Tis’ the Season to be busy…

For many musicians, but especially church musician, this is the season to be extra busy! There are more concerts, more church services, everywhere more music. I always play an organ concert at Hope Church the first Sunday of Advent, featuring mostly hymns and music of Advent. So that occupies most of my November, especially if I’ve decided to work up a harder piece that’s new to me, or pull out a piece I learned years ago, dust it off, and see if I can still make it sing. I always enjoy putting together a program that highlights both well-known and lesser-known Advent hymns to sing together, with solo or ensemble pieces that are based on those tunes or themes. And then I enjoy explaining a bit about the pieces and composers, what to listen for, what the composers were trying to do, or why I love this piece and hope you will too. Music, as with so many of the arts today, can seem like a secret and confusing club, if you’re among the uninitiated – why do we clap here but not there? – and to combat that, I’m always trying to make my organ concerts more welcoming, and more fun.
I am the organist for the Zeeland Civic Chorus’ annual Messiah concerts, which they perform twice each year, once in Zeeland and once in Holland, as they have done for the last 83 years or so. I just played my 10th year with this group, who sings the complete work by Handel, just under 3 hours of choruses and solos, in which the organ is playing practically non-stop. Every year after this concert, at least one person will ask me if my fingers are tired. Organ playing is a lot about balancing on your core, pivoting to reach the high and low pedals, reaching up to turn pages, looking up at your music, looking over at the soloist or conductor, looking down to reach a tricky pedal note, and moving around the keyboard. So after three hours, my back aches, and my brain is exhausted, but my fingers are not tired. Now you know.
In addition to that, being the director of music at a church, there are extra services to plan, plus extra music in those services. Hopefully the effect is one of awe, or beauty, or some other encounter with the Holy. If anyone leaves a service where I’ve done the music and says first, “Wow, Rhonda was working really hard there”, that’s not a good sign! (Unless it was my Mom.) I want my effort, if it’s noticed, to be in the peripheral, because I’m not the point of most of these musical endeavors. Good liturgical music points to something else, not itself.
And what’s up with Advent anyway? I know many people who don’t attend liturgical church services don’t understand Advent (and obviously, I would hardly expect someone who’s not religious to understand the minutia of how we Christians do our weird churchy stuff ), but I do find it curious that there’s a huge misunderstanding, even amongst church folks, about what Advent is. What it’s not, is some kind of killjoy, where we don’t LET people sing Christmas Carols until December 25, because we’re purists, or we want to be holier than thou (or more-liturgically-correct-than-thou.) What Advent is, is a special season when we’re invited to put down the striving, trying, and sometimes faking, that the American 21st century Christmas can become. We don’t all feel like this is the most wonderful time of the year. Some of us are grieving. Some of us are lonely. Some of us are broke. We are all some of those, some of the time. When it’s gray and gloomy outside, we haven’t seen the sun in days, the world feels like a dark and hopeless place, and we’re being told that spending and celebrating will make it better, there is another option. What about a hopeful waiting, a yearning for something more than we can see, a time of reflection, taking stock of our weary selves and our weary world, and imagining what Peace could look like if it arrived in our midst.
I’ve love belting out Glorias, and the Hallelujah chorus, twinkling lights, gatherings of friends and family, eating Christmas cookies, giving a gift I hope someone will love. But Advent can be a reminder that even if It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, I don’t have to always feel merry and bright.