The Pilgrim’s Progress

I am spending a lot of time here in Arlington, VA, and so I need a place where I can work.  I asked my friend Andy, who is a DC theater stalwart, where I could rent a practice room or rehearsal space, and after a few moments of demonic laughter, he patiently explained to me that these things were simply not available in the Washington area.

“So what do YOU do when you rehearse for shows?”

“Me?  I go to church.”

Church?  I have never been a regular churchgoer, unless you consider the time I dated a girl who was a regular churchgoer, and it’s probably best NOT to consider that time, especially since the woman in the next room subscribes to this blog.  I was leery at best.

But Andy persisted, and told me he was sure that the pastor at his church would let me use the choir room, since it was essentially free all week anyway.  Then the emails started coming in.

Would I be able to play a church service?

Uh…sure.  (That’s, like, hymns and stuff, right?)

Would I be able to play two or three services?


Would I be able to play six, or even eight services?

Um…okay.  (Now, I had never actually played a church service before, but it is customary in the music business to say “yes” to anything that even remotely resembles a gig.)

Would I be able to play an African-American lesbian wedding?

Ah, well, I do indeed have some experience with lesbian weddings, which—incidentally—are incredibly similar to non-lesbian weddings.

And so here I am, substitute organist at the beautiful Church of the Pilgrims in our Nation’s Capital, very close to the Dupont Circle Chipotle, and right by the statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.  I use the word “organist” (and I use it quite loosely) because in addition to the astonishing series of stained-glass windows, one of the glories of Pilgrims is a fantastic 1928 Skinner pipe organ.  Playing the organ is very different than playing the piano, and while I like to consider myself passable at the latter, I am absolutely abominable at the former, as my classmates from two semesters of Donald Teeters’s “Choral Conducting for the Organist” seminar way back when will readily attest to.  Also there are these pedals, which apparently real organists can use to make music with their feet.

Fortunately the ability to play the organ here is subsidiary to a general ability to accompany, conduct, arrange simple instrumental parts, rehearse the choir and volunteer musicians, lead an ensemble with the back of your head, sight-read, improvise, pick out appropriate music, deal with a wide variety of musical styles (and a wide variety of singers), and have a good enough sense of theatrical timing to know when to start playing, when to stop, and how fast or slow everything should go at any time.  Oh, and of course what Sir William Osler, one of my father’s favorite authors, refers to as “Aequanimitas”—the ability to remain unflappable in any and all circumstances.  In other words, it turns out that being a church organist isn’t so terribly different from running an opera workshop.  Plus there’s free coffee!

And with enough coffee, I might just make some progress.

At least on this opera.  Those pedals are on their own.


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