I participated in our church’s cantata this past weekend. I was asked awhile back to play along in some capacity, whether it was guitar or percussion, and I opted for the latter after finally listening to the recording on the way back from Thanksgiving. I’m particularly glad for this because the guy that ended up playing guitar had to deal with songs in terrible keys – drums don’t tend to play chords, so I was all good. The choir held practices on Wednesdays in December, which were difficult for me to attend due to Brooke’s ever changing work schedule and the need to keep Meg on some semblance of a sleep schedule. Therefore, I went this past Wednesday, practiced with the group this past Saturday, and then performed the cantata on Sunday. When we actually performed the thing Sunday morning, I still hadn’t actually played the first two songs. Par for the course.
Regardless, it turned out surprisingly well. I used my djembe, congas and bongos, which fit pretty well with the piano lead, and guitar and synthesizer accompaniment. I fit into the background, but still added to the experience in my own way. I also got quite a few compliments following the two services we performed it in. Overall, the choir did a great job and the music was very well received.
The whole thing brought up some memories, though. For the last 10 years or so, my musical experience has centered around praise bands. This would involve your typical “rock band”-style musical system, with a few vocalists, electric/acoustic guitars, bass guitar, maybe a piano and some drums. There would be a leader, but that leader would also be playing an instrument, so for the most part, the band would be a, theoretically, cohesive group that didn’t really need a prototypical director to run it. Many times, it became an “organic” experience and evolved as we performed each song.
This group at the cantata, however, needed a prototypical director. And it’s been awhile since I’ve needed to follow one.
Generally, I was trying to follow the piano player, as she was the lead instrumentalist, but she was trying to follow the director, who was mostly directing the choir. The piano, however, wasn’t really oriented toward the director, so while the piano player was keeping time as best she could, she couldn’t easily look over and see what the director was doing. And the director was doing her best to fight timing between the piano and the choir, with all their individual singing and speaking parts.
It very much reminded me of playing in the pit orchestra back in high school. And in a good way.
There is something indescribable about that kind of experience. The feeling of playing a part in a production. Not necessarily an up-front acting gig or anything, but still participating. Some of my fondest memories of high school go back to playing in the pit orchestra for the likes of “West Side Story,” “Brigadoon” and “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.” We had weekly practices, eventually leading to daily practices that went relatively late into the night (a school night…so…”late” meaning 9:00…) all culminating in the set of scheduled performances. People would get all “psyched up” and go through their various traditions and rituals that have been passed down from performers of yesteryear. We, being in the orchestra, all wore black so we wouldn’t stand out in front of the actors.
In many ways, it was an almost magical experience to go through. When those songs came together, you could really get shivers down your spine. Again, we’re talking about a group of 50 people or so taking on different jobs to pull together a singular vision. In some ways, it’s like a football game. Each player gets their own part to play, but they all have to work in concert to make a truly awesome play. The same goes for a musical. You may have 15 people playing different instruments, then another 20 or so up on stage, some singing, some dancing, and then a whole host of other people backstage pulling the rest of the show together, sight unseen. When it works, it really works. And you are astounded every time you do it, as one wrong note, or one wrong line, or one misplaced prop can shatter the whole thing.
To be fair, being in a church cantata, while fun, isn’t the same. We practiced quite a bit more for musicals, production took months, they had to hold try-outs, and so on. However I got the same kind of feeling playing along yesterday. A feeling of playing along with a large group again, not necessarily out front, but in the background playing my part. It was cool to simply be there and have a good time. Strangely less stressful than playing with a smaller group on a typical Sunday.
I guess it was just good to play my instrument(s) as part of a larger whole again. It doesn’t happen often enough anymore.