Last week, I played my first proper Mass. For those who don’t know, Mass is the Catholic service. I sing two Masses every Sunday at my church, one with the folk group and one with the schola choir, and I’ve been singing liturgical music since I was seven years old. One would have thought that I would be well-prepared for my own gig.
To clarify, when I say “played a proper Mass,” I mostly mean that I was paid, and therefore directly accountable to my employers. I’ve played Masses before; my high school does a week-long retreat junior year, and as a senior I was the liturgical director, so I played every day. It didn’t have quite the same kind of pressure.
I received the offer one week before the event, which would typically be considered a little late, but still enough time to practice. For a professional, or at least someone more experienced than me, it would be easy. Hymns are not difficult to play or difficult to learn, and most of them are held in common. I ended up playing songs that I already knew, with the exception of the psalm.
The problem with this one week notice was that I am not a professional, or particularly experienced when it comes to playing piano and leading the service’s music all by myself. Most of my experience is safely under the helm of someone else who gives directions and makes decisions. The other problem was that I wouldn’t have the full week to practice. I had a friend staying as a house guest Monday through Thursday, and it’s hardly acceptable to ask a guess if they mind listening to you practice church music on the piano for several hours.
So, I started preparing on Thursday. I made most of my song decisions, I could play through the hymns, and I made the mistake of feeling confident, when I realised that I needed to learn Mass parts. During the second half of the Mass, when we celebrate Communion, there are specific responses sung as part of the service. The only musical setting I have of these parts is one that I don’t particularly enjoy playing on piano– I think it sounds bang-y and abrupt. It’s better on organ, which I can’t play (not well, at least).
I had to work Friday lunch. And on Saturday, I would be going straight from work to the gig. I was out of time, out of ideas, and starting to panic.
By the time I went to bed on Friday night, I was back to feeling mildly confident. The hymns were good at least, and I would be able to fudge my way through Communion.
By the time I woke up on Saturday morning, my hands were shaking and my stomach was in knots.
I worked through the brunch rush, I was out by 3:45, and at the church by 4:15. I checked in with the event coordinator and went into the chapel to find– no piano.
I did a lap around the chapel. Nope, no piano immediately in sight, and definitely not set up with a mic, as I had been assured it would be. On the outside I was trying to project an image of calm, experience, and maturity that I don’t possess, and on the inside I had already jumped to catastrophising, wondering how I was supposed to play a Mass without an instrument.
On my third walk around the entire outside aisle of the church, I finally found an electric keyboard stuffed in a particularly dusty corner. This, at least, was an improvement from no instrument at all, but it still wasn’t set up, and there was no mic.
What followed was a game of telephone, which I lost. I talked to my event coordinator, she talked to the security guard, and he talked to– no one, as far as I can tell. When I checked back with him, he fumbled out a few words about not being able to get away from his desk, and not knowing where the people in charge were, but he’d just be a minute. It’s a good thing I didn’t wait for him.
In my time of despair, I, appropriately, went to the priest. The celebrant wasn’t from the church anymore than I was, but the seminarian assisting him stepped in, and I am gratefully indebted to him. He rolled the piano out to the appropriate spot, he hooked it up, and he stole a mic from the ambo. As far as makeshift solutions go, this one was pretty good.
I sat down five minutes before Mass started, mentally gearing myself to play on an instrument that I had never touched or heard before.
My hands shook the entire time, and I made what I think were some very obvious mistakes, but I happy to report that at no point in the service did I burst into flames. I played through, and by the time we finished with Communion, I couldn’t believe that it was almost over. I have virtually no recollection of what I sounded like, because I had whatever the musical equivalent of tunnel vision would be, but I received quite a bit of positive feedback. To the gentleman who pointed out how wonderful the acoustics were, I admit here that I agreed with you but really hadn’t thought about it until you said so. I paid virtually no attention to anything except for trying to estimate how badly my hands were shaking and how to best put them where they were supposed to be.
I’m glad to have this first experience under my belt. I expect that my next few times will be just as scary, but I also vividly remember the first few times a sang a solo at Mass. My voice used to shake just like my hands do now, and every mistake I made felt glaringly obvious. It all just takes practice, and I look forward to having similar opportunities in the future.