Christmas Eve 2020

When my dad moved us to Montana, I was sad to leave behind my Bellevue friends for the second time, but also looked forward to a world where no one knew that I played the piano. When it came time to register for classes, I auditioned for the top choir and made it. That choir yielded some of my fondest high school memories and dearest friends, and also introduced me to innumerable choral works.

The choir had a tradition at every December concert of singing the Austrian carol, “Still, Still, Still.” Always the final song of the concert, Miss Mac would turn to the audience and invite any alumni to the stage to join the choir and sing. Every Christmas since, when I hear that song, I am back on the stage in Williamson Hall, clasping the hand of the singer next to me before singing.

This year, the only singing I’ve done is in my car or my kitchen or even my classroom before kids or Stueve arrived; no communal carol singing of any sort. So I spent time this month learning a piano solo arrangement of “Still, Still, Still” mashed up with “Silent Night.” Initially, I thought I would record it and send it to my lifelong friend Mike–we met in that choir, by the way– as some sort of lame attempt at a long-distance Christmas gift. But then I thought about so many people I know (and I’m sure plenty more I don’t) who are low this season, who are missing concerts and caroling, who find music as a space for faith and comfort.

Sharing with just Mike is safe–he won’t point out the missed notes or uneven pedaling or changing tempos, because he’s my friend, but also because he shares my sentimentality for the song. I know it’s not a perfect recording, but I hope as you listen, you think of the people who made past Christmases special, and if you haven’t yet reached out to them, do so.

Merry Christmas.

Silent Night/Still, Still, Still composed by Sally DeFord, played by Julie L. Rowse

Christmas Gifts.

This morning, I woke before my alarm went off. I looked at my phone to check the time, and saw three text messages from friends, all wishing me Merry Christmas. One friend thanked me for writing again about Advent, and I felt a tiny twinge of regret, because I didn’t set aside the time to write like I have the past two years.

It doesn’t feel much like Christmas to me this year, and I only blame myself for that–I let the stress of accompanying choirs get in the way of truly enjoying the season.

This morning at church, I played my final accompaniments of the season, and one in particular meant more to me than all the others I’ve played this year.

At the beginning of December, a young teenage boy was asked to sing a solo of “Guard Him Joseph,” a song I hadn’t played in years. He needed an accompanist and since I was already playing four other numbers, what was one more at this point? It’s not difficult music, and while Sally DeFord has a knack for complicated accompaniments, this one is simple (it’s not what you hear in the video, by the way–what I played was quite different).

I practiced a couple of times with the young singer, and this morning he performed it with confidence and innocence. There’s a different between playing for a choir and playing for a soloist. I feel a greater responsibility when playing for a soloist, because if I mess up, it’s much more apparent and can often rattle the singer. So I tend to be a bit more focused, a bit more tuned in to what the soloist is doing, and much more aware of how my playing adds to the overall production.

When I was in high school, my choir teacher once told me she had not taught a student that had my innate sense of musicality, and ever since, I’ve taken that compliment as a responsibility: it’s not enough to just play notes. I must make music out of those notes, and after teaching piano lessons for the past ten years, I can attest that it’s hard to teach that skill.

After the number was over, I looked at the congregation and the choir and saw tissues dabbing at eyes and heard sniffles throughout the chapel. He knocked it out of the park, and I was so proud of such a young kid taking that risk to sing a solo at a Christmas service. I knew both of us created a piece of music–he didn’t just sing notes, and I didn’t just play them.

After the service was over, I was on my way out, and I felt a tug on my sleeve. It was the young singer. “Thank you for playing,” he said, as he gave me a little hug.

“Thank you for singing,” I said. “Don’t ever stop sharing that gift.”

When I spend months preparing Christmas music and accompanying choirs at a most stressful time of year, it is so easy for me to forget that playing the piano is a gift. It’s not something that everyone can do–and I forget too often the words of my choir teacher and the responsibility I have to create music.

I’m glad a young teenage singer reminded me today of the power of creating music, especially at Christmas time. It was one of the best gifts I received this year.



Some Thoughts During Advent.

I sat in the back row of a Presbyterian Church, thinking about all the things I needed to do: grade, read drafts of newspaper stories that should’ve been finalized four days ago, plan lessons for the week, holiday baking, practicing the piano. It’s not that I resented being at the church, or performing, or even sitting for an hour and a half listening to Christmas music, but I started to wonder why I was there.

Why do I listen to music? Why take time from my work, my life, my leisure time to sit in a church sanctuary and listen to a bell choir play Christmas carols and choirs sing praises? What drives this group of people from all different faiths to sit and listen?

My shoulders hurt, my eyes are heavy–I’m in pain and yet I’m sitting there looking for something, trying to feel anything to ease my harried mind and body.

I have worries, though Jesus tells me not to worry. He tells me to “cast my burden upon him” and he shall sustain me. But I don’t feel sustained, so I sat there, begging for spiritual sustenance to work its way into my heart.

By the third song, I remember why I am there: God’s word and the story of Jesus’ birth and the music that accompanies that story lifts me. I let myself fall into the comfort of carols, and I remember that, at least for an hour and a half, everything else can wait.

My shoulders still hurt, and though exhausted, I still have so much work to do. I’d planned on doing that work after the concert. But now I’m writing, in last year’s Christmas PJ’s, by the light of my Christmas tree. I’m warm for the first time in hours, and I remember that I will have time tomorrow to complete the work that, three hours ago, I was convinced had to be done tonight, regardless of how late it might take. I remember that sometimes, sleep is more important.

Why do I listen to music? Take time from my work, my life, my leisure to listen or perform? Because it reminds me that there is more to me–to everyone–than work and life and leisure. The sheer number of people that this non-huggy person hugged tonight is a testament that music somehow links our souls in ways we might not be able to explain.

So I will listen to more music this week, this stress-filled week that on paper makes me want to curl up in a ball and disappear, and hope it brings me the peace and energy I need.

Finally Getting Christmas Right.

I’ve made no secret in past December blogs about my Christmas angst. It gets a little better every year, but this year I think I finally figured how to make the holiday suck less.

  1. Advent. Observing advent helps me remember the entire reason I celebrate Christmas in the first place. It provides perspective and grounding.
  2. Christmas Eve Service. I remember attending late Christmas Eve services in high school and college with friends of other faiths. I don’t know why I stopped. I attended a lovely service with my friend Angie and her family, and it was exactly what I needed. Christmas Eve became a point of worship, not a lamenting of what I lack.
  3. A movie on Christmas morning. I love movies. And if the local theater is going to be open, I might as well take advantage of it. I waited a week to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens because I knew I would be so excited to wake up Christmas morning. I had something to look forward to, a reason to get out of bed. Here’s hoping next year there’s something equally enticing at the multiplex…
  4. Spend a ton of time with my family playing games and being goofy. We played Apples to Apples. We played Memory. I made my nephew listen to Postmodern Jukebox and a little bit of Hamilton. My dad made us all Italian sodas. We exchanged a few gifts and ate a meal. I had a blast.

And now it’s 8:20 p.m., I’m writing this by the light of my Christmas tree and deciding if I should pop in a movie or read a book. I’m quite happy and not at all feeling left out or less than. I am feeling loved and content. This is one of the best Christmases I’ve had, ever. I’m glad to have found a way to make Christmas a truly happy time of year.

Christmas Eve Eve

As usual, I’ve slacked on the blogging as of late. And I don’t really have anything profound or insightful to share.

The third week of advent I focused on creating a Sunday School lesson for my Mormon adult Sunday School class that was about advent. I studied hope, preparation, joy and love and figured out a packaging that I could share with my fellow congregants how much I’ve come to enjoy Advent, even though we don’t observe it. It turned out pretty good, I think.

And now it’s Christmas Eve Eve, and I’m taking a break from reading a murder mystery and watching Jessica Jones to watch some more festive programming. In doing so, I came across this song, which I think you all should at the very least, read the source text. It’s beautiful, and it reflects my own evolution of what Christmas is starting to mean to me.