Monday, May 7, 2012

Confessions of a Professional Bench Warmer, Part 1

I played accompaniment for a wedding this weekend. It was good for me to be busy. And the fee came in handy, what with our present financial situation becoming increasingly tight.

At one point in my organ career, the prospect of playing the organ at such an important liturgy as a Nuptial Mass filled me with fear. But the ensuing years have knocked that edge off considerably. Since I can't even tally how many weddings I have accompanied, they no longer hold the terror they once did.

In fact, I'm often blind to a lot of the details occurring during the day. When I was younger and playing weddings, I would arrive home and my mother would excitedly ask a ton of questions: "What did the bride wear? What were the flowers like? How many bridesmaids were there? Were they pretty?"

"Uh... Mom... I really don't know. I didn't actually notice."

Weddings are interesting liturgies, especially within the Catholic traditions in which I currently ply my trade. In the context of a formal liturgy, meaning the Sacrifice of the Mass, there are a number of rules and guidelines that must be followed. But these frequently conflict with the wishes of a bride, who has had her heart set on some detail of her wedding day since the age of four.

Take, for instance, "The Wedding March" by Felix Mendelssohn; yes, that slice of music that opened each episode of The Newlywed Game.

In short, it's not allowed in Catholic wedding liturgies.

The reason has to do with the provision that liturgical music must be, well, liturgical. In essence, written expressly for liturgy. And as Wikipedia points out, "The Wedding March" was written for an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. We can thank Queen Victoria for introducing it into wedding tradition.

So when a bride requests it, I'm placed in the position of the musical "policeman" who must unfortunately tell her that she can't have it.

And the same goes for the "Bridal Chorus" ("Here comes the bride!"), which was written by Richard Wagner for an opera (Lohengren). 

And the march that Julie Andrews effortlessly glided down the aisle to in The Sound of Music, and before you ask, yes, I've had it requested and yes, I've turned it down.

But as trends come and go, the call for these pieces waxes and wanes, and as it seems, they are more or less on the outs in today's wedding music literature. I frankly haven't been asked to play anything of this type for quite some time.

Likewise, "The Wedding Song," by Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame) has seemingly dropped from bridal consciousness, probably due to its age (copyright is 1971). I never felt as old as I did when I had to explain to a bride who Peter, Paul, and Mary were in the first place. Insert crickets chirping and blank stare here.

Being exposed to that many weddings over that many years brings to mind mishaps that can occur. I guess it's natural that things jump the tracks at weddings:

  • people are out of their elements
  • emotions are high
  • clarity and logic get swept away by excitement and anticipation
  • the bride and groom are forced to navigate a sea of well-meaning family and friends through an event lasting several hours (wedding + reception), wearing uniforms that are wholly unsuited to being comfortable and at ease.

So among the moments that were made for America's Funniest Home Videos, wedding edition, I've seen guests plop into the aisle while leaning out to take a picture.

And I've seen guests trip over runners, those rolled sheets of white plastic that were traditionally brought down a church's center aisle. These were originally used to keep long dresses from being mussed by the dirt floors of drafty cathedrals, back when drafty cathedrals had dirt floors. Thankfully, runners are also a thing of the past in today's wedding lexicon.

Musically, I've had singers that were both brilliant, and less so. Three of the most dreaded words I can be presented to by a bride are: "My cousin sings." Often this means the cousin in question warbles in the shower, not on a regular basis in a Catholic liturgical setting. So although he/she may be perfectly suited to belting out "Some Enchanted Evening" at the neighborhood community theater, that talent does not always translate to appropriate singing at a Mass.

My technique with these "artists" has been to soldier on as best I can and try to save the musical day for the sake of the couple. Often this means pounding out the song's melody as obviously as possible in hopes that the diva can latch on and make it through.

But I do remember being presented with a relative/friend-of-the-family singer who turned out to be absolutely breathtaking. She was, as I learned from the second she opened her mouth, a vocal student with the pipes of an angel. A pleasant surprise for sure!

Fainting? Yup. I've seen it. I remember a groom who dropped to the floor three separate times during his wedding. He was bustled into the sacristy (small room off to the side of the main altar), put back on his feet, and returned to service. Each time, his worried spouse-to-be followed him offstage, except for the last drop, when she sat stock-still in her chair and her body language broadcast: He's on his own!

Miscues. Missed steps. Mis-directions. Mumbled vows. Tears. Tossed cookies. Broken heels. Forgotten flowers. Shredded stockings. Bloodshed as boutonneires are attached to lapels. I've seen a lot.

While sitting and listening to a sermon, I was once witness to a helpful cantor who noticed that the bride was being pestered by a bee. Worried that she was running the risk of being stung (and, God forbid, if she happened to be allergic), the cantor, as discreetly as possible, approached the bride from behind and tried to sweep the buzzing bug away. Which only made the situation worse because it became apparent that the bee was under the bride's veil. The risk of stinging had just jumped considerably.

The cantor tried to gingerly lift the veil to release the bee... when the entire contraption of tulle and flowers came off the bride's head, unleashing several folds of hair along with it.

By this time, the bride finally noticed that someone was behind her and that she was facing some sort of hairpiece malfunction. She turned and looked and to her utter shock, saw a total stranger standing behind her, holding her headpiece in her hands and frantically trying to reattach it. The cantor was left crimson-faced and at a loss to quietly explain what the hell she was doing.

Fortunately, afterward, it was all explained and met with giggles and good humor.

One of my standard speeches to a brides-to-be is this: Something will go wrong with your day. Despite your plans, preparation, and prayers, there will be a glitch somewhere along the day.

The secret is to not let it ruin the entire experience and the blessings inherent in it.

I try to calm their fears by telling them: "The point of the day is that by sunset, you and your husband will be blessed by God as united forever. So as long as that happens -- and it will -- the rest is just stories for your grandkids."

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