Monday, May 11, 2009

When the Music's Over

The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
I recently found out that an old choir director of mine passed away. To be truthful, I hadn't kept in touch with him. I considered that part of my life history, but occasionally those days would cross my mind. Out of the blue, he crossed my mind again and so I called an old colleague and asked about old Herb. He had heard through the grapevine that diabetes was really taking its toll on him. My friend called me later and told me the shocking news that he had passed away in 1994. Again, quite clearly I hadn't kept in touch. Always meant to, never did. I regret this.

I feel compelled to share with you my thoughts on this man who had an impact on my life. I also feel that the truth should never be diverted because someone has passed away. This is a disservice to their memory and to the friendship. Though our hearts are broken, we should never canonize the dead. Let's leave that for saints.

Herb was a odd combination of elements; maybe all of them contrasting. He was a large man with broad shoulders, full beard and yet he was gentle as a teddy bear. At times he could be quite pleased with himself, bordering on a huge ego, but then self-doubt would seem to overwhelm him. He always wore those tinted lenses. I think now that maybe that was a way of having a small filter between himself and the world. Herb was a very talented pianist, his voice was like thunder and lots of things came quite easy for him.

He was very charismatic, witty, insightful and often talk during lessons turned to some pretty interesting subjects. Via philosophy, we would talk endlessly about music or people. Or was it just gossip? Herb, being openly gay, never stopped loving dishing on people. Often making me promise not to tell so-and-so about so-and-so. You just knew he would turn around and say the same thing to the next voice student. I bet the little gossip tidbit traveled along to every suitable pair of ears all the day long.

He knew about church politics and how un-Christian church people can be. As his closest friend told me, "People at the church either really liked him or didn't care for him." He was one of those polarizing personalities for sure. This can bring about a little paranoia in a sensitive person. One time, he looked at me with all due seriousness and said, "You know that conversations are being recorded in here. I just wanted to make you aware of that." At first, I felt the paranoia. What? Bugs in the choir room? Where? In the vent? Later, I realized that Herb was just going a little off. Church politics can do that to you.

To my knowledge, he never formally studied music, but rather was an autodidact. Add 'stubborn' and 'determined' to autodidact and you get a sense of his personality. He often critiqued other voice teacher's methods and felt that he had discovered the right way of vocal production all on his own. His methods were considered by some to be unorthodox and not well suited for female singers. Then again, it seems to me that voice teachers all disagree as to how to sing. Being an instrumentalist, I used to smile at bizarre examples like "imagine the sound coming out of the top of your head." If sound is coming out of my head, then someone needs their meds adjusted. This was my education into the rarefied, kooky and often preciously self-absorbed world of the voice.

In fact, before joining the Tuesday night group, I had very little choir experience. It was hard at first to sing your part against others. The natural tendency is to drift over to what they are singing. It was humbling. I had a masters degree and yet staying on my own part was tough. Eventually, you learn to sing your own part even if a jackhammer is next to you. You learn to hear your part against theirs; an awareness of all four parts at once develops as well. This plus the endless anthems, hymns and concert pieces that we went through like water. The church demands much from its ministers of music. And the pay? Don't get me started.

The Tuesday night group was a good spirited lot. Everyone seemed to be friendly and often we all had to pause while we roared with laughter. It's a great feeling of camaraderie when singing with other folks who share your vocal range. Being in the bass section felt just as comfortable as any musical group I have ever been in. It also stretched me as a musician and increased my knowledge. Plus being in the back, allowed for some mischief. Changing the words to hymns to more bawdier versions during service was a game that one singer and I played with each other. The game was to be outrageous, but not break down with laughter and disrupt the choir. Turning way and pretending to clear your throat was a good cover.

The center of all things Herb was his love of music. That came through clearly and often very loudly. We were encouraged to really hit those fortes with all due gusto and verve. He often tackled ambitious music like Howard Hanson, Mozart, Ralph Vaughan Williams and for the most part, got pretty good results. This would be like your amateur string club taking on Bach just because your director liked it. Bold and never afraid of any challenge, Herb led his ensemble through some pretty heavy waters. Often some crappy tape recorder was used to document what would be a one-off performance. The cycle was always the same: months of work,walk down the hall to the sanctuary, perform, applause and then shelve the music. Crazy. Once Herb and company finished performing a piece, he simply forgot about it. On to the next big piece. Repeat cycle.

I think Herb loved to be at the center of attention; like a guru, drawing people to himself with his magnetism, but as time went by, the old 'feet of clay' adage began to appear. Herb suggested that I give a guitar recital at the church. After all, I was fresh from grad school and the music was still under my fingers. I set a date and like every procrastinating musician, I decided to move it to a later date to give me more practice time. I remember hearing Herb on the phone launch into a philosophical bit about"if you are waiting for perfection to happen, then it will never come" blah blah blah. Well, in the end, he never came to the recital-a recital performed at the very church each week I spent hours upon hours of rehearsal and church services. My girlfriend, who was a huge part of the same organization, asked him point blank if he was coming and he said no, but offered no explanation. He just smiled and said nothing.

I found that to be very curious. It seems no one was allowed to shine more brightly than he. Was it just jealousy? It hurt quite frankly. For a long time after that, I had difficulty being around him. Maybe it was the first time the cracks in the guru veneer were beginning to show. I distinctly remember talking to him while he was sitting in his car outside the university hall where he was taking part in a production of The Fantasticks. His mood was the darkest I had ever seen. He looked riddled with anxiety and doubt and was using an unusual amount of profanity. One reason may have been that the aforementioned Ice Lady was running the show and that definitely could harsh your confidence. Or perhaps he realized he was outside of his comfort zone. (Sidebar: every good musician I know, possessing a 'soul', has doubts about their abilities. Herb was a sensitive soul and no doubt faced down many inner demons. Early in his life, he was a big drinker. That demon had long been conquered when I met him.)

He had a huge, rich, operatic voice that could fill a space like an elemental force of nature. Watching the show, I was surprised his voice didn't project well. I expected this great voice to soar like it did in the church. Did his self-training fall short? Then the awkward moment when he simply stood in silence - he had forgotten his lines. There he was, looking lost and you could see him trying to recall his place. Eventually the gears were moving again and everything went smoothly after that.

I think that because he had such a natural affinity, that he often skipped over practicing things; figuring his natural talent would overcome in the end. The thing that they teach you in music school is that it is NOT talent that brings you to the finish line, but work, work and more work. Relying on talent? Ha. I rely only on what my fumbling, clumsy fingers can produce only after careful practice. That has proven to be the only 'reliable' (if that's possible) element to performing for an audience.

We put together a trio and travelled to Wheeling to play at my old college. We had plenty of time to settle in and run a few numbers before the show. I kept seeing him hovering around the piano, plunk a note and then try to sing it. No go. Herb often tried to sing in the tenor range, although his natural voice was a baritone. This time the high g# was too much and he just psyched himself out and told me that we were going to nix that song. Doubt: that creeping monster that steals away our wings before we even test them.

What have I become
My sweetest friend

My conversation with his closest friend this week was a terrible story of how diabetes just ravaged his body, and yet, through her recollection, I feel some sense of closure now. She was the primary caregiver during those awful last days. I asked some very personal questions about how bad things got and in terms of diseases, this one really took Herb for a hard, last ride.

She told me that he always remained optimistic, despite the incomprehensible devastation his body was undergoing. What carries us through? That's my question. I told her that she was a true friend for taking care of him when he could not do the simplest things for himself.

I asked her what the church had done for him. After all, he had been there for years. This should matter."We put on a benefit concert for him." That's wonderful and she continued saying that the church had kept him on their payroll even after he was no longer able to perform his duties. This is sweet, generous and unusual. Churches, in their lowest form, are businesses and gossip nests with political maneuverings that would make a senator's head spin, but sometimes they do good.

"Have they put up a plaque? Like a memoriam?"

"Oh, nothing like that."

To me, that's unthinkable. Years and years of dedication and nothing. As if it was all for naught. I find that attitude so dehumanizing; like it never mattered.

If you go to almost any church, you see a wall of portraits of former pastors and rightly so, but never former music directors. We are artisans of an essential element of worship, in fact the very wings of prayer to reach the Almighty's ear, but this sacred art is transient. That which has comforted, helped us form the utterances of prayer, that which binds the community in worship, that which moves us on a level where words cannot reach - despite all the noble beauty and function of music, her servants are soon forgotten. When the music's over, the makers of music are like their art: only there for a while.

When the music's over
Turn out the lights

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