Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Singing Together

Getting the comment from the red-haired “Pentecostal to Lutheran to Anglican” friend from my Laurier music daze triggered a memory and a thought.

In the third year of my degree I became assistant conductor of the university symphony orchestra. Part of my job was to conduct some student compositions and fill in when the regular conductor couldn’t make the rehearsal – which was a lot.

If the rehearsal was at 4:00, I’d receive a score in my mailbox at 2:00 with a note attached saying, “Please learn and take over today’s orchestra rehearsal. Regular Conductor is unavailable.”

If the score was Mozart or Haydn - no problem. But often the music was Stravinsky or Ravel – beads of sweat would form on my brow.

Regular Conductor was known for his six hour dress rehearsals the day of the concert, to make up for the times he couldn’t make the regular rehearsals, the rehearsals where I muddled through the Concerto for Wind Instruments on two hour’s notice.

Once, during one of these marathon dress rehearsals, I was leading the orchestra through a piece written by a student composer. It was only the second time we practiced it because Regular Conductor scheduled it for only 10 minutes at the end of one rehearsal. It wasn’t hard music, but it was stranger than what folks were used to.

First the principle flautist got lost and missed her entry. Then the bassoonist came in at the wrong place. The strings descended into chaos. The percussionists were on another planet.

The music was going to crash but I wasn’t going to stop. After all this was a dress rehearsal. I was going to raise my arms and gesture to the next major section, and the orchestra would come back together – hopefully. Then we’d run through it again from top to bottom. That was my strategy.

But Regular Conductor decided otherwise.

“STOP!” He yelled.

I’m sorry I thought this was MY rehearsal.

“The music’s a mess. People aren’t watching you. And it sounds terrible!”

Tell me something I don’t know.

“You should have stopped them and started over from the beginning!”

No, this was a dress rehearsal. We pretend it’s the concert, so we don’t stop.

“Either you’re too STUPID to understand this music or too INCOMPETENT to stand on that podium.”

Silence. Keep in mind; this was in front of 60 musicians.

Blood rushed to my ears then to my face. Did he just say what I think he said?

Apparently so, because as I looked out into the orchestra, I saw 60 horrified faces – and one angry Regular Conductor.

“Start again from the beginning!” he roared. “And STOP the orchestra if they screw up again!”

We never did get to play that piece from top to bottom without stopping, except at the concert.

But as I looked back out into the orchestra, something hit me with a soft hand. These people are my friends. These are folks I drink beer with. Hang out with, study with. Even pray with. They want me to succeed. They want all of us to succeed – together. The best music we could play was when we played simply for the joy of being together.

Afterwards, a crowd of musicians gathered around me to tell me how appalled they were by such a personal, public insult.

I got thinking about this experience as I was reading about church leadership. Regular Conductor’s behaviour: the rehearsals he didn’t have time for, his marathon dress rehearsals to make up for his being away, the angry words, the disrespect, all climaxing with his unprofessional outburst at me, alienated those he was supposed to inspire. People didn’t want to give him their best. He didn’t deserve it. It was clear he didn’t care about them. He yelled, abused peoples’ time, and needlessly hurt those under his charge.

He lasted one year. We were all glad to see the back of him.

We all know pastors who are like Regular Conductor; dictatorial megalomaniacs who trample over people in the pursuit of their own grandiose visions.

But I wonder if being a pastor is a lot like being a student conductor. When I look out from the pulpit at the congregation I realize, these people are my friends, people I hang out with, drink beer with, study scripture with. Pray with. I know my congregation grows closer when we sing songs of praise together. Or even songs of lamentation. For us, the key is that we sing together. My job is to lead the singing of our life together, teaching new songs, reminding them of the old ones, making sure we begin and end at the same place.

If someone gets lost, I gesture to the next major section. And we all come back again – together.

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