Sunday, August 28, 2016

A letter about not playing music

At yesterday's Franciscan Fraternity Council meeting the issue of music came up. It was not a pleasant discussion. As I am the reluctant "musician" for the Fraternity, the discussion sparked some thoughts, and I wrote a letter to the Council. I did not send it. Instead, I called our Minister and shared many of these points with her, and added some details not included in the letter. (I've added notes to the original letter in italics.)

Dear fellow Council members;

Saturday’s Council Meeting discussion of music helped to bring into focus something that’s actually been on my mind for a while.

I will not be providing music for Fraternity meetings after the Profession.

This is not a reaction out of anger or frustration over the meeting; as I said, it’s been growing on my mind for a while.

I am really uncomfortable leading music. I always have been. It’s part of who I am; I don’t like leading or being the center of attention in many situations. I am a pronounced introvert. That’s one reason why I balked at being nominated for a Fraternity office during the last election – and only reluctantly said yes out of guilt. I would rather not even be on the Council, but agreed to that just because I have the key to the church building we use and I have to be there anyway. If you want to go back further, it’s one of the major reasons I left the seminary years ago; the Sunday public Masses where we seminarians were the center of attention at Mass and at the coffee hour after were torture for me. It’s one of the reasons why I’m a writer, not a public speaker or political candidate.

I am a limited musician. I don’t read music. I am slow to learn songs. I only feel comfortable publicly playing songs I know, songs that I can play given my limited instrumental and vocal abilities, and songs that I like and that are in styles that I like. In the band I’m in, I’m a supportive/rhythm player, not a lead instrumentalist. I rely on the good musicians in the group to take the lead and show me what to do. I generally sing back up, not lead. I have turned down lead vocals. I did the same when I was in the choir. In the local folk music circles, although I have been invited to open mics, I have declined to play. (One of the issues that arose was the older members of the Fraternity used to belong to a Charismatic prayer group - the Fraternity evolved out of that prayer group. The older members want the return of the Charismatic prayer songs they sang back in the 1980s. I'm not even sure that music is still played at Charismatic gatherings, but the examples I've heard are dated and unappealing to me. Some members have tried to sing them for me, but they are often off key or don't hold the tune and it's hard for me to follow. As I don't read music, if I don't know how many of the songs they want actually go, and if there are not recordings of them, I don't know how to play them - and certainly can't lead them. And, to be honest, I wanted to avoid getting into conflict with the senior members of the Fraternity. Part of what prompted the discussion was as we were planning for the profession of two new Franciscans I had asked the two women what songs they would like - doing this had been raised at the last Council meeting - and planned the Mass using the songs they wanted. But one of the songs was a contemporary one, and when I sang a verse of it the Council rejected it and replaced it with an old hymn.)

When I started playing for the Fraternity, it was as a supplement to the music (J***) was providing – just a song at first. Then it expanded to two songs some nights, then, when she got sick, providing all the music. I grew increasingly uncomfortable. I found myself getting caught up in dilemmas in selecting songs – based on what fit the liturgical calendar or the meeting focus, musical ability, keys, and differing musical tastes. I worried that my choices did not always sit well or meet expectations. I found myself getting stressed as the meetings approached and on the nights of the meetings before playing, and often felt uneasy and frustrated even after I played. This all interfered with the meetings for me. (J*** is an older member of the Fraternity. She played recorded music and the Fraternity sang along. The Council wanted to start phasing in live music, and I was available. But there were problems. They wanted old Charismatic music, as I noted earlier, not the more contemporary kind of music I play. I do not know the songs they want well enough to play them. And they have not always been pleased when I introduce more contemporary songs. ... When I talk about the musical ability, I mean not my own limitations - which I do have - but also the fact that a member of the Fraternity who is learning to play violin wanted to play along, but she plays really slowly, forcing me to play songs slower than they should be played, and she can only play in a few keys and with sheet music, so I can't transpose songs to better fit my vocal range. ... Another problem is that I play and sing by ear. I need to hear my guitar or be with people singing the melody to sing, especially on songs with which I'm less familiar. Unfortunately, the two singers who joined me in playing include a woman with a nice voice but who sings soprano and often sings harmonies, throwing me off, and a man who consistently sings off key or even creates his own melody, throwing me off even more. The result is I sometimes lose my place in the song and lose the melody. It makes it difficult for me to lead singing.)

Yes, that’s all on me. But it is who I am. As P. G. Wodehouse might say, I’m a sensitive plant.

And I know people might argue that it’s for the good of the Fraternity, it’s using my gifts, and so on.

But I’d rather use other gifts, ones less up front and public. Being the “doorman.” Setting up before and cleaning after meetings. Writing.

So if there is to be music after September 23, please figure out other ways for it to be provided. Maybe someone has musical ability we don’t know about. Maybe it has to be a capella for a while. Maybe someone has recordings we can sing along with.

Pax et bonum

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