My Chancel Choir Christmas concert last Sunday night was a huge success. And it was unlike our past concerts. They have all been successes too, but this one was so very different. During a time when there is so much darkness in our world, so much confusion at a leadership level, so much uncertainty for so many people regarding their healthcare, finances, quality of life and hope for the future, something about our concert lifted so many people out of their worry, sadness and darkness.
A few excerpts from the feedback I received:
"We attended your "Angels Among Us" concert. We want to both thank and congratulate you on such a fabulous and inspiring recital! This is the first year I've been able to attend, but I intend to make it a holiday tradition from now on."
"A word of thanks for the amazing Christmas Concert last Sunday evening. My sister and I attended for the first time and were so impressed with all aspects. From the illustrated program to the varied instrumentals to the choice of songs for the choir, to the bells, etc., everything was so enjoyable and has added immensely to our Christmas season."
"Magical beautiful moving concert. Thank you."
So, upon reflection, these were my remarks to Jackie, our office manager at Fauntleroy Church:
"People really liked this concert. I just have to figure out why and do it again ;-)
"What we did this year that we didn't do last year:
1. A playful program
2. Some playful sing-along songs
3. The ukulele band playing along with the bell choir (that was a hit!)
4. Singing "comfort" songs"
Jackie replied: "I think people like playful. Their lives are so serious in other arenas, coming to church and being playful is great."
So, I'm thinking PLAYFUL was the key here. It started with the program I guess. I usually create a fairly comprehensive program including lyrics and details of the music. This year I sat down to create the program and thought to myself, "I'm so sick of screens and computers. I need a tactile experience." I left my computer desk and went to my office table and picked up a writing pen and proceeded to draw pictures, hand-write lyrics and somehow managed to transform the program into a cartoon comic strip.
This need to be tactile goes back a week or two prior to the program. My church education director Karyn Frazier and I were hanging out together in the Fellowship Hall with a large roll of black paper cut into 8' x 4' pieces (that is 8 feet by 4 feet, not inches!) and some big pots of house paint. With our theme "Angels Among Us: Do Not Be Afraid" this Advent, Karyn had the brilliant idea of painting angel wings on large canvases so that people could take selfies wearing wings and celebrating the love they had spread to their community through their own good deeds. Karyn and I leapt into our project with gay abandon, wielding large paintbrushes, summoning our courage to create daring and random swooshes across the black empty paper. What followed was wonderful. We hung three pairs of angel wings on three 8' high wood frames hinged together for stability, and watched kids, parents, folks of all ages attending various church events throughout Advent standing in front of the wings and taking photos. The pictures hit social media and went viral. There was so much joy. It was so playful and fun, and it sparked the inner child in everyone!
So back to the concert. My chorister Meredith handed me a Christmas card the week before the concert, featuring the Seattle 12 Days of Christmas and asked me to consider including it in next year's concert? I thought to myself, "This looks like fun, but I don't go for a Partridge on the Space Needle. We need something more Pacific Northwesty. I summoned my creative daughter Kendall and assigned her to write some new lyrics. Once we had "A Barn Owl in an Evergreen," (very dear to my heart, having encountered many beautiful Barn Owls on walks through our local parks), I figured she had written a hit, especially in that she included "Five Flannel Shirts." And indeed it was. More playfulness with the audience really getting into the spirit!
Then there was the Ukulele band. We love this band. It's fun. We get together every couple of weeks on a Thursday evening and we play all kinds of fun songs, from Willy Nelson and Johnny Cash to Bob Marley and the Beatles. Participants have ranged from 8 year olds to 80 year olds with all levels of players including people from the church, our own next-door neighbor, and local teachers and students. This year we belted out "Feliz Navidad" while strumming along happily, and then we joined the Bell Choir for a lovely rendition of "What Child is This." It was a happy accident. I'd never put Ukuleles and Hand Bells together before but the resulting soundscape was a delight. Some people commented that it was their favorite moment of the show.
Then there was "Angel Sounds," a new song that I wrote with my dear friend Betsy. We went the whole hog on this one, playing our guitars, singing our song, supported by piano, bass and percussion, and a choir of Angels strolling on to the stage at the end and adding harmony and joy. Fresh new music for an audience craving playful and fun, while celebrating the reason for the season.
More guitars and the Women's Ensemble followed, bringing their rich harmonies and pure voices with both a contemporary and a classical song.
And finally there was my wonderful Chancel Choir, who gave a solid performance of 8 songs, two of which I thrust at them at the last minute, but they took it in their stride. Included in their repertoire was yet another new song about Angels, reflecting the concert title "Angels Among Us: Do Not Be Afraid," and a couple of what I call "Comfort Food Favorites" such as "Soul Cake" (also known as "A-Soalin' " by Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary) and "Gloria," Michael W. Smith's rocking rendition of Angels We Have Heard on High from the 1980s. The appreciative applause thundered through the sanctuary with glee -- a couple of hundred people devouring their Soul Food music, reveling in the playfulness, celebrating together with smiles on their faces and lost in the moment.
I can surely handle more of this next year. As a music director, putting together the program is always a challenge, but this year it was all about PLAYFUL. And playful is good. Playful is comforting. Playful is a release from the sadness and the worry and the darkness of a December solstice. I'm so glad our customers were satisfied.
One more reflection I would like to share about "playful."
2017 was a year of sorrow and joy for my own family because we both lost my brother-in-law to cancer in April, and celebrated my daughter's wedding in September, with many of my family members crossing "The Pond" from Australia to be there for the occasion. Following the wedding, we all headed to British Columbia for a mini-vacation together as a family. We were at the Butchart Gardens in Victoria BC and my sister, bereaved and heart-broken, was struggling to put on a brave face even though she was so happy for my daughter on the occasion of her wedding. But it was just a tough day. As we walked through the Butchart Gardens we encountered a carousel in its own building. Quite spontaneously we all piled in and paid for our tickets to ride. What followed was a spontaneous transformation to the CHILD WITHIN for all of us, but especially my grieving sister. We claimed our favorite animals (mine was an Orca) and then, lost in the carnival music and the shouts of glee and a HOST of iPhones documenting every moment of it on video, we rode to our hearts' delight. And my sister was transformed the most. Her joy was overwhelming, and playfulness was the angel wings that lifted her spirits.
And finally, I sit here singing the following words to myself. It's a new twist to "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" to the tune of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy:"
Playful, playful, we adore thee
When our lives are sad and dark
Cartoons, nonsense, laughing freely
Just like romping in the park
Put us back in touch with the child
That plays with abandon, deep within
Help our inner child to surface
Bubbling over serious things
Happy holidays and Merry Christmas and whatever else you love to celebrate at this time of year! May you live playfully in the moment.