me + the piano + (Obscura’s) church, or: Uncertain ground

Moving back has surprised me in one key respect. Dad has abandoned regular church-going. He says the new sound system at church interferes with his hearing aid, but I suspect the decisive reason is that Flower doesn’t go. She’s not baptized and doesn’t believe in (a) G-d. Dad always did church as half of a couple or father of a family, and I think he doesn’t know how to do it as a single. I was also initially surprised that he isn’t dating someone from church (there are plenty of options), but I think I get it.

I find the sudden non-presence of church in my life here, beyond making sure that we make the weekly donation, disorienting. But I confess that I don’t miss being there — apart from the residual religious aggravation, it’s a place where I can’t stop myself thinking about mom. My grief still hovers surprisingly close to the surface. I struggle to tame it when it bursts through. Church was really “her place.”

Something’s jumped in fill the hole, though. Obscura‘s son, Showbiz, is an accomplished singer and sometimes sings at their church. Lately, she’s asked me to accompany him, once for a funeral and this morning, for morning services.

It’s a bit a of a shaky surface for me to stand on. I spent much of my childhood and youth in a particular church, but Obscura’s church doesn’t feel like a church to me. (She’s heard this from me before, so you don’t need to jump to her defense.) It has the traditional architecture, but it’s a very low church kind of place (using the Anglican term loosely here as it’s not an Episcopal church). Her father was usher this morning and he wore shorts. There’s almost no liturgy in the sense of a regular order of service at all. The language of the service has all been updated and seems (although gender-sensitive) at times brutally unpoetic to me. The pastor is very crunchy.

In a way, this very concrete way of doing church makes it easier for me to be there. I can sing one of mom’s favorite hymns

and not tear up, because all the words have changed. “Without our aid he did us make” is now “he formed us all without our aid” and “approach with joy his courts unto” is now “with joy approach the temple walls.” I get a little jolted when they say “debts” and “debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer instead of “trespasses” and “those who trespass against us,” as well. They say “The peace of the Lord be with you,” but it feels weird in this context to say “and also with you” in reply. “You too” and “good morning!” seem to be the standard phrases. Passing the peace is for some reason one of the most uncomfortable moments in the Christian liturgy. It seems to work at this church because almost everyone knows everyone else and has for decades.

It’s church, but somehow none of my church behaviors apply. I said to Obscura’s mom this morning, “So I see you can wear shorts to church here” and she said, “Why can’t you?” and I said, “I hear my mother’s voice.” I wore jeans and a black shirt which would have felt rebellious at “our church” — but not here. I’d have to work awfully hard to feel rebellious in Obscura’s church. Although I do sense they could get into doctrinal fights, it would probably be about which is the best flavor of soup to choose at their annual soup fundraiser. Chili with noodles, or without? And the youth group would still sell out of all their entire supply.

The other surprising aspect of this is the accompaniment part. I used to play the piano well enough to be paid to accompany voice majors at recitals in college, but it’s been a long time. I haven’t played regularly since 1993 and I hadn’t touched a piano in quite a while before January. I had thought I might play here more often, but our piano is in such a state of disrepair that I need to schedule a major intervention. Obscura’s church lost their organist a while back and I offered half-seriously to help out, but I didn’t anticipate she would take me up on it.

Piano is connected with church, in that I’d been accompanying various musical groups there, too, since I was twelve or so. So in a way, sitting in a church, waiting to play an accompaniment, either near the front of the sanctuary, or at the side of the altar, is a solid return to things I did regularly until I was eighteen but not much after. Most synagogues I’ve attended don’t have instrumental or choral music during services. You halfway listen to the sermon (Obscura’s pastor is not an impressive homileticist, unfortunately) but you’re thinking about that accidental in the introduction and trying to remember that you’re going to ignore the fermata on the third line and accelerate the accompaniment just slightly to get the vocalist through it quickly because the note right on his passagio and you don’t know what will happen to it if he’s marooned there for more than a second. Momentum. The whole shape of the song. And so on. It holds my attention more actively than Na’aman’s long-forgotten leprosy. Though I laugh when the pastor mentions that all of ancient Israel was smaller than Lake Michigan.

There’s nothing stressful here, either, behind the piano, under the vocalist. Showbiz does not have the typical anxious, needy vibe of many youth vocalists; like his mother, he doesn’t take himself very seriously and lacks the perfectionist streak that I had as a musician at that age. I’m almost envious. Obscura finds me sheet music in keys friendly to the less adventurous pianist and the church has a transposing piano, so if I wanted, I could play everything in the key of C. Public domain accompaniments usually don’t have harmonically complex arrangements so I’m basically just covering I – IV – V7 combinations. “Accidentals cost money,” I said jokingly to Showbiz this morning. He is not moved; he has a better ear than the average seventeen-year-old I’ve met.

It’s not bad. It’s just weird. My fingers shake a little. My attention is all over the place. It’s not steady ground, not yet. Which makes me wonder if it ever was, if I just ignored all of the indices of insecurity around me, three decades ago. Obscura’s mom says “you’re a real professional” and I think about that — if it’s just, in the end, about ignoring all the noise.

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me is that I can still sight read. Still. That amazed me. A postcard from the 90s: perhaps not all that I have neglected for so long has been irretrievably lost.

~ by Servetus on July 4, 2016.

38 Responses to “me + the piano + (Obscura’s) church, or: Uncertain ground”

  1. You’ve made me wonder…after all these years, can I still sight read? 🤔


  2. I like the idea of wearing shorts to church. Not counting various ceremonies, performances and tourist visits, I have not been in a church since I was required to wear a dress and carry gloves (if I refused to wear them.) Not much of a rebel. My sister, five years younger, didn’t even have to go to church. Guess Mom gave up by then. I envy you a place where your Mom’s presence is so strong. My memories are all over the place. And even though Mom has been gone quite a few years, I am joining a philanthropy group she was involved with for most of her married life. I think I am trying to get closer to her in some way. Or else as I get older, I am turning into my mother. Hope not. And I did not know you were a musician and played like a pro. So many talents, Serv. The mind boggles! It must be so much fun to accompany Showbiz and hang out with Obscura. I would brave a sermon to sit in a pew to see you play. 🙂


    • My mom is really present in that church — they used her bequest to make an architectural alteration. So she’s built into the entryway now, even if her remains are still located on our living room shelf. Dad has been reluctant to schedule the interment (even though the monument has now been there almost a year).

      re: music — I had one year of college as a music major. Initially. I was studying clarinet, but I probably would have ended up a music education major. But the classes were SO boring.

      re: Obscura — always fun to hang out with her! She’s really funny and irreverent.

      re: finding our mothers — don’t we kind of always turn into our mothers on some level? But I understand the need to look. Even living in my mother’s house now, there are so many things I don’t know and wish I could ask.


  3. You got me falling down the vocal training terms rabbit hole on Wiki because this subject is endlessly fascinating to me and my roommate recently asked me if I thought I might be able to teach her to sing. (I admit I struggle with imagining how I would do this while not being able to sing myself anymore, but my best choir director wasn’t a singer himself, so I’m probably just being prideful.)


    • I think that for basic vocal coaching you could definitely do it without singing yourself. I had voice lessons for two years and a lot of it was about tone production, breathing, where to feel a sound in my body, etc. I am a huge fan of singing lessons — I think everyone’s singing can be improved by doing it. That first six months of lessons was revelatory. (and the lessons about how to breathe for volume were really useful when I started lecturing as well)


  4. “I’d have to work awfully hard to feel rebellious in Obscura’s church.” I like this.


    • It made me wonder about how much of my relationhip with “church,” period, is about the pieces of rebellion that I really enjoy.

      I think you’d like her church.


  5. the little differences that you mentioned still seem so large for me at times.”debtors” still trips me up every Sunday! I’ve gradually switched to slacks instead of skirts but I don’t think I could wear shorts, some things are just ingrained too deeply 🙂


    • Weird, isn’t it? Esp because I used to think when I’d visit here in the early 2000s, well, I can’t go to church because I don’t want to dress up even though no one else is dressing up anymore.


  6. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate…I can relate to all of this from the “other side” being a UCC protestant in a very Catholic landscape, I have developed this sort of chameleon nature when it comes to religious communities.

    My dad was raised Catholic, so I’ve attended dozens of masses over the years. Interestingly, I’ve been asked to participate in the service at several recent funerals. It always puzzles me. I have something like 25 first cousins, most of whom are Catholic…why pick me – an outsider – to read intercessory prayers? I’m always full of anxiety because I while my beliefs my be different, I respect those differences, and I don’t want to derail such an important ritual for others. I must be blending OK since no one has stood up and yelled “who let the apostate read?!?!”

    I don’t know when this all changed…I grew up in this church and I do miss some of the rituals that have fallen away – perhaps to be less imposing to the unchurched whom we hope to invite in?

    We also definitely had “Sunday Best” wardrobe. I think part of it is a denominational tone of “come as you are…spiritually, financially and even sartorially”

    That said, there were still some carefully concealed raised brows when a young woman turned up in Daisy Dukes and a cami for the baptism of her infant…mine included while all the time reminding myself that “it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing, it matters that she’s here.”

    Old habits definitely run deep.


    • I love your denomination’s advertising — pushes all my political buttons. Churches have changed so much during our lifetimes. I remember when I was a teen going to my grandparents’ church and the pastor refusing her communion when she came to the altar in jeans. (Talk about staged rebellion.) It was a scandal for months.

      In “our” church we always had this back door pass for Catholics because there were so many intermarriages. Anyone could commune who believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But it was definitely not a celebratory “we’re all brothers” thing, either. At that time you still had to agree to raise your children Catholic, as a non-Catholic marrying in. I think now even they are just happy that you are there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That was confusing. The pastor refusing his own daughter communion. Not my grandmother. LOL.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I did think you meant your G-ma..LOL!! (That would have been scandalous!)


          • No, my maternal grandmother — she was very observing of the rules. I think because HER mother, my great grandmother, got called out from the pulpit periodically. The only one I was there to witness was for running a dice game. I must have been about seven or eight. That was a family scandal.

            If I had for some reason washed up in that church in jeans my grandmother probably wouldn’t have let me enter the sanctuary.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I find this all fascinating…I had a similar conversation with a WELS friend whose siblings were disagreeing because the brother’s family turned up at service in shorts (were going to a golf outing directly after). Nobody seemed to appreciate my noting that I couldn’t see why G-d cares what I wear to church since he sent me out naked in the first place 😀


              • Ah, WELS — the people we used to cite as evidence that we weren’t totally crazy, because look at those Wisconsin synod folks. I can imagine they’d flip out over shorts in church. And also that they’d ignore your joke 🙂

                Liked by 1 person

      • Yes…i definitely gather from conversations with ecumenical crowds, that almost every denomination is faced with declining membership and not likely to take issue with some things that would have been scandalous 30 years ago even in my church.

        We have been a “soft landing” spot for decades for people moving from one denomination to another. That diversity of experience, among a host of other things has given me some fairly unorthodox (even in my pretty liberal faith community) views. As yet we haven’t had an irreconcilable collision.


  7. I used to play and teach piano. Something happened that ruined the experience, and I haven’t played with any intention for about 20 years. I hope to get over this someday, but my point to you is, if you can play, PLAY please! It’s a gift that, even when neglected, never completely leaves you. It’s wonderful therapy, as I remember, and gives such immense pleasure and enhanced experience to others that it’s a shame not to share it if you can.


    • I’m sorry to hear that it was ruined for you, but I can totally imagine how something like that could happen (it’s happened to me with other things — but with music, I just stopped having the opportunity and my grad school advisor told me I wouldn’t have time for orchestra and that was it for regularly clarinet playing).

      You are definitely right that it hasn’t left. I was amazed at what was apparently still there under my fingers. The song Showbiz sang at the funeral was in A flat and I was astounded I could still play that mostly without errors. I think there’s a certain fear that I will mess up or mess Showbiz up. But I want to play more now. Well, as soon as I can get the piano fixed. I am now friends with my high school piano teacher and she always wants to play duets and I always demur. Need to rethink that.

      I hope you can find your way back, when you’re ready.


  8. The church I attend is very diverse — multi-racial/ethnic, pastor is a converted hinduist from Trinidad — and folks wear everything from shorts to their best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. We have a band and sing praise songs instead of hymns accompanied by a pianist — which is the thing I miss most about a traditional service. Glad you got the opportunity to use your musical gifts 🙂


  9. I have switched around to 3 different religions lol and I finally figured out that none of then provided me with what I needed (just feel they missed the true message)so I just get what I need on my own at home. I have always sang in the choir and like you it amazed me from all the years of singing in school and church choirs how well I could read music, Can I do it now? that remains to be seen.


  10. I agree it is very enjoyable 🙂


  11. Sight reading: it’s a bit like riding a bike. Once the skill is there, it comes back to you. Enjoy, Serv. It sounds like a good experience.


  12. Now I want to visit Obscura’s church too! 🙂
    I’ve been to very many kinds of services in my lifetime. My dad was a theologian and trained pastor, but we never really belonged in any one church. Officially he was Dutch Reformed (Protestant) but he didn’t mind so much what church we went to, as long as he could sort of agree with whatever was being preached. As a child in Jerusalem we often went to Anglican church (I was baptized there) and later when we moved to Germany, we tried out a few churches and ended up in an Episcopalian Church in Frankfurt catering to the American Forces stationed there. After that period regular churchgoing stopped. We kids got older and didn’t want to go anymore, my parents became very critical of the new pastor and wouldn’t go anymore either and never found another church to regularly attend. My dad was often asked to be a guest preacher somewhere and I liked to go with him on occasion when I could, I liked to hear his sermons. Through that I experienced some very different churches and as I got older, people would occasionally ask me to come visit their church, which I did. Although I am not religious myself, I love seeing how people worship – in any religion. It fascinates me and a church that seems easygoing like Obscura’s fascinates me even more.
    I love how seeing how others do things can get you thinking, as your visit to Obscura’s church seems to have done for you. And I love how it brings back some forgotten talents that you have! And I love that, even though it is not your religion, you still are interested to go and see and participate.


    • I learned during my years in Göttingen when I was leading so many services that worship services were a drastically different thing for the person who performed them (I don’t know why this would have surprised me). But the leader really makes a huge difference. When I’m in church I want to hear a good sermon.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. My family lived in the neighborhood we did because my great uncle was the pastor and founded the school for that parish. There was no way my parents would have left that parish while any of us were grammar school aged. In fact not until I, the youngest had finished Catholic high school as well. Funny, only a few of the second cousins attended that school though. My mother was the “good” one I guess. My father had not gone to the Catholic school she had, and my mother always referred to his public school as “Protestant” school lol. I am old enough to remember, although not old enough to participate, in the lace head coverings, and kneeling at the alter rail for communion. I also know that when I was in kindergarten, the nuns were still in “full penguin”, by the time I started there in first grade, they were in the short habit, with short veils. They could even wear light blue rather than black. People thought these women were ancient, then suddenly realized many of them were quite young. Some wore go go boots! Any of the churches I’ve been to in many years jeans are fine, and shorts in the beach churches. Many don’t even dress up on holidays anymore. I admit, after twelve years of Catholic school, and a very strict upbringing, I don’t go to church nearly as often as I should. More of a “cafeteria” Catholic now. So thrilled Pope Francis is so accepting of so many who had been on the fringe or condemned. Softer, kinder Catholic Church. Servetus, don’t know why I thought you were Jewish.


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