I love this photo because it really captures the energy and excitement of Holy Communion’s Bell Choir performance this morning. First of all, they were nice enough to play for both services, which allowed me to give a day off to the Senior Choir, who are hard at work preparing for Christmas Eve. (Although I must acknowledge the generosity of Val Conner and Ann Dudycha, who are members of both group – so while their choir compatriots had nothing to do today, they were still on deck as members of the bell choir.) I took several pictures of them in mid-performance, but all of the clear ones were boring. This one, blur and all, is by far my favorite because it shows how action-packed things get in these incredibly intricate arrangements which they play. And yet, thanks to their skills and the assured leadership of their director, Diane Johnson, they manage to make it all look amazingly easy. . . and even manage to look like they’re having fun. (And I think they are, for the most part.) I appreciate this because there’s nothing more unsettling to watch than a nervous bell choir, ringing their bells with gritted teeth, furrowed brow, and sweat pouring from every pore. (You would assume from their demeanor that they’re juggling vials of anthrax instead of joyously ringing bells.)
I was actually a small part of one of their pieces today – a really wonderful arrangement of “We Three Kings” which called for multiple percussion instruments (played masterfully by Dave Christiansen) and synthesizer, played less than masterfully by me. Actually, I did just great at first service – as did the bells – and when we finished, the congregation gave them the biggest ovation ever given to special music in the 21 years I’ve been at the church. (For a minute, I thought Elvis was in the building.) People clapped and cheered with genuine gratitude and admiration for the dazzling performance they had just heard.
Between services, I was offering my congratulations to bell ringer Barb Salvo, who thanked me but then said that the bell choir had a habit of hitting a home run at first service but having to settle for a single when the second service came around. And sure enough, almost from the first measure of the second service performance, things didn’t feel quite as rhythmically tight as the first time around. And when we got to the first tricky transition, something went a little bit amiss- not fatally so but enough for me to worry that it might go off the rails if the next transition was even rougher. And when I started hearing unexpected dissonances (nothing so terrible that anyone in the congregation would notice, but a clear indication to us that someone was off) I found myself listening extra closely to the bells, wondering who was ahead or behind. . .
And then, director Diane Johnson shot me a concerned look as she urgently whispered “measure 71!” and I suddenly realized that the cause of our woes was me! I was two measures behind! The guy with the masters degree – the guy who both conducted Handel’s Messiah and sang the bass solos in the same performance – was the person who got off, and not by a beat or two but by two whole measures. Arrrrgh! I immediately jumped ahead and everything was perfect from there to the end. And as I slunk back to my pew, I felt about as worthless as a confederate savings bond.
I occurred to me a little later that I was guilty of a rather serious case of over-confidence, because for all of the musical feats I perform on a regular basis, one thing I almost never do is the kind of thing I did today- playing in a small ensemble where I have to count many measures of rest in order to come in at exactly the right moment. And while I dutifully counted like crazy at first service, at second service I was guilty of getting a little bit carried away listening to those amazing bells, to the point where I very nearly became the iceberg to their Titanic. But utter disaster was averted and by the end, it was just as glorious as the first time around- and I found myself with a new appreciation for the men and women who take those bells in hand and make magic.