still had not played the song through together. We did have the Lord on our side and some talent though. The crowd filtered in and they appeared to be a group that took their gospel music seriously. I was told that we would play after "When the Saints Come Marching in". Ok, no problem. And this guy showed up and sat behind the piano five minutes before the service and started messing with the piano, changing the settings. I hoped it wasn't something I couldn't undo. The lady in charge of the logistics came to me and whispered in my ear, "he's doing stuff to the piano. How long will it take you to fix it?". I said, "I don't know what he did. Probably only a few seconds."
They played "When the Saints Come Marching in", the "church" version. The Pentacostal crowd took church to church. We were then introduced. I had to tell the other guy, who used a cane, that I needed the piano. He got up. I sat down and fixed the settings. It was dead quiet. And apparently time to play the song. I reminded myself about the intro I told myself I would play and hoped the first chord sounded like it did in my mind. It did. I got to Kim's cue and she started singing.
Where my mind went during those minutes, I really don't know. After all the promises of paying attention to her words so I could play with her were shattered as I zoned out, but into the gospel zone. We were one. I heard from the congregation, "Sing it girl!". Sing it indeed. She sang it. And then, suddenly, she was no longer singing. The song was over and it was my turn to whip up a coda. Coda whipped. Applause. Relief. Tears. Tears on my face, Kim's face, and nearly every face in the place. Gospel met with domination. The result was dominating gospel.
I heard many compliments after the song and managed to keep the bulk of the behind the scenes panic to myself, accepting the compliments with grace and thanks. But one guy in particular said something to me that I considered the best compliment of all. His name was Charles and he was a pianist. He said, "You did it just right. You didn't try to steal the show, but played some beautiful chords while letting her sing the song. You guys sounded together, like one unit, not a singer singing and a pianist playing, but one." Thank you Charles. I couldn't have been given a better compliment. And thank you Jesus.