For about fifteen years after college, give or take, the primary source of my income was as a church organist. This might not sound too exciting, but there are a lot of challenges in the job to keep you on your toes.
As a high school and college student I had terrible performance anxiety. I would pick apart everything, even while it was still happening. There was no sense of flow. I was stuck in my own head and worried entirely too much about what other people thought. And I was an incurable perfectionist, which kept anything I did from being all that good.
When I graduated from college, I took a job playing the organ for a church, and I soon started playing for weddings, which are probably to this day the most stressful gigs I do. Not playing with my youth orchestra at Carnegie Hall at age 15. Not trying to remember a rock n roll set with three drinks in me. Weddings.
Every wedding is different, especially the processionals. Some have more bridesmaids, some less. Some have a ringbearer; others don’t. Some use one song for the bridesmaids and then switch to a different one for the bride, and others don’t. Some people print programs that contradict what they asked for in the first place, leaving everyone unsure of what to do.
If this sounds like a pain, it is. On top of it all, there are always curve balls:
The ringbearer stops halfway down the aisle and cries.
The nervous bridesmaids sprint like there’s a fire, laying waste to good timing.
The bride hesitates.
The biggest problem for the organist is being able to see all this happen, as church organs tend to be buried, mercifully, in lofts and around corners, or behind a pillar. The musician shall not be seen. As an introvert, I’m fine with that. But then I can’t see anything else. So there I am squinting into a mirror trying to watch a procession that might as well be a half block away, and I’m trying to coordinate the right cadences with other musicians.
The cavernous St. Patrick’s Church near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, where I recently played a wedding that was the impetus for this essay.
But not just any old cadence will do. In much of the traditional wedding repertoire, there are cadences on the dominant rather than the tonic, which would make the song sound “not done yet,” which is no way to leave a bride at the altar, unless you want to play a prank in very bad taste.
The most consistent thing about a wedding processional is that it never goes as planned. I recently did a wedding with a trumpet player, and to make matters more interesting, we were doing a very nice but uncommon piece of music. Not exactly hard, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the music much, either.
WE had a game plan set up, but of course we were in the middle of no man’s land in the piece when we suddenly realized the bride was only a few steps from the altar. This left us to rely on ESP, for lack of a better word. In these kinds of moments, you are literally listening for what the next note is that the trumpet plays, and then you guess (!) which measure to jump to. One time I had a trumpet player suddenly jump back to the main theme of a piece. I caught up, eventually. I couldn’t blame him.
Needless to say, these performances are far from perfect. I guess the good news is that people rarely seem to notice, though that’s no excuse to be sloppy.
In such circumstances a perfectionist will go nuts. It’s a totally different world playing for a chaotic wedding versus playing under the red pen of a professor or a critic. Conservatories prepare musicians for exams, but not for life. Weddings are one area in which I felt the sting of this difference.
But I’m grateful for the baptism by fire, such as it is. “Perfection is death,” a friend of mine says. A perfectionist will get eaten alive playing a wedding. The good news, though, is that he’ll also get shaken up a bit and learn to play fast and loose, to dive in and make the best of it. This can only improve overall musicianship, reduce nerves, and induce a higher state of flow.
When I first started out I had some very bad weddings, even embarrassing ones, but because of the challenges they contain, I learned to let go and play with joy, and that has carried over into all the playing that I do.