Christmas is a time of year when even mid-level serious amateur musicians can find themselves overbooked.
Just about all of us with any claim to musical ability can find work during the holidays. When you run yourself ragged for the season, as I have a few times, you wonder why you keep volunteering.
There are some times that explain it all.
At my job in California, I once played for a large department Christmas luncheon. I sat at the keyboard, pulled out my jazz “fake book” and provided some standard stuff.
Then a guy I vaguely knew said he wanted to do a song. He was wearing a Santa hat and something like a tux. He wanted to do “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” (real title, “The Christmas Song”) so I thought, “Here goes nothing.” All of a sudden, I’m hearing this great jazz baritone voice hitting that song just right, and, as sometimes happens when musicians find matching styles, we played off each other like champs. The result: a standing ovation for a spur-of-the-moment jam session.
But then there was the time when I thought I was organizing a band to do a few holiday numbers for our company’s traditional lunchtime holiday program. We got a few things together, but then we got on stage and learned that we weren’t part of the show, we were the show.
Well, that was one of those times when I saw my whole career flash before my eyes. It could have been worse, I suppose, but I tried not to leave my office for the rest of the day.
That was the year I also picked up a “corporate gig” Christmas party with three guys I didn’t know and one I did. We pulled down $200 each for a single night, which was more than I had made from playing music — well, ever. We did simple stuff and the crowd ate it up. They went away happy. We went away happy and I had money left over after I bought gas. That was a first. And last.
Most of the high points in my Christmas music career, however, have come from providing church music.
In church, silence is more profound than applause. Usually when the song is over, you hear shuffling, but when you hear absolutely nothing, you know the music has made the parishioners remember why they go to church. I have been privileged to note that reaction a few times but always as part of a group.
When our church choir could pull off the “Hallelujah Chorus” well we could get the silent treatment. We added brass one year and got that reaction.
The time I remember most fondly, however, was another one of those improvised moments. I was a member of the church’s Saturday night rock band aimed at teens. We attracted a lot of adults, too, who liked a little rock-n-roll in the Mass.
One Christmas we did Silent Night. I started it, playing it straight on piano. Then the voices started. We had some strong lead voices, but one of them had a knack for finding harmony notes and filling in extra phrases when she wasn’t on lead.
As the verses progressed, the intensity increased. By the last verse, everyone was on full volume and emotion. Then it stopped. It was just me again, playing it straight and soft. I could not miss a note. I could not miss a trick. I managed not to do either, and when we were done, the silence was deafening.
That’s what makes it all worthwhile.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
Steve Hansen is the managing editor at the Quay County Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org