The phone rings and I think, again, “Oh no! I don’t have time to talk to her even if she IS my dearest friend of some 56 years.” On the iPad, an email appears from Gail Archer reminding me about this article. “Oh no! I totally forgot it was due.” The recycling truck rolls past. “Oh no! I forgot it was collection day.” And then I stop and think, “You’ve got to be kidding. You’re RETIRED.” Wait! What does that word actually mean? Of course I go to the internet and await its wisdom. Among the definitions, a few make me smile, broadly: No.1: “private; secluded; quiet;” No. 2: “Withdrawn from active duty or business.” Ah, these are so far from the life of at least this retired church musician.
My years of commitment to the music of the church began when I was in 5th grade and deemed savvy enough at the piano to play those amazing gospel hymns for our Baptist Church. (To be totally honest, to this day they bring me the greatest joy.) Over the years, my journey from those Baptist roots led me to work in several denominations. Worship through music became the focus of my education, enabled a joint Ministry with my husband, was central to the education and future careers of my children, and now my grandchildren.
And then, after 46 years in one amazing, challenging, rewarding Presbyterian church family, it was time. I was ready, relieved, freed enough to move half way across the country to Northfield, MN. (This was not a random choice of course, since two thirds of my family was hunkered down there teaching and studying.) I fully admit that it was like a great weight was lifted from my shoulders as I pulled out of the driveway.
What happened to this initial sense of relief and relaxation? Five years later, I’m having trouble finding time to answer phones, text messages, write articles, even do the laundry. Relief and relaxation have been redefined! Northfield itself provides part of the answer. It is a community of music lovers of all ages, with two superb colleges, many houses of worship, active singing groups, and even a summer organ series, which was, indeed, a lovely surprise. And of course, Minneapolis and St. Paul are but a short journey “up the road.” There are numerous things to keep one moving but in a far different way.
And so I have a new, recently honed definition of “retirement.” Yes, it is a time to do “less” but I see it also as a time to reassess, to clear out the noise of unwanted demands, to be free to choose one’s own path, to think carefully about which road to take, if any. What have I found thus far? I “need” to play for worship. Sitting in the pew is not enough. My soul needs me to continue to play the great sacred music literature yes, but I am keenly aware that my greatest joy comes in playing the hymns for congregational song. Those Baptist roots are indeed deep. I contemplate as I play and find myself weeping over the swing of the pendulum, for what passes for hymnody in many congregations today. I read, I listen, I see what is going on in the world around me and I know our congregational song needs to continue to give us the solid rock of history upon which to stand as we sing. At the same time I know that we need new, inclusive, well written hymnody, texts and tunes that open our eyes to this changing world. I am thinking, but I am not driven, not stressed out by the need to argue, much.
Fingers and feet are less cooperative. I leave the most technically challenging organ gems in the filing cabinet these days. Of course Bach still gives me plenty of material upon which to focus. He always has, he always will. If I need to be grounded, I take time to go to that great C major fugue, BWV 547, and relive what it means to start with a single line, to pile up entrance after entrance until that mighty, long awaited pedal moment. Isn’t that life-like? We go through layer upon layer until, well for me, the “until” has yet to be fully realized, even in this 8th decade. And yes, I am grateful.
Certain things have become very clear. I do not need endless meetings and most certainly I do not need to be involved in decision making that, as all who have worked for the church know, leads to a high percentage of a church musician’s stress. I do not need hours and hours of planning nor do I need the ever present worry about recruitment, so very challenging today. I listen and reflect on what I see and hear as I travel around. It is an interesting journey to say the least. I have done some teaching, worked with children’s choirs, led workshops, played for services in a variety of churches, hence the unanswered phones. I have realized too that some of my most meaningful moments come as I listen to and learn from and about the people around me. (My psychotherapy training is not lost.)
And then there are the Troubadours. Letting go of my driving need for perfection, I have found in this flock one of my greatest joys in retirement. The “Troubs” are a group of men who are not musicians, but come together to “sing for joy” and to have a lot of fun along the way. (I have to own up to the fact that I always let my husband work with the sopranos and altos while the basses and tenors and I pounded out notes in another room.) The “boys” share that joy as they sing for nursing homes, retirement communities, the School for the Blind, always intent upon brightening others’ days. I love playing the Barber Shop Style goodies, the show tunes, the gospel hymns and of course getting to know these amazing and delightful people who have been engineers, pastors, scientists, teachers. One of my dearest buddies was even in charge of a part of the Berlin Airlift long ago! I learn so much about life from them as we go beyond ourselves to extend the gift of joy that music can bring. Being open to something different is, indeed, important.
Losses? Of course. Choral conducting was always at the heart of my ministry and I do indeed miss it. Although I am surrounded by some of the best singing in the world, listening is not creating. I’ll just leave that there.
Choices? I continue to need a lot of practice in making good ones. Far too often a church musician is tempted to choose the work, the higher purpose as some might define it, over the needs of those they love. Just this week I almost lost an all too rare evening with my two girls before I remembered that I was indeed “dispensable” and I could let someone else take over.
From my perspective, this is what I have seen thus far as I continue to reflect on this “retirement” from my life’s work. But wait. I did almost neglect to mention how important my seventeen pound furry feline companion Percy is to my well being, to my attempts to change the pace of living and to enjoy “what is” as we sit by the fire. “Change the pace of living.” Enjoy “what is!” “Be open to a different way.”
With apologies to Albert F. Bayly, I end with an adaptation of verse 4, of his “When the Morning Stars Together.”
Lord, we will continue to bring our gifts of music; Even as we know
you will continue to touch our lips, to fire our hearts. We trust that you
will continue to teach our minds, to train our senses, So that we will be
fit, in new ways, for these sacred arts. With changing skills, with an
ever renewing sense of consecration,
We will serve You, Lord, And, as always, Give all our
powers to glorify you so that we may fully live.