JC’s Confessions #10

On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert does a recurring skit, now a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.
~ JC

I don’t feel like a musician anymore.

I started playing piano at seven. I began studying organ as a preteen and was the organist of my rural Catholic church at fourteen. I majored in music at Smith College, where organ was my main instrument, I played often at chapel, I sang in choirs, learned that I could compose, and was named the Presser Scholar in my senior year.

After I graduated, married B, and moved to the Binghamton NY area, I continued with church music until I took a few years away when my children were young.  Realizing that it wouldn’t work for our family for B and I to never have a common day off, I volunteered with the music ministry at my church, accompanying the youth and junior choirs and subbing when our music director needed to be away. When tendon problems in my elbow eventually made it impossible for me to play for very long at a time, our music director would play and I would conduct.

When our parish disintegrated in 2005 and my church music volunteering evaporated, except for occasional special celebrations, I still had my long-time affiliation with University Chorus to keep me musically active. After the retirement of our long-time director, though, University Chorus, which used to sing a major concert every semester, has cut back to only singing at one concert a year, at most. This academic year, we have not met at all and I am not sure we will ever re-convene. Due to uncertainty and personal scheduling complications, I haven’t been able to join another group.

With my last steady musical commitment gone, I don’t feel that I am still a musician, which leaves an empty space in my identity. In a period of my life when there has been so much loss, losing that piece of myself is especially difficult because music has long served as a vehicle to express emotion and to find community and comfort.

I don’t know if I will ever recover the musician part of my identity. Theoretically, I could be singing on my own every day and working on sight reading so that I would be ready to audition if there is an opportunity, but it feels too futile, not helped by the fact that I am a very anxious and not particularly good auditioner.

It is likely that I will sing again with the Smith Alumnae Chorus, either on campus or on tour, but those choral experiences would only be a few days a year. Not an identity-affirming amount of time.

Maybe what I should say is that, for many years, I was a musician.

another voice

Last Sunday, daughter E cantored at church. As I have posted about several times, it fills my heart with joy to hear my daughters sing and this time was no different in that regard.

What was poignant was that the music director, who is a long-time friend and who was music director for E up through high school and for T until our parish shattered when she was in ninth grade, had not heard E sing since 2005. She was able to hear E’s mature voice for the first time.

She has asked E to cantor again this Sunday. We might as well enjoy her singing as Mass while we can, as soon there will be a break from church for E to rest at home and sing lullabies for Baby.

Morning hymn

On my way to 7:30 mass this morning, I was listening to public radio. Early Sunday morning is reserved for organ and church music.

The drive is not terribly long but I did hear one piece in its entirety, an organ/choral setting of the hymn, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty!” [Tune: Nicaea], which was one of the first hymns I ever sang as a young child after Vatican II.  The organist was Gerre Hancock and the recording was from late in his career when he was in Texas.

When I was an undergrad at Smith, I had a friend who was pursuing his Master’s in Sacred Music from Yale and who studied organ with Gerre Hancock. It was a great privilege to attend one of my friend’s lessons, held at St. Thomas Episcopal in New York City, and a rehearsal of the choristers there. St. Thomas was the place where he spent most of his career and established himself as one of the finest organists and choir directors of his generation.

Mr. Hancock, while prodigiously talented as a musician and teacher, was a kind, generous, and polite gentleman. I remember that he addressed me as Miss Corey, which was a surprise to me as a college student coming, as it did, from the one of the best church musicians in the country.

The recording I heard this morning was magnificent. It opened with an extended organ introduction and included an artful modulatory interlude. (The modulation reminded me of talking with my daughter T last weekend, who recalled her favorite description of modulation, as voiced by someone at our church, as “that thing you do on the organ and then everybody sings louder.”) While I know that Mr. Hancock was fully capable of improvising these, I expect that for the purposes of making a recording, he had actually composed them in advance.

When mass began this morning, our entrance hymn was “Holy! Holy! Holy!”

Sunday morning thanksgivings

The word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” Here are a few things for which I am thankful this Sunday.

* I got to attend Mass with my parents. This has been a common practice over the last five years, after they moved into their senior residential community, but it has been a rarity lately. My mom has had a string of health issues, the most recent of which I wrote about here, so she hasn’t been able to get out to church many times this year.  This spring, Dad turned 90 and Mom turned 83 yesterday. I am also thankful to still have them with us and doing comparatively well. While they have had challenges, they are in better shape than so many other folks their age – and so many others were not blessed with this many years on earth.

* We prayed for those affected by the earthquakes in Nepal and took up a collection to aid them.  I was grateful for the opportunity to help.

* During the intercessory prayers, we prayed for Sister Rose Margaret on what would have been her 80th jubilee as a Sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet. Rose Margaret died just before Christmas. She was an amazing person – bright, knowledgeable, an expert in Scripture and theology, skilled in pastoral care, an excellent preacher, kind, generous, loving, and Christ-like – with an Irish twinkle always in her eyes. Called to the ministerial priesthood by God, she was not able to be ordained under current Catholic doctrine, but she lived out priesthood every moment of her life as a sister. She had been an inspiration to Sarah’s Circle. At her sixtieth jubilee, Sarah’s Circle members attended along with the sisters in her order, so she had two circles of women with whom to celebrate her special anniversary. Today, I gave thanks for her time among us and her lasting legacy.

* When I arrived at Mass this morning, my mother told me that the memorial service for our friend Peter had been set. After Mass, Nancy, the music director and a longtime friend, and I had a long conversation about Peter, who had been her colleague for decades. Peter was the organist/choirmaster at Trinity Episcopal in Binghamton NY for many years, as well as the director of Harpur Chorale, the most select choral ensemble at Binghamton University. As accompanist for University Chorus, he was one of my first friends when I moved to the area and became one of the few people for whom I have ever worked when I served for two years as his assistant at Trinity. (Technically, my title was organist-in-training, which didn’t fit very well as I had been playing for over ten years by that point.) Peter was one of the few people left he knew me as a professional church musician.

Peter had incredible range as a musician. He could play organ repertoire across a range of styles well. He had a profound understanding of liturgy and service playing. He could teach choral music to children, teens, college students, and adults through the age spectrum up to seniors. He composed – choral arrangements, hymn introductions and harmonizations for organ, piano pieces. He taught piano and organ; he was my older daughter’s piano teacher for almost ten years. He could play jazz piano. He was a great accompanist, even managing the nearly impossible orchestral reductions for University Chorus rehearsals. He sang bass, although we didn’t get to hear him much as he usually had to conduct or play.

Peter was also generous, as a musician and as a friend. He collaborated well and managed to keep his cool, even in tense situations. He was a good storyteller and had led an interesting life. His sense of humor was gentle, rather than biting. While he spent most of his time on music, he also loved the outdoors, especially if whitewater canoeing was involved.

Peter’s death was quite sudden and we are still all a bit shocked and holding his wife, daughter, mother, and the rest of his family in prayer. We are also giving thanks for his life among us, doing what he loved, and sharing his gifts with us all.