Don’t Play it Again, Sam: Church Music at its Worst

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There are plenty of reasons to attend mass of a Sunday morning. You might go for the spirituality, a sense of community, the coffee and donuts, obligation (see also guilt); or, you might attend simply for the music. There’s nothing quite like a top notch church choir. How can you not be inspired when accompanied by a chorus of angels? Sadly, though, the angel chorus is not standard issue. Instead of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, you might get Bob Dylan on tranquilizers and helium. For the record, I have nothing against tranquilizers or helium. I’m just trying to make a point. The point is this. Although some may go to church because of the music, others may go in spite of it. Welcome to my world.

If you would, close your eyes and try to imagine the world’s most talented chicken.. Have you got it? Good. Now, give that chicken a hymn book, a piano and a sore throat. Scary, right? Well if this were American Idol, the chicken would still win.

singing chickenI don’t want to offend anyone so I’m not going to tell you where I often attend services.   We’ll call this particular house of worship Our Lady of the Worthless Miracle, as referenced in the comedy classic The Naked Gun. As for the organist/music director/person responsible for the hair raising, skin crawling, fingernails-on-chalkboard cacophony that passes for music on a weekly basis, we’ll just call him Sam, as in play it again, Sam, even though we really wish he wouldn’t, and the he in question might actually be a she named… Like I said, we’ll go with Sam. …

One would assume most people with a title like music director would have at least mild familiarity with such highly technical terms as whole notes, half notes and rests. I say most because, based on extensive and often excruciating audio evidence, Sam lacks those very basic qualifications. He treats time signatures the same way my wife treats speed limit signs. They are mere suggestions and offer plenty of room for interpretation. The sign might say 55 but there’s no reason 70 won’t work just as well. My wife’s salvation is cruise control. Sam’s could be a five dollar metronome but I’m convinced he uses some sort of random number generator instead. I say that because a tune as simple and familiar as Happy Birthday might undergo slight variations week to week or even verse to verse. Yes, I know Happy Birthday is not a church song and typically has but one verse. I’m using that as an example because it’s known by everyone…well, almost everyone. With Sam abusing the ivories, it might be played as “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday—–to you,” or “Hap—py birthday to you, Happy birth–day to you,” or “Happybirthdaytoyou, happybirthdayto–you,” or about any other semi-syllabic configuration you might come up with. Regardless, good luck attempting to sing along.

A church music director has two main responsibilities. They are to play and to sing. Vocally, Sam does remind one of a chicken, all be it a skilled one.   I mean, he does hit the notes, or most of them anyway, but does so with all the strength and confidence a meat packer might possess if suddenly asked to perform open heart surgery. Think Enrico Palazzo if his voice was about four octaves higher. Reader’s note: I’ll try to include a minimum of two Naked Gun references in all future blog posts.

As for playing ability, I realize now my piano playing chicken metaphor was extremely unfair… to the chicken. They’re far too dexterous. I should have gone with a duck. Mighty tough to play with those webbed feet. I’m not suggesting Sam plays with his feet, although that would explain a lot, or that his feet are webbed. I am convinced at least a few of his fingers are fused together. He caresses the keyboard with all the subtlety and sensitivity of Orin Scrivello, the sadistic dentist from Little Shop of Horrors. Now I’m being unfair to dentists. Next to Sam’s unique musical interpretations, that old drill sounds pretty good. WARNING: Although you’re certainly welcome to watch the drilling video clip in its entirety, be advised that it’s ten hours long or about as long as one of Sam’s songs.

I mentioned that a music director’s responsibilities are to play AND sing. Sam is barely proficient at either one. Things really get interesting (euphemism for agonizing or unbearable) when he attempts to do both at the same time. For the accompanist, proper timing is crucial. However, if accompanying one’s self, you ought to have a pretty good idea of what’s coming next. Sam doesn’t. There’s some seriously crossed wiring between mind, mouth and fumbling fingers. He might play a song in one key and start singing in another, or playing and singing might be in slightly different time zones, as in Eastern and Pacific. It’s really rather remarkable in a nuclear meltdown sort of way. There are even times when nothing is being played or sung and a random organ note will just sort of sneak out, as unexpected and unwelcome as, well, a fart in church. The curious thing is, Sam always seems as surprised as everyone else, and as he butchers one tune after another, you’ll generally hear a series of groans, titters and closing hymn books as members of the congregation realize they can’t possibly sing or even read along.

Incredibly, unfortunately and painfully, despite a near total lack of musical continuity or predictability, Our Lady of the Worthless Miracle has a choir led by Sam and his thirteen thumbs. Most of the choir members sing well enough for a group of people with no training whatsoever. However, a couple of them decided that a tambourine and maraca might somehow enhance the overall experience. Did I mention the lack of training? Granted, you don’t have to be a Julliard graduate to master the tambourine or the maraca but it helps if you can keep the beat and it’s a big plus if there’s a beat to be kept. We come up short on both counts; pardon the pun. I have two theories. Either our well meaning percussionists have Parkinson’s or they’re stone deaf. Whichever the case, my popcorn popper keeps better time. The best way I can describe it is this. While your cat is walking back and forth on the piano keyboard, get a metal can, toss in a handful of rice and some loose change and then throw the whole mess down a couple flights of cement stairs. Don’t forget to sing along. See you in church. I’ll be the one with the ear plugs.

 

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