08 Sep The Value of Live Music For Bastions of Culture
One of my last gigs was an ominous gig on Friday the 13th called “Retrograde Raid” ushering in the Ides of March. Through these days of devastation, gigs of all sorts – recurring private parties, fundraisers, recitals, and regular pub gigs – vanished with just a remote possibility of happening sometime.
Despite having lost so many gigs so fast, I was able to stay positive because I couldn’t imagine church going anywhere and there were some recording opportunities for me that I hadn’t had time to seize. Therefore, for a moment, I even felt appreciation for the slow down because by that point, I had gotten so busy, I wanted more quality in my work.
With no time to lose, however, I found myself busy recording and even making some videos. I had been so busy with a wide variety of gigs that I had never really recorded too much at home. This first month of the shutdown had pushed me to utilize my iPhone and MacBook Pro to their limits. I lived in a little project studio most of the day.
I was grateful to have so much work in the studio, but I very much missed making music directly for an audience and feeling their reactions in real time. In late April, opportunities began to slowly open up. Here and there I went out to sing and play (or just play) for an occasional physically distanced performance. However it has been longstanding bastions of culture that have provided the most consistent outlets to make music in real time and space with people. These long standing institutions are Christ Church Anglican, located in the Short North, and BalletMet Academy, which is the ballet school for Columbus’ BalletMet dance company.
Christ Church decided to close along with the rest of the state and remain closed until June. It had never streamed their services and decided canceled services entirely until the state declared it was safe to reopen. To provide a thread of continuity, I recorded myself singing hymns accompanying myself on my piano. I was happy to get so many positive phone calls and e-mails expressing gratitude for the recordings. However, I yearned to play with real people because I missed interacting with them in real time. I missed hearing the congregation sing along. I missed working with my professional singers who can quickly bring choral pieces to life, spanning a stylistic range of five hundred years! I missed the subtle changes in a performance, inspired by real people, that elevate a piece during its performance from where it was during the rehearsal. As the organist and choirmaster I am very appreciative of the musical freedom afforded to me.
In June, the church reopened, but to my disappointment, only partially. For a month, there was no singing, no communion and very little music. These services were very dry and almost devoid of music. I was asked to play only a prelude, processional hymn (which wouldn’t be sung), recessional hymn and a postlude. The service was liturgy and a sermon with a shell of music around it. I chose to play a full half hour of prelude music to give more to the congregation. To be honest, it felt almost like a funeral to me. In contrast, members appreciated what music I did provide – and because I played a popular hymn for the processional, many told me afterward that they sang along despite the no-singing rule. After all, everyone was wearing masks, which continues to this day and sadly has caused several members to quit.
By July, I was excited to bring back paid singers again and congregation could sing again! Alas, I could only ask four to return. Before the closure, we previously had six to eight any given Sunday. Downsizing the choir took some thought and I felt terrible having to work through this. This was due mostly to the fact that there is only so much room for the choir, as the entire church is practicing physical distancing.
Furthermore, there are no more handshakes, no more coffee and cakes – which is a huge part of the Anglican church culture. Kidding aside, members are making the most of being able to be back at church! They are staying afterward – physically distanced – to catch up with each other and to talk about how much they enjoyed the choir’s anthem that week. I am sure they talk about how much they like the sermon as well.
In July, BalletMet opened up for its five-week Summer Intensive. It is somewhat safe to say it is like band camp for ballet students. This means classes have been running five to six days a week for the entire month of July! As an Academy accompanist I’ve been very excited playing almost every day. When the state closed, they had gone completely to online group classes. Fortunately for the dancers, they decided it was necessary to reopen for the Summer Intensive.
I love playing the piano for ballet classes because all styles are welcome (provided the music serves the needs of the class). I also love how there are no set lists. Ballet classes, all over the world, follow the same template of going through a series of exercises called combinations and every accompanist has a broad repertoire of pieces that might be useful to support the series of combinations. Every teacher has his or her teaching style. It is a joy to play something that in addition to serving the rhythm and tempo the dancers need, brings a smile to the teacher’s face. Believe it or not, Penny Lane works really well through the movement called the Tendu. I get to play lots of jazz standards, excerpts from classical music, original compositions, college fight songs, and sometimes even make up music on the spot.
Growing up I had believed I just wanted to be a recording artist. I do enjoy recording and I’m glad I get to record from time to time. Also, I have always loved playing with a wide array of electronic instruments and effects. It can be so much fun to mess around and see what something can do! However, at the end of the day, there is no substitute for taking an instrument, as is, and making music for a certain specific occasion, be it a church service for a specific time of the church calendar or a dance class for a particular combination. It can be very freeing when the circumstance of limitation brings out freedom from within. Christ Church only has a pipe organ and BalletMet only has pianos. Those who know me may remember a massive pedal board I once constructed for use with electric guitar, which I used to work very hard at. However, at the end of the day – and these days – I very much love creating ephemeral music for these bastions of culture.