Sally Venman passed away on Saurday, November 13th. The service to celebrate her life was held a week later.
For me, it was a week highly charged with emotion.
When someone I care deeply about dies, the previous loss of family and friends always surfaces in a way I can’t ignore. In addition to honoring my past and present feelings, last week I spent time thinking about how the circumstances of every death are different and each person and service are unique.
I cried from time to time. And I had been home with the flu for a week already, with another week to come.
When Bill Venman asked me to play for Sally’s service, I felt honored. I had wanted to offer, but wasn’t quite sure how. The family could have had other plans.
I felt resolved to play, and needed to find a way to choose music and practice regardless of how I felt physically.
Defining my role
It seemed that having a clearly thought-out plan concerning my place in the service would help.
What did I feel was my reason for being there?
I wanted to provide a meditative time for the people who attended. They needed to mourn, pray, cry, remember, or simply have some time to be quiet, perhaps reflecting upon their own lives.
The service was for Sally. It was clearly not my show. I wanted to have a presence without necessarily being dramatic.
I wanted the music to be heard and experienced. The type of “music” and playing that people would not remember was not what I wanted or, I felt, the reason Bill asked me to play.
I chose the following music for a prelude of just over 11 minutes:
Liebster Jesu, the hymn by Johann Rudodlph Ahle
Liebster Jesu, harm. J.S. Bach
Prelude in B flat minor, J.S. Bach, WTC I
Ich ruf’ zu dir, Bach-Busoni
La colombe, Messiaen (with a nod to the bird club)
Prelude in E minor, Chopin
I wasn’t sleeping, due to my apprehension about falling apart during the service. If my emotions took over, would I be able to play well?
Added to my inability to fall asleep, the power went out at 2:30 a.m. Since my apartment complex has electric heat, and because I was awake, I decided to call around to have the power restored. That took three phone calls. The maintenance person on call gave me a 1/2 hour estimated arrival time. As usual, it took much longer.
The heat was finally restored at 4:00 a.m. I now had two hours before the alarm! How would it be, playing a service on two hours’ sleep? (The total turned out to be less than that!)
I would have to “just do it” and find a way to focus on what I was doing and why.
Arriving at the Church
The church was a new venue for me, so the first thing I needed to do was become acclimated. I was relieved to see someone there who was not only a member of that church, but also a member of the chorus. She knew how the church did things, and where everything was.
Details to be dealt with:
- turning the piano around in order to see the conductor of the chorus
- finding out where to store the piano cover
- moving the humidifier out from underneath the piano
- finding out whether the regular organist/pianist raises the piano lid or not
With those seemingly small things addressed, I could play the chorus rehearsal, arrange my music in service order, mark the order of service, look at the words of the hymn, and observe the general feeling among those who attended.
There appeared to be two things going on. Those in the lobby area were greeting each other, signing the guest book, and milling around. Others had entered the sanctuary. Many were seated, others standing. Some were talking quietly, with the general atmosphere being more subdued.
Bill requested that I play beyond the indicated starting time for the service of 10:00. So, in consultation with the minister, I decided to begin at 9:55. The prelude would then end at about 6 minutes after.
When I began playing, something wonderful happened. Everyone fell completely silent. That is quite unusual in other services I’ve played. I felt that the music was being regarded as an integral part of the service, not background. At that moment, I felt a heightened sense of responsibility.
I wanted to play expressively, channeling my emotions into the music. I was able to focus, and the prelude went well. My goal of setting the tone of the service and playing with a sense of forward momentum was attainable.
The service was quite moving. The minister provided exactly what was needed (which is not always the case). Her presence and her words were comforting and wise. There were poignant and solemn as well as funny moments throughout the service, with people from all age groups and varied relationships to Sally sharing stories.
Following the Service
Another unusual thing happened. At least 16 people approached me to talk about the prelude. Each had something astute and unique to say. Several asked about the Messiaen. One person had well-considered insights about my interpretation of the Chopin. Some commented about the choice of music. I was very pleased with the response, and that people felt compelled to talk about their experience. That level of participation rarely occurs after services or concerts.
I made a difference on Saturday. That’s why I was there.