Voices Trouble (now with EDIT!)
Last night wasn’t so pretty.
It started out like usual, with the girls and me flyin through I-664 to downtown Newport News. Goobs and I had picked up Juice from band practice, and we were on our way to Hardees so we could shove ourselves outside something really unhealthy just before choir rehearsal. (I had the jalapeno burger.) Squealing into the church parking lot on two wheels, we saw one of the new choir members sitting in her car, waiting for somebody to unlock the doors. We waved at each other. This is part of the Thursday night ritual. There’s always somebody (or more than one) sitting in her car, waiting in the parking lot, waving. At about five minutes to the hour, Juice said, “We better go in, or we’ll be late.” Juice is the arbiter of punctuality, especially when she feels it is her responsibility to remind me, several times in a half hour, that we’d better go.
Just then, V called me on my cell phone. I had called her early that morning, about twelve hours ago, and this was my call back.
“Never mind,” I said into the phone. I mean, I’d even forgotten what I’d wanted from her. (That happens a lot: I call the woman in the morning, and she calls me back later that evening, asking, “You call me?” It’s gettin old.)
“Okay,” she replied. “The door’s unlocked. Y’all can come on in.” Our new member was already out of her car, walking determinedly into the wind that hung around our church parking lot this time of year. The building we have church in was built near the James River, so beginning in October, the Hawk starts creepin in, with a view to inviting its whole family round there by the holidays.
Juice grabbed my umbrella, and Goobs grabbed my gigantic choir notebook. (This is a common three-inch binder, stuffed with those loose-leaf plastic sleeves which are, in turn, stuffed with pages and pages of black gospel song lyrics. This particular collection is at least ten years old. The uninitiated gasp when they see it, and I add so many sheets during the year, I usually have to replace the actual binder. [Course, throwin it in the back of the car, makin it ride around with us day in and day out, probably has something to do with the regular need for replacement, too.]) I grabbed my purse, keys and cell phone, shoved the last two into the first and went inside.
First disappointment: TPTB had decided to move the choir proper upstairs to the room where our dancers rehearse. They wanted the musicians to rehearse in the sanctuary (where choir rehearsal usually is). I suppose it’s easier to let them do their thang, especially when they need more work on their thang, in the sanctuary, where the heavy instruments already are, than to lug the Hammond (for example) upstairs. I suppose. So the girls and I walked (well, they walked, I panted and puffed) two flights to the upper rehearsal room.
Second disappointment: somebody had arranged the choir’s chairs in front of the long mirror on one of the walls. This means I got to see just how huge my huge thighs are –for two hours nonstop. I resolved to sing all night with my eyes closed. Choir members trickled in, hugged other choir members, and then sat down. P, the best soprano I’ve ever heard, sat in the chair next to me on the left. Another new member, whose name I can’t remember, sat on my right. He’s a lovely young man, slim and twentyish, with beautiful long, curled eyelashes. He had kissed me on the cheek before he sat down. He was a little nervous because this was his first time singing with the premier choir of our church. He probably thought rehearsal would be hellacious*, even though we were all grinning at him and V, one of the other new members and T, because we were genuinely happy to have them. This particular choir has a high turnover. We’re “just a church choir,” as my pastor likes to remind us, but we play hard. We have less than fifteen members now. We've never had much more than twenty, as diligently as our various Ministers of Music recruited.
Third disappointment: we’re in the process of learning a song by Donald Lawrence , one of my least-favorite gospel artists. Someone in choir leadership heard the first song on the Finale project, “Blessing of Abraham,” and said, “What a great song!” I’ll betcha. I hate it when people listen to the very first song of a new musical project, or hear some song getting heavy play on the radio, and then decide to teach it to our choir. (Yes, everybody did love Donnie McClurkin’s “I Call You Faithful”; it’s a wonderful song, but everybody else is singing it. Can’t we learn something that every choir in the country's not singing?)
The other problem I have with this song, aside from being the first on the project, is that it’s in line with the prosperity doctrine my pastor preaches against. Most of Donald Lawrence’s songs are, these days. He went from “I am God,” a song which extols the supreme Creator, to “Prayer of Jabez” , which begs Him over and over and over and over, “Bless me, indeed”, extolling what we can get from Him. “Blessing of Abraham” points out that we, Christians, are the “seed of Abraham” and we should demand and expect (“by faith”) the same blessings God promised the Patriarch. (I was particularly appalled by a “testimony” on the live recording, from one of the young men in the choir: after having discovered a serious condition in his health, and after what cure was available from modern doctors, he stopped the course of medicine, deciding “If I was gonna be a worshipper, I wanted God to do what He said.” And if you don’t understand what I find so appalling in that remark, I don’t know if I can explain it.
And personally, I prefer the second song on the project, “Encourage Yourself,” which exhorts Christians to do just that: cheer up ourselves, sometimes, instead of always lookin for encouragement everywhere else, but ain nobody ask me.)
We got through another chapter of perfecting our execution of “Blessing of Abraham,” and then V decided she wanted us to try a new song, Israel Houghton’s “Holy Spirit”. V couldn’t teach it the way she wanted to teach it. For one thing, she didn’t have a copy of the song for us to listen to; our keyboardist/Minister of Music (actually a genius in his own right) wasn’t yet quite sure how the song went, and V had a few doubts about the song herself. But she wanted to try it. What most of the choir didn’t know was that V was angry with our k/MoM because she had given him a CD of choir songs to make copies for choir members, more than a month ago, and he hadn’t gotten around to it. If he had, you know, we could’ve been working on the words and parts to the song ourselves, before choir rehearsal, because that’s how we roll, and most of V’s work would’ve been done. But he hadn’t. So V had a lot of work to do now. She felt very frustrated, even before she’d sung the first note to us. (This is how traditional black church choirs learn songs: we don't read music; we listen to it and thereby learn the parts to sing.)
I knew because she had told me about it last week. I sympathized with her, completely, but I discovered that I didn’t agree with her decision to teach us the song anyway, without everything she needed to teach it. In fact, I had had no idea that this was what she had planned to do. But V sent downstairs to the sanctuary, to S, our bass player (another genius), who, she thought, had a copy of the song somewhere. S came reluctantly up to us with his MP3 player and a device that would use the speakers of a boom box to play MP3 player songs. It was a slightly complicated process, but finally, we could hear the song, kinda.
Unlike the rather smooth way she had gone about teaching “Blessing of Abraham,” V’s manner of teaching “Holy Spirit” manifested her current lack of resources. She stumbled over the words and the parts. She forgot that she should use the buttons on the MP3 player --not the boom box-- to move backwards and forwards in the recording of the song. As she became increasingly flustered, choir members’ faces became, by turns, curious to confused to frustrated. The air was heavy (and not because heat rises). To lighten the mood a little, I raised my hand and said, “Y’all are gettin’ on my last nerve! How does this part go again?”
V, normally a joker, even about the most serious things, didn’t crack a smile. I’d noticed that, since she had become our choir director, she had become more and more edgy during rehearsals. The bottom-line problem was, she didn’t believe she was capable of what we all knew she could do. She lacked no expertise, as far as we were concerned, but she lacked confidence, she didn’t believe in herself, so what difference did it make that we believed in her?
At the end of the rehearsal, V made a speech. She told us that we needed our respect, because the mess that choir rehearsal had become wasn’t her fault. She said, “It’s not my fault” more than once. After an awkward pause, our k/MoM asked one of the tenors, R, to raise the closing prayer.
The next morning, during an early-morning break at work, I made the mistake of emailing some advice to V about last night. I was careful: at the beginning and throughout, I avoided the pronoun “you,” as much as possible, and I ended with “I’m praying for you. Love. . . .” In the middle, I advised against telling a group of people “It’s not my fault,” unless planning to lay blame specifically; I advised against teaching a song when resources were unavailable; and I advised that V find her sense of humor again. (Honey, the message was much longer, but I figured you'd appreciate me just hittin the high spots.)
V responded only, “In the future, disruptive choir members will be asked to sit down from the choir for a period of time after several warnings.”
I knew what she meant: unaccountably, she was blaming me for some of what had happened the night before. And this was not the first time V had accused me of being “disruptive” --and disrespectful—during her choir rehearsals. I was her friend. I had encouraged her, prayed for her, kept her confidences, stood up for her when others criticized her. Somebody else had gotten on her last nerve, let her down. She felt she couldn't attack him in public (I dunno, maybe because he's a man?) but the rest of the choir? Sure! And now, somehow, her self-doubt had turned into doubts about me.
That’s how women do their friends in the Church.
My pastor's been talkin, for weeks --or for quite a few Sundays and Tuesdays, anyway-- about the way Church People react when they're under stress, and then the johnbrown prophet weighs in on our situation: we don't get mad at the situation, or even the people who put us there; we get mad at the messenger. After about two or three of these messages, V couldn't take anymore. She ran across the sanctuary after service and threw her arms around me.
"I'm sorry. Girl, I've been stressed out for the last six months. I didn't know how to act," she said. "I love you with your mean self!** I don't want any mess between us." I hugged her back.
"I love you, too," I said. "Don't worry about it. You just have to realize that you got this. You can do this."
That's how women do their friends in church.
*The word of the day on Friday
**The general consensus of my disposition, at home and at church. Three hundred and two people can't all be wrong. . . .