There’s a song entitled, “He Looked Beyond My Faults And Saw My Needs” that our church choirs loved singing. It’s set to the music for, “Danny Boy,” a song we’d sometimes play in the orchestral part of being in the school band and usually as the musical accompaniment to the school choir belting it out and in all its harmonic glory.
I found out that when the church finds out that you can play, they want you to play and they expect you to automatically know of every gospel song ever written. My God… that used to make me insane because whenever our regular pianist/organist couldn’t be there, I could expect someone – usually my mother, mother-in-law, or our revered pastor to come ask me if I’d play for whatever choir was singing…
And like I knew what they planned on singing and, yep, I already knew the song and however it was arranged or, as usual in Baptist churches, rearranged. Most of the time, I… refused such emergency requests because I knew that I didn’t know the music even though I could sit at the piano/organ and play a song from the hymnal as written which, when I did step in, yeah, the membership wasn’t happy with the music because I didn’t put the gospel twist on it.
Well, that’s because I didn’t know how to play gospel music. They didn’t seem to understand that, yes, I’m a classically trained musician but that doesn’t mean that I can play music from every genre that exists unless you have the music for it and I have x-amount of time to learn the piece and if I’m to put a twist on it, figuring out how to twist it. What made it “worse” for me is that the pastor’s very young son was a prodigy and, admittedly, played organ way better than I did and he learned on his own which had the effect of people asking me why I couldn’t play church songs like this kid could and not understanding that (1) he was some kind of prodigy, (2) his father is pastor and he’s been exposed to this music in a way that I hadn’t been and (3) this is not the kind of music I’m used to playing.
There were two times when I didn’t mind playing in church. The first was when my baby sister got married and she – and my mother – had asked me to play the “Wedding March” for the service (as well as “churchy” stuff prior to the ceremony. Fine. One thing, though: I had never played it before. Heard it? Yes. Played it or seen the music for it? Nope. And as such things tend to happen, I was asked to do this (expected to) and I only had three days to find the sheet music specifically for organ and learn it. My mom had come over to my place and I was at the organ feverishly hacking my way through the piece and even she asked me how come I didn’t already know how to play it and I will say that at that point, she should’ve been glad that she was my mom because I was on my way to an epic meltdown because it had taken me two of those three days to find the fricking music, leaving me a whole day to learn it.
My sister’s big day comes and… everything went well as far as the music went. The next time was when my mom had been invited by another church to sing at an event they were having which I thought was cool because mom could sing (even though she didn’t think she was a good singer). Here comes the “bad” part: She asked me to play for her at this event and the song was the one I opened this scribble with. I knew this song like I knew the back of my hand but when we rehearsed for this, whew, she would stop singing and ask me why I was playing it that way or complain about some of the notes being too high for her and now I’m “rewriting” and rearranging the whole cotton-picking song to be able to play it the way she wanted me to and she drove me insane with this and being paranoid about singing in front of a bunch of people to begin with.
I’d often stop playing because she was so nervous that she couldn’t sing the song. I don’t know how many times I’d told her that even though I’ve played in front of a whole lot of people, I’ve always been nervous before the fact and sometimes during it but once I started playing, all I’m thinking about is the music and the people listening don’t exist until I’m done playing. If this had been anyone other than my mother, I would have refused to play. No pressure, right?
Her big moment comes. I go to the church’s organ and… it’s a Hammond B3. Uh oh. I can play an organ. I had one in my home. I had never played a Hammond B3 before and the B3 was the variant that had the full pedal manual… that I hadn’t had much to do with in years. And I have, oh, about two minutes to figure it out before mom gets called up to sing. I’m furiously resetting the organ from where the church’s organist had things set up; mom’s being announced and I am not ready because while I know what tabs control what voices, I couldn’t “test” them to make sure I had them right for the way we had rehearsed the song.
She’s at the mic and does what I had asked her to do; when you’re ready, look at me and nod and I’ll play a lead-in just like practiced and when I nod back at you, face the back of the church and find something to fix your eyes on instead of looking at the people… and sing your heart out. Between my mother’s voice and my rearrangement of the song, by the time we got done, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. My mom is smiling at me and came over to hug me; I whispered in her ear, “I told you that you could do this, didn’t I?” and it was the first time I got to hit my mom with, “I told you so!”
Otherwise? Nah, don’t ask me to play in church. Ever. I can play gospel music like “it’s supposed to be” played but as I learned when I was “forced” to be the director of our senior choir, when you’re dealing with a bunch of people who have had zero musical training – and your mom is one of them – rehearsals usually got ugly because I’m playing the song with gospel twists and they’re telling me that I’m playing it wrong and at one rehearsal, I went ballistic and medieval on them and it was an epic rant that almost got me bitch-slapped by my mom for being “disrespectful” to the choir members who were all way older than I was.
I played and directed them for that one Sunday and told all of them, “Never again.”
I think about that song at times, and it always brings back these memories and more so when my mom passed away; I can still hear how she sang it and I am… comforted. I think about the song and remember – and like it was yesterday – literally sitting at my organ with my manuscript pad and rewriting the song. Playing it later on with my MIDI-connected keyboards and, yeah – I wish I had had them when my mom had to sing that day. Hah – I would have programmed them to play the song without me doing anything other than pushing one button. I would (and still can) take a soulful church song in the gospel mode and turn it into one hell of a song with loads of instrumentation that no real organ can reproduce.
And, oddly, it’s the only church song that I can play without having to think about how to play it. Well, other than “Amazing Grace” – I would sometimes play it for my mom just to hear her sing. I’m getting all choked up at this point so… I’ll leave it this alone for today.