Worship in the Redwoods: One of these things was not like the others

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My advisor isn’t going to read this, is he? I’m wondering, because his main concern, as an authority in my life, is to make sure that I finish my Computer Science PhD this year. I wasn’t going to go to this music conference up in Mount Hermon, b/c I’d rather be figuring out how to get my AnsProlog story generator to feed data into a MySQL database. If I’m gonna be a superstar, he’d probably prefer I did it in the video game industry as a programmer, designer, and researcher. There are just too many things in life I find captivating.

I love music. “You can’t love EVERYTHING,” my friend said. I’d just told him that I was going to learn the Charlie Parker tune, Donna Lee, in all 12 keys on my sax. He thought that was a dumb idea; he said, “you know how you should practice? You should find a song or lick you love, and learn that.” I just feel like I love too many things. He explained, “when you love something, you think about it all the time, fascinated in every way; you can’t possibly have everything consume your mind all the time.” What he probably means is that if I feel like I love everything, then I probably love nothing. My friend loves music in a way that speaks so beautifully to me.

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These last two days, I experienced the one-track mindedness of being in love. I woke the morning of the first full day of the conference determined to “start a band.” From the depths of my gut, I just wanted to play music with those musicians traveling from all throughout the US. Once again, I’m THAT person, carrying 5 musical instruments around with me at a conference. Well, at least this is a music conference and not a tech industry or academic conference for once.

One of these things is not like the others. If you look at the photo promo, there are 2 deceiving aspects of the photo. First, the main focus of this event was not to play music in the forest. Second, there were no horns welcomed at this conference, except the ones I welcomed myself to bring. With such a direct objective in mind, I almost didn’t care what the conference was about, I just wanted to play music with people. I LOVE playing music with people and it was all I could think about it.

What is it that they love? It’s safe to say that they all love God. Besides that, the majority of the people there seemed to love writing songs about God in the style of Christian music, as this was a songwriter’s conference. Since they were all worship leaders, I’d assume they love leading worship. To be honest, I felt like the only instrumentalist there; at least, no one else really seemed as excited about that pursuit of mastery and understanding of music.

It’s ALL Christian Music. Worship leaders never know what to do with horns. I’m a saxophone player, but in the worship context, I’ve developed proficiency in a few other areas such that I often trick people into thinking I’m talented. I’ve realized that a lot of it is due to the fact that I play a lot of non-Christian music. The standards are much higher, and I know how to play in bands– I know how to be efficient with the time of my musicians, and I know how to not sweat the small stuff and recover quickly from mistakes.

The sounds of sevenths pulled me in. I was sitting in a talk from the “most-famous” person at the moment about songwriting, when I wandered down the stairs to hear some funky bass lines coming from a session room. The session was about “Music Theory for Self-Taught and Non-Reading Musicians.” Honestly, the title is not very compelling; it may as well been called: “Watered Down, Churchified Music Theory.” As biased as I was, the sound of sevenths drew me into the room.

I didn’t know who anyone was. I knew there were famous people coming to town, but since I missed the opening night, I missed the introductions that would’ve informed me what a big deal everyone was. Additionally, the first night, the “house band” flexed their musical dexterity. Had I seen or heard about this, I probably would have exploded into confetti from exhilaration. As I followed the music, I found myself in a session being taught by those instrumentalists. These cats weren’t teaching churchified theory, they were teaching JAZZ theory– then I exploded into confetti.

I could care less if you are famous. Just kidding– I care a little bit, but I obviously care more about your Christ-likeness. By proxy, I care about all people, as we all bear the image of God. Musically, I don’t care if you are famous, unless it is for being good at some aspect of music where I aspire excellence. At this conference, I only cared about what it’d be like to play music with you. Aspects of your personality and musicianship may increase my eagerness to jam with you.

I always want to go off the schedule. The guy running this conference had an uncanny resemblance to the guy who ran this PhD student conference. I’ve come off unruly at conferences past; however, my restlessness isn’t futile at its core. I’d say my Academic Bridges non-profit project and Passion Talks conference are two by-products of what I’d felt in the depth of my gut in wanting to be “off the schedule.” Often, I feel that the heart of God desires this “other” thing to be happening in conjunction to what already is happening.

They were so cool. I don’t know what famous Christian musicians look like. When I found out that someone was a famous so and so and sings that famous song we all sing, it repelled me a bit. Mostly, this was because I’d find out someone was famous by the people around me who all wanted to talk to said famous person. No, I’d rather spend my time with the bassist, guitarist, drummer, and keys player– they were SO COOL and I REALLY wanted to play music with them.

I’d never seen instrumentalists like this in one band before. They weren’t just learned in your vanilla Christian music. They played gospel, jazz, AND funk! They played Major 7 chords! They knew all the songs that I’m trying to learn, songs by Herbie Hancock, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis… etc. I watched them rehearse and they used language like: “back to the head” and “it’s an AABA song.” You never hear terminology like that in a Christian context, and words I couldn’t live without it in my Jazz world. Rehearsing Christian music had always been painfully different from my Jazz practices.

They should’ve named their session, “The Instrumentalist Rant: How to run rehearsals effectively and build musical rapport.” One of the biggest points they made was to encourage the format and importance of good charts, which they held at a higher standard than the singers and songwriters. I wholeheartedly agree! It seems so ridiculous to leave out the information for when chords actually start and end. If I was a worship leader, I would store my music in lead sheets and run rehearsals like I do for my Jazz band. Leading a Jazz band is so much easier/productive (and musically fulfilling) than leading a worship team.

My two mutually exclusive worlds collided. I was totally fascinated by the house band, because I’d never associated musical excellence with Christian music. I told the guitar player, “the music is so simple that I don’t try as hard– I just find the key and play notes out of the major scale.” To which, he responded, “yea, but you should still know when and where you can play that #11.” He got me there. I know there’re hundreds and thousands of practice hours ahead of me to learn the aspects of music I need to know. I use a lot of short cuts, especially, when the music allows me to and the people around me don’t know any better. Worlds collided– I exploded into confetti.

Why doesn’t anyone want to play music with me? It was the saddest image that I imagined of myself– A doe eyed girl sitting in a pile of unused instruments after the open mic night, wondering why no one wants to play music with her. People are far less comfortable at playing spontaneous music with strangers than I am. Maybe because I am so unlike the others, I had a different set of desires and priorities. Regardless, I was happy to hear all the musicians, but sad to see that there were little collaborations. In the sea of guitars, surely, there was a cajon or violin out there.

I was only going to come for one day. This hip couple heard my about my unrequited love with jamming, and invited me to play with them the next day. “I wasn’t going to come back,” I told them, “I don’t have a car.” As I left with handfuls of instruments, they stopped me and said, “we’ll probably get lost, but if you want to come back tomorrow, we will find you and pick you up.” I had a big band rehearsal as my only hard commitment, so I needed to be flexible; luckily, I was able to borrow a car. That night, I had a pretty good conversation with God. I felt assured that I was where I needed to be, feeling what I was supposed to feel, and doing what needed to be done. I knew if I went back the next day I’d have my “band” and play music with everyone, especially the house band. “That’s all I want,” I sincerely told God.

I knew it was love. I never realized how much I loved music until now. I went back the next day, knowing I was supposed to be there. That morning, I got a good amount of academic research done (just in case my adviser is reading this). As we hit the first session, I crashed the music theory workshop again, with my axe in hand. I felt God prompting me, “you won’t get to play it, if you don’t take it out of the case.” I know it’s love, because I can feel how much God loves seeing me discover the gifts and desires of my heart. I’d never felt such a pure and deep motivation before. Everything I did was rooted in this God-given desire to learn and connect through music. If I talked to you, it was because I wanted to play music with you. I would’ve skipped all conversation and went straight to the music if I could.

“All of me. Jesus, take all of me.” I was singing that variation to a popular Jazz standard in my head throughout the day. I told the bassist that REALLY wanted to play some Jazz. I was even dragging around a suit case with 5 real books inside of Jazz tunes for the occasion  “Autumn Leaves.. or All of Me,” I pitched. “All of Me,” he remarks, “we were just talking about a Christian version of that song.” “WHAT?! I was just singing a Christian version of that song in my head.” It was a sign! But after hearing the funk song that they opened the evening with, I knew the tune I’d want to play with these guys. Chameleon was a song that is really easy to solo on and I’ve played hundreds of times.

If not today, then someday. I was a complete fan girl, but I knew they were tired. I didn’t even know they were the house band until hours after thinking they were the coolest people ever– I thought they were just session speakers. Though I bet I’ll get to share a stage (in some form) someday, I did get to play with them. I sang the gospel song, “No Weapon,” to which the pianist said, “I was wondering how old you were, because how else would you know that Fred Hammond song?” The gospel music drew me in and I wanted to join! With my saxophone, I approached the bassist. He always seemed hesitant, yet willing to play sometime eventually. I just wasn’t sure whether eventually would ever come.

I just wanna play spontaneous music with strangers. “Could you use a drummer or a flautist on your song for open mic night?” I asked. He responded, “no, I came here with the best musicians I’ve ever known. If I wanted someone, I would’ve asked them.” Oh okay, I don’t think he was on the same page as me. Most people didn’t really understand why I was so excited to play music with them. I just assumed that if you are at a certain level of proficiency, that you have the freedom and flexibility to take such risks. At the same time, I understand that music is a vulnerable thing to share. Then again, I often find myself asking why everyone is so afraid; so to some extent, I wanted to play with strangers, especially on flute and sax, b/c it’d be a testimony for what God does with faithful people willing to take such risks and be uncomfortable.

I’m learning cello for next year. I was determined to play with people, but they didn’t really know how to incorporate me. I’d just be cramping their style. I bet if I’d brought cello, they’d be all about it. Just for next year, I’m going to write a song AND learn to play the cello. They awkwardly declined my offer, not wanting to seem like jerks. It’s just a risk for them, as it is a also risk for me to try to play a song that I’d never heard before, with people I’d never played music with before, nor had I ever met. The first open mic night, I played 0 music with 0 people. The second night, I played 3 songs on drums, one on flute, and one on sax– achievement unlocked!

I started a band with most humble man there. Scott was a guy who I remembered sitting in one of the sessions. He inquired about my musical background, and, I’m assuming, he was interested in playing music with me. I didn’t really give him the chance to ask, as I eagerly jumped in and offerred to play on his song. It was a tune written while he’d spent 2 years in Africa. It was a great tune for flute, b/c the chorus had a bit of a latin feel. A bass player walks by and I ask, “hey, you play bass, wanna play with us?” He was also a sound guy working the conference. I was surprised to find that both Scott and the bassist were ok with this, since we’d have no chance to practice. Major props given to both, but especially Scott, since it was his song. Afterwards, Scott was simply happy we played on his song. There was something so humble and sincere about his heart for worship. His music was so not at all about him, and I think playing on his song changed my life.

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Music connects people. I won’t remember many of the people I met, but I will never forget the ones I got to play music with. Music connects me to people in a way like no other. I played a lot of drums because that was easiest for people to incorporate. I’m no drummer though, so I planned on doing simple drum beats in 4/4. My comfort area was definitely pushed as the first song wanted a Native American beat and the second song was in 6/8. It meant so much when one drummer told me he thought I did well. If he thought so, then maybe I’m not an impostor.

The best thing that happened at the conference. As open mic night wrapped up, I knew I had one more drum act to play, except, the guy who asked me, got up on stage and said, “I want everyone to get out their instruments and play along with me. It’s just two chords, A and D.” A girl from another act got up to play keys, about 5 people in the audience took out their guitars, I decided to give away my drum and tambourine, because, well, if we can play whatever we want, I’m playing sax!– I knew I left it out for a reason. It was the most beautiful and freedom bringing instance of corporate worship. There was no one trying to sound good or preform; we were all just playing music TOGETHER– I’m sure God got a huge kick out of it. I told the guy afterwards, if you ever want to do that again, I’m so in. That was the best experience at the conference, and I will remember it for the rest of my life.

Why give it back to God? A man came up to me a couple times afterwards, and said that he was glad that I finally got to play with people. In our last conversation, he made sure that I knew to seek the Lord first and to give my music to God. He, now a worship pastor, said that he surrendered his music only to receive it back from God. I guess I appreciate this worship pastor, because he genuinely wanted to jam, even though he never got around to it. His advice, however, sits a bit strange with me. I mean, there, I’m surrounded by people who’ve given their lives over to music. I chose commit my life towards reclaiming technology, not music; and despite my love for it, it’s not my idol, it’s simply a gift from God which I adore with all my heart.

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I didn’t know he was famous.  A couple times during the conference, I felt that people were unusually territorial about the keyboardist, John Wineglass. It turns out, John Wineglass is famous, something I was not aware of until someone told me after the conference. I just thought he had some groovy groovy jazzy funky comping, a great ear for just about any tune, AND he played Mercy Me in the middle of worship sets. You have NO IDEA how badly I wanted to jam with him (well, maybe by now you do… haha). Who knew he was an Emmy winning composer? I guess that one girl did as she swooped him away, informing me that, “he’s busy.” My friend was the one to feel a bit uncomfortable then. Again, as I really really wanted to show him this awesome James Moody song did another guy totally cut me off. The interaction went a bit like this:

(Pulling out my iRealb app to show the changes for “I’m in the Mood for Love” and catching John Wineglass as he leaves the stage)

Me: If I could do one song with you, it be this song. Do you know it?

Wineglass: Uh, I think…

Me: There’s this awesome James Moody arrangement.

Wineglass: I don’t think I know it.

Guy: (Jumping into the conversation) Hey, You must be so tired. I mean, you’ve got to be really exhausted with all those rehearsals.

Wineglass: Yea, it’s a lot.

Me: (Was I being rude? Did I sound silly telling him about the James Moody song? I just wanted to show him the song; I mean, I wasn’t trying to get him to play it right there.)

Guy: You were amazing. Hey, I was wondering if I came down to Monterey, could I buy you lunch?

Me: (Wow, this guy is really interested in getting to know John Wineglass. Maybe I cut infront of him without realizing it. People sure are eager to talk to him.)

(I meekly walk away from that conversation.)

It’s not like me to have such a clear and direct objective. My motives were quite simple. I saw musicians that sounded amazing and there was nothing more I’d want to do than to get to play music with them. I walked up to the bass player to catch him before he packs up, determined to play Chameleon. “I have the chart,” I eagerly assert. “Oh, I don’t need that,” he responds. It’s so awesome that he knows the song– what an epic bass-line to have under your fingers.  I play the head, he has me play the solo, and he was able to guide me to a short recapitulation. My solo was ok, but I was quite nervous at the same time. After the song, he said that I had great tone! Another musician saw the real books I had everywhere and I flipped to “All of Me.” This other musician started playing, as the others packed up, and I jumped on the melody of the tune. Both songs have a very easy feel, so I was able to shine best in these circumstances. Afterwards, the bass player said to keep at it, b/c there’s a natural feel and talent that he’d noticed in my playing. I had him say a prayer for me, and in it, he mentioned he’d had a similar passion and determination that he sensed from me at my age.

“You really love music,” one of the worship leaders said. “I know.. I really do love playing music,” I emphatically respond. Maybe it was obvious to everyone, but it meant a lot to me for a stranger to say so. In that brief exchange, I felt like he understood me better than most people I know.

Improvements that I feel would make the conference better?

  • group jam session
  • a session on rehearsal rapport
  • a session on lead guitar and soloing that’s interactive!

What was my major takeaway from participating?

  • I really love playing music
  • I love playing music with people
  • I think God wants me to start a Jesus Jazz Band

Most of all, I’m grateful that the house band took time to connect with me. The drummer was especially friendly and engaging, sitting with me for a meal to talk with me. I hope that my admiration was meaningful to them (rather than annoying!), because it was quite meaningful to me– they were SO COOOOL! I was a bit bummed that I didn’t get to play a few tunes with them, but I heard God say to me that I’m only at the level of playing songs like Chameleon and All of Me. I still have quite a few more hours in the practice room before I can fully flex my muscles. Well then, bring it on! I told the bassist, that next year, I want to be his teaching assistant 🙂

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One thought on “Worship in the Redwoods: One of these things was not like the others

  1. You have a passion of music. You start working realllly hard pursuing your love of music by taking lessons, practicing every waking moment you have available. You are around other people that have a passion for music & work very hard…. you think everyone is like you…. In her setting…. when you learn Saxophone… it’s just like classical or real jazz ( not blues) piano, or other band instruments…. you have to learn, theory, technique, etc. etc. usually play in band in high school or college… again.. people who are working hard at improving their craft. Then you get around christian musicians, in worship bands or in contemporary christian bands.

    You quickly find that people have no concept of musicianship. They dont practice the rudiments of music… can’t read music… can barely play their instruments…. can’t relate to you at all. They can only play a couple chords.

    They tell you that all that stuff isn’t important… it’s the heart that counts….you quickly find that most of these people don’t even really like music…

    It’s kind of like… if a professional baseball player retires… then is asked by his church to play with on the church softball team.

    It’s not challenging, no one on the team can relate to you, & if you decide to quit because you’re frustrated, then you are told you have issues to work through. :))

    So you find yourself alone in your quest for excellence & start giving up because no one cares except your past music teacher & your peers back in school.

    Then after all that…. you learn that singers are different from instrumental musicians. They have a talent to sing & singing is something that come naturally for some people…. versus learning an instrument takes lots of practice. & again, they can’t relate because singing is like talking to them. & you learn that your job is to be a support to the singers & be in the background…. which means it’s really boring for instrumentalists who like to jam.

    I could go on & on….

    I hope she can keep her passion alive in music by working with people who have the same love of it… & just know that if she pursues certain types of music… there is an emotional cost.

    Saxophone is a great instrument but it’s almost impossible to make a decent living as an instrumentalist. It can happen, but again… there is a cost. I’m sort of shocked at how instrumentalists here in Nashville (great players), are almost starving to death. & they won’t even go get a real job or get some new training.

    It’s not a way to live. & because they are desperate for work… their bad side can come out. Meaning… they will only give you the time of day if you have something to offer them…. It’s rampant here.

    I knew some of that however.. .that’s why I didn’t come here to be a player. I have started playing classical music again. That is my true love.

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