I grew up going to hippie folk Masses, where my dad would sling his macramé guitar strap over his shoulder and stand at the front of our historic Santa Barbara Mission with his bandmates—a former priest on bass, a seminarian on clarinet, and another former priest on lead acoustic, classically trained. The diocese wrote and forbid them to play “Blowing in the Wind,” but overall they got a pretty free rein. They were devotees of the Rebel Jesus and 10:30am Sunday morning was magic hour for me as a kid. That was pretty much the dawn of what we would call contemporary worship—three scruffy amateurs and a virtuoso, with a terrible reinforcement rig and the fortunate adobe acoustics of a 200-year old building
After Mass, my grandmother would arrive in her best Vogue suit, wig, and hat to arrange the flowers for the noon High Mass. Sometimes we stayed to hear the Latin and the choir and the big organ. Sometimes we went over to the nearby Seminary to hear the young priests practice their sermons and play on electric pianos and we’d eat cookies with them in the courtyard after.
During the week, I had ballet and piano most days, and I was in all the local theater shows. Like church, these were communities with stories to tell and joyful communication to be made. When I left home to join a ballet company in my teens I was still chasing it. There is no version of me I can separate from those gatherings and what it was like to be joined together in those ways.
Obviously pandemic has transformed my for-granted truth and made it visceral. I’m not alone in this. This year, I’ve had the privilege to talk to pastors, music directors, educators, engineers, and integrators who are also chasing the essential need to gather—especially around music. I think they are surprising themselves with what they’ve come up with. Community is the mother of invention.
I talk to them and they are prolific, tired, more creative than they thought possible, and weary from it too. As any creative person knows, improvisation is work. It’s rewarding, and it’s expensive. This month I share some stories of people who are reaching hard to rise to this strangest of times, whether connecting congregations or training musicians.
Remarkably to me, our technology is playing an outsize role in supporting them—helping to fill the void of physical proximity with digital substitutes, to arc communication from person to person, and from musician to musician. It’s not better, it’s not good enough, but it’s still a miracle. Our industry is doing our part. We’re not nurses and doctors, and bless them all (and stay home as much as humanly possible to respect their burden). What I carry from my childhood is that music, worship, and gathering are core human needs. That’s what we can help with.
As you read this it’s 2021. I wish for everyone a year you can manage. I hope you can take pride in what you and the people close to you are overcoming, these losses that nobody asked for, that we share and must emerge from together