Music can be a Glorious Vocation, but…

Part of my life as a professional musician involves leaving my home, family, and regular jobs and traveling to different locations around the country to play concerts. Classical organ concerts don’t involve tour buses, groupies, or wild after-parties (except with mostly folks over 60 and then the gatherings are decidedly tame events!) But I do play on concert series at churches and colleges and get paid to do so, usually enough to cover my costs and have something left over, but no one’s getting rich playing organ concerts.

This weekend, I’m playing a concert in the area where I grew up, central Pennsylvania. A beautiful new organ was installed recently in a big Presbyterian church in downtown Harrisburg, built by the Canadian organ building company Letourneau (since 1979, hand crafting organs in Quebec). Yes, there are still companies who build pipe organs. This grand instrument sits in the back balcony of a historic building, stately while it looks out over the sanctuary, and fills the space with a plethora of colorful sounds, from delicate flutes to festive trumpets, as well as special features likes chimes and bells. Unlike a concert pianist, who might need about 10 minutes to adjust to a new instrument before a performance, organists need many hours to prepare a program on an unfamiliar organ. I’d estimate this weekend I’ll spend about 14 hours setting up my pieces and rehearsing them before the concert.

My parents, who are also musicians, still live in central PA, and have been inviting their friends, relatives, and colleagues from their decades spent as musicians in this area, to my concert. Many of them remember me from my youth, or are happy to support my parents. One was surprised the other day while driving around town, to notice my name on a billboard, advertising the church’s organ concert series, and he texted my mom a picture. I must admit, this was a first for me! Frankly, I’ve never seen organists on a billboard before. You’d better believe I put that picture up on my Instagram account – i_luv_schnitgers, (an organist allusion). I avoid politics altogether, keep pictures of our kids to a minimum, occasionally feature nature shots, and mostly post notable organs, including this weekend’s instrument.
Closer to home, I attended a rehearsal the other night that was pretty inspiring, but maybe not for the reasons you might assume. As the organ prof at Calvin University, I was invited to play with the Calvin Community Symphony on a piece that involves an organ as part of the ensemble. While a few folks in the room, like me, were there as guests, paid for our time and special expertise, most of the 60ish (?) other folks sitting in this rehearsal on a Tuesday night were there purely because they love music, and want to make music together, and create a beautiful experience for others.

Professional musicians can be a cynical bunch at times, wondering what’s in it for us. What’s the fee, how much exposure, who else will be there? Partly, you can’t blame us. Spending decades of your life, and going into debt for degrees to master a vocation, without any assurances that you’ll be able to earn barely a living wage (never mind luxuries like health insurance or job security) can find even a cheerful person like myself, who usually loves music and what I do, texting grumpily to a friend about the frustrations and disappointments of it all on a bad day.  But that room on Tuesday night was full of musicians working hard to make something beautiful together, just for the joy of it. That experience wiped the grump right off my face, at least for a few weeks.

Music can be a glorious vocation. We who are skilled and trained, have the time and ability, and have found a way to make it work for us practically, are lucky to have such an outlet in our lives, and such a way to connect and share with others through it. It is a gift not always appreciated, and usually not compensated for properly in our modern society. That goes for all of the arts, and some other vocations as well (journalism, for instance), but that all might be the topic for an entirely different essay! For today, I’ll just say, I’m feeling grateful and lucky to be doing what I do.

Rhonda Sider Edgington is a professional organist, organ professor, and church musician who writes about music and life, sometimes in poetry, sometimes in letters to friends, and sometimes in the Holland Sentinel.