Well, I really goofed a couple of Sundays ago. Mark (Piepenbrink) and I were playing one of my favorite hymns – “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name:” it’s fast, it’s loud, it’s joyful, it gives me lots of opportunities to play embellishments. Mark and I had planned that I would play the descant on the last verse. The hymn has four verses, and I noticed that Mark, who was playing the pipe organ, was kind of slowing down as we reached the end of the third verse. I figured that he was winding up for a bang-up finish. I blasted out the first couple of measures of the descant and realized that I was playing alone. I had forgotten that we were going to sing only three verses. I stopped playing, started laughing, and said, “I forgot!” Everybody in the congregation thought it was funny and started laughing with me.
For all my experience playing music in church – I began when I was 13 – I confess to messing up more than my fair share, and most of those were doozies.
The first time I remember making a grievous error was when I was in high school. Our minister at St. Paul United Methodist Church was extremely long-winded. Sometimes, that’s fine, especially when he (or she) has something interesting to say and is able to tell a story that’s just a little longer than usual. That was not the case for this minister. He was just long-winded.
We had a Hammond electric organ that had upper and lower keyboards. The stops for the organ, or the keys that, in effect, turn on the sound, look like extra keys on the keyboard at the far right. I had endured all the sermon a 16-year-old could endure, and so, with the sound off, I was playing scales on the upper keyboard. Unfortunately, as I increased in speed, I went a little too far on the keyboard and hit a stop, turning on the sound. Also unfortunately, I had the volume pedal pushed all the way up. The resulting blast pretty much deafened the mostly-elderly members of the congregation. The minister, to his credit, said, “I guess that’s my signal,” and wrapped it up. A couple of people thanked me later.
The next time I proved that having a teenager in control of church service music can be dangerous was during a prayer. I had scooted back on the bench after the last hymn, and now it was time for me to move back into playing position so I could play “Hear Our Prayer, O Lord.” I scooted forward, but the bench was slick and I went a little too far, almost scooting myself right off. My right foot, however, kept me from landing on the bass pedals between the bench and the organ. Tragically, though, my right foot also actually hit a bass pedal, which sounded just as the congregation was asking Our Father to forgive us our trespasses. This time, however, I had the volume pedal at soft, so the reverberation really sounded as if Our Father were saying, “Hmmmmm,” as if He were considering that forgiveness we were asking for.
Then there was the time when I started playing an introduction to a hymn, but somehow, the hymn’s key signature didn’t really register with me. This means that I was playing sharps or flats that didn’t really exist. The cacophony was horrible. I tried to follow the musician’s rule, the one Bubba drilled into my head: If you make a mistake, keep playing. No one will ever know.
Well, there was no way people wouldn’t know. This was an old, familiar hymn. Everybody knew what it should sound like. Finally, I just quit playing, looked up at the congregation, and said, “I have to start over.” And I did. I heard some chuckles, but when I started playing, this time correctly, I felt much better.
I guess the lesson is that we are all just human and make mistakes, including musicians like me who aren’t supposed to make mistakes. Fortunately for me, though, I have been forgiven. Every time.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.