A Wedding and A Funeral

I have been mistaken for an accomplished musician two times now, with predictably disastrous results.  It is perhaps understandable since I became the family custodian of my mother’s two octave set of brass carillon bells, which she used in her various musical endeavors, including family bell ringing at Christmas time.  I get calls at holiday times, “Oh, Bobbie, can you and Nick come for dinner, and by the way can you bring the bells, we had so much fun when your mother would help us play Christmas Carols.”  I felt like the klutzy kid who always got to play baseball only because he had a back yard big enough for a pick up game and a freezer full of popsicles. 

But I was happy to supply the bells and music, which my mother had carefully color coded so that even the tone deaf could participate.  I had learned enough at our family bell ringing events that I qualified for participation in a real church choir – but only because I brought my own markers to color my music and because I could count out the measures, compensating for my lack of any intuitive feel for the music.  However, I certainly didn’t know the names of the notes, and had only a marginal understanding of musical notation – arpeggios, formatas, martallatos were all beyond me.  But my rudimentary skills were adequate for after dinner entertainment.  In this setting the only goal was get the mildly inebriated “choir” to produce a Christmas Carol that was vaguely recognizable.

 The Wedding

 Mary Washburne’s request was different.  “Bobbie,” she said, “Do you think that you could play the bells at my wedding?”

 While honored at such a request, I quickly pointed out that I was not a musician, but that I could certainly bring the bells and music as long as someone else organized the group.

 “Oh that’s fine,” she said “One of the ushers is a professional musician, and my sister is very musical along with some of the other guests.  If you can just bring the bells up to Michigan, we can take over from there.”

I readily agreed to her plan and we decided that the “pick up” choir would play “Jubilate” as the guests arrived and “Ode to Joy” at the end of the ceremony.  There were a few disturb points that I hoped would fall into place once I got there.  The first was that the wedding was in mid-June in the upper peninsula Michigan, at the absolute peak of bug season.  Ringing bells requires both hands, and thus there would be no opportunity to shoo away the likely hordes of mosquitoes or flies, or both.  Secondly, the ceremony would be performed along a remote lakeshore.  There certainly wouldn’t be any music stands, and I was worried that the music could just blow away.  I had faced this issue years before when some friends and I had attempted to be street musicians with the bells, playing Christmas Carols along State Street in Chicago.  We solved the problem by pinning the music to each other’s backs and then standing in a tight circle so that everyone had a back to read from.  However, Mary envisioned that our choir would stand around a picnic table.

I dutifully arrived with bells and music but was horrified to learn that the musical usher was a last minute no-show, and that I was his secret understudy.  The wedding weekend was so event filled that we had time for only one rehearsal, where we practiced while wearing the mosquito netting that Mary had thoughtfully provided to the entire bell choir.  Since the dense netting made vision difficult, most decided to risk it and go without.  I was also concerned about the eighth notes in Ode to Joy. I had learned from prior bell parties that the slightly faster pace of eighth notes could really throw people off.  I carefully explained to my choir that if anyone missed a note, they must resist temptation to go back and correct the error, since this could be the flick that would send the dominos falling – everyone would be at a different place on the piece with a resulting atonal chaos.   

The wedding day dawned crisp, cloudless and unbelievably, bugless.  What an auspicious start to a wedding.  The bulk of the wedding party was hiking to the wedding site, but I arrived early by car to set out the music on the picnic table using small stones from the beach to keep the music from blowing away.  There were a few elderly people there who had opted out of the hike, and one asked, “Is this a professional bell choir?”

What the hell, “Yes,” I said proudly,  “we are a bell choir all the way from Chicago.”

The wedding party arrived and my intrepid choir assembled, some of them sweating from the hike.  I raised my arms to launch us into Jubilate, and then realized that I had no idea how to move my arms as a conductor.  But I was relieved to see that it didn’t matter since the entire choir was totally engrossed in their music and any arm waving I did was totally superfluous.  I just tried to keep everyone on track by calling out the measures in my best “I mean it” tone.   I judged the piece a success, primarily since we all finished at the same time.  However, I was still nervous about those eighth notes lurking ahead in Ode to Joy.   

We once again assembled at the end of the service, and immediately got off to a very rocky start.  Ode to Joy sounded like some sort of avant-garde piece with a few clashing notes interspersed with total silence and then another little trickle of notes.  The responsibilities of a conductor weighed down upon me – it was time for a “lonely at the top” type of decision.  I gave the universal symbol for abort with multiple slashing  motions across my neck, “Let’s start again,” I hissed.  We rebooted and successfully navigated the eighth notes.  Aside from the uneven rhythm there were two small glitches.  My brother Tim had the simple responsibility of setting down his F major and picking up the F sharp for one note – just one note – which he did not do.  This wrong note was a grievous error, akin to standing in a group of people and letting go with a major fart, which makes everyone wrinkle their nose in disgust.  To his credit, Tim fessed up and avoided an “he who smelt it dealt it scenario.”  Unfortunately his confession consisted of a very audible “Shit” in the middle of the piece.  My sister-in-law Jill was doing beautifully, the picture of concentration, but all of a sudden laid down her bells and just stopped playing.  Jill was 8 ½ months pregnant and her belly hung over the picnic table totally obliterating the last two lines of music; she thought she had finished.    

I breathed a sign of relief when the piece was over, clearly recognizable as Ode to Joy.  When we played the first piece, the wedding party was filing in and the bells were simply background.  But Ode to Joy was the main show, and as I turned around, I realized that everyone was staring at us in various degrees of amused disbelief.  On a scale of “Wow, what a stunning choir” sliding down to “What were they thinking?” I think we fell somewhere to the right of a charmingly quirky performance.

 (The missing words in the following poem are all anagrams, i.e. share the same letters (list post, stop, spot).  The number of dashes indicates the number of letters.  One of the missing words will rhyme with either the previous or following lines.  Your job is to solve for the missing words based on the context of the poem.  The answers are at the very end of the essay.)

Mary’s request to organize a wedding bell choir amongst the bugs and the breeze

 Fills me with anxiety and unease but I respond to her —–.

 After one false start, we play Ode to Joy competently and well

 Until brother Tim has a mental —– and plays the wrong bell.

 It sounds horrible, and he wants to apologize for his grievous mishit.

 Unfortunately, the one word that —– to his mind is an audible !Shit!

 The Funeral

 I applied my lessons learned as we planned a memorial service for my mother.  While the choir consisted of family members with some musical ability, I decided to hire a professional director.  I pulled out Ode to Joy again and assigned the part with the eighth notes to Jay, my most talented cousin.  I put my less musical relatives into damage control positions beyond the range of the melody where errors could be easily absorbed.  After all, this is my designated spot in my church bell choir.  Nancy, the director, showed up for one rehearsal and then informed me that she would not be able to attend the service itself.  Once again, I was thrust into the role of conductor, but I insisted that Nancy at least show me the correct way of moving my arms so that I wouldn’t look like a frantic nestling learning to fly.  Oh, “that’s simple,” said Nancy, “just remember, ceiling to the floor and then out the door,” describing an “L” shaped movement. 

 She took over the rehearsal and whipped the choir in shape.  However, I did notice that Jay went absolutely white-knuckled every time the eighth notes appeared, consistently rushing and jumbling them up.  Jay is an improvisational musician, the kind of person who shows up at a wedding with a harmonica in his pocket so that he can jump up and jam with the dance band.  I realized that these enviable skills were probably not well suited to the rigid demands of a bell choir where you have to play your notes as written; there is absolutely no coloring outside the lines.  I think that is why I have found some musical success with bells, I just simply count and follow the rules and am not distracted by any innate musical talent.  By the end of the hour, our bell choir was sounding pretty decent and Nancy wished us luck and left.  We were so pleased with ourselves that we decided to play Ode to Joy twice, once at the brief family-only graveside event and then immediately following at the formal church service.

 We ran into a major glitch at the graveside.  We were short one set of music, so I was in the ridiculous situation of trying to conduct a choir without music.  Even though I could now move my arms professionally, my choir really only wanted me to call out the measures, which of course I could not do without the sheet music.  I was purely a token presence at this point.  I started the choir, and immediately noticed that some of my ringers had gone astray.  There was no discernable Ode to Joy.  The floundering choir members took it upon themselves to call out the measures, but everyone had a different concept of where we were in the music, particularly my cousin Ned who had inadvertently turned two pages at once and was way ahead of everyone else.  I was literally facing the music, actually an ideal position since I had my back to the astonished mourners standing around the grave.  We limped to a staggered finish line.  Fortunately, it was a very forgiving audience, who commented that my mother would appreciate both the heartfelt attempt to honor her legacy in bells and the outright comical result.

We all headed off to the church, hoping that a bad dress rehearsal would make for a good opening (and closing) night performance.  Once again I stood up in front of my choir.  They intently stared at me in nervous anticipation, and the large congregation was deathly still behind me.  The choir was in my thrall, waiting for my signal to begin.  Truthfully it was an exhilarating experience to have such complete control over a moment.  I raised my hands and the choir picked up the bells in unison, and we began.  Over and over I beautifully choreographed the ceiling to the floor, and out the door movement as I whispered out the measure numbers.  I saw Jay clench his teeth again as we approached the eighth notes, but he hit them just right this time, and on we sailed to a triumphant end.  In that brief moment, the heavens shone down upon us and I was a conductor.

As the minister starts the memorial with a few homilies,

I nervously sit in my pew and murmur silent —–,

This song has to be a success because the service will only be complete 

If the —– of our bell choir are both smooth and sweet.

We start and I notice that Jay’s face —– as we near the tricky measure,

But everything goes well, and our hearts fill with joyous pleasure.







 Answers: Poem 1:  pleas, lapse, leaps; Poem 2; pleas, peals, pales

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