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Last week I waxed nostalgic about sneaking into Calvin Church as a child to “play house”. This week, on my weekly Monday walk with my best friend, Lori Broersma VanderBilt, she reminded me that there are lots of ways I play in church even as an adult.
Growing up in Grand Rapids Christian schools, there were abundant opportunities to learn to sing and play music. Already at Baxter Christian School, Mrs. Heerema enlisted me to play the drum solo with “The Little Drummer Boy” in the Christmas program. It quickly blossomed to many years of orchestra, where the director, Joanne DeJong, suggested that private lessons would be a good idea. My first violin teacher, Mrs. Van Ringelstein, had arthritic knobs on her fingers that intrigued me. Eventually they grew so big that I switched to my Uncle Neal, whose stellar no-nonsense instruction demanded more practicing than Mrs. Van Ringelstein’s had.
As my neighborhood friends played outside, I holed up in my room and practiced every day for increasing amounts of time. In the hot Michigan summertime, with my bedroom windows wide open, my friends could be heard taunting me from below by calling me the “Cheesy Violinist”. Nevertheless, I persisted.
While a student at Calvin College, I became the new (but knobless) Mrs. Van Ringelstein, earning tuition money by teaching beginning violin lessons. My methods were somewhere between Mrs. Van Ringelstein’s and Uncle Neal’s. Meanwhile, I played in the Calvin orchestra. One night, on a dinner date with my now husband, Jack, the waiter surprised us with two glasses of red wine, surreptitiously pointing us to the anonymous benefactor. It was none other than Mr. Schripps, the Calvin orchestra director, who was dining at the same restaurant with his wife.
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For years, with seminary and then young kids, I seldom played my violin. Every now and then I’d practice for a stint at church with one or the other baby on my back in a Gerry carrier.
One year, Christmas fell on a Monday –the church’s soup kitchen day. It so happened that my entire family had flown to Seattle for Christmas that year. As all of us prepared, served, and ate lunch at the soup kitchen, I serenaded the guests with Christmas carols on my violin. Later, I stowed my violin in a hidden closet and went out to run an errand. When I returned to get the the violin, it was gone. It had been stolen by a soup kitchen patron. We never got it back. The violin belonged to Uncle Neal.
This began a decidedly music-less chapter in my life. While our home-owner’s insurance paid for the violin, I temporarily borrowed my sister Ann’s basic student violin, but I couldn’t get myself to play it much. I was so discouraged by having my violin stolen at church that I didn’t envision playing the violin much more.
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Several years later, someone in the church mentioned that their grandmother had died. While disposing of her belongings they had found an old, beat-up violin in a back closet. They told me that if I wanted it, I could have it. Upon closer inspection, I found it to have missing and broken parts. With low expectations, I brought it to a violin shop, where for $500 the parts were fixed and replaced. Years later I brought it to a violin appraiser. It was found to be an excellent instrument and appraised at $5,000. At about this time, I began to play again.
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I don’t remember when I first started playing my violin without using music. Somehow, over the years at my present church, this has become the norm.
It may be because I sang alto for so long and know all the hymns so well. Now I play every Sunday, blending the human-like voice of my violin with the congregation’s voice, improvising and harmonizing as I go. For this kind of playing, no reading of music is required.
In our multi-cultural church and neighborhood, I have found that many other musicians never learned to read music. Someone might show them the basics and they just learn on their own. Musicians learn a song by listening to it on U-tube and then playing it. Musicians do not take years of lessons and pay thousands of dollars. Our drummer, Ken Nsimbi, learned to play this way as a child in Kenya. Now he can be found after services with three-year-old Amelia and one-year-old Georgia, showing them how to do it.
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At the beginning of the pandemic, our congregation was half-way into a Calvin Worship Grant when suddenly everything ground to a complete stop. We were no longer able to meet in person, so the speakers and artists we had lined up to lead workshops and services had to be cancelled. The Worship Institute issued this advice: do whatever you can to pivot your programs and use the monies in any way that seems to fit.
Taking our cue from televised clips of Italians singing to each other from balcony to balcony, we decided to move our music outside, too. With the killing of George Floyd and a renewed Black Lives Matter emphasis, we instituted Thursday night outdoor music and open mic nights for the entire summer of 2020.
With a keyboard, an African drum, and a violin, we played music on the church’s front porch. Chairs were set up on the lawn, and neighbors walking their dogs might pause for a while to listen to the music. Everyone was encouraged to bring experiences, readings, and learnings on anti-racism they had encountered that week to share. We also prayed, played music, and ended every session by jamming to “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, the Black National Anthem.
For me, these jamming sessions were a crucial time of learning how to improvise and go with the flow. They provided an informal, no-pressure opportunity to learn this new style.
All of us appreciated these outdoor pandemic sessions so much that when we regathered to worship inside the sanctuary, we began to include a brief “jamming session” each Sunday after the final blessing. Everyone in the congregation is given a percussion instrument and plays along with the ensemble. Several newcomers who have joined our church mentioned this as a particularly beloved component.
Sometimes, when I am improvising with the music, I feel as if the Spirit is taking my violin and producing expressions too deep for words. I truly believe that preaching is not the only way the Spirit works through my spirit on Sunday mornings. And already now, as I contemplate what it will be like to retire in several years, I experience a pang in my heart when I consider losing that profound experience each week.
Of course, by then I may be the one with huge knobs on my violin fingers.
Wine glasses photo by Jep Gambardella