By Kari Miller
From Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden and Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel The Secret Life of Bees to the recent Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries, the “secret” books just keep on coming. In the past year alone, we saw The Secret Life of Fat, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How they Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World as well as The Inner Life of Cats: the Science and Secrets of our Mysterious Feline Companions. Over the years there have been countless others.
Lately, I’ve been musing about what The Secret Life of a Church Musician: Confessions from the Organ Bench might look like. For, without doubt, it is a book that almost any of us could easily write, out of our own life experience. (In fact, I know an organist in our chapter who for years has been collecting material for just such a volume.) And it would be a pretty thick volume even without delving into those truly secret things like illicit love affairs, weird obsessions, embarrassing discoveries and hidden stashes of chocolate. I think readers would actually be quite fascinated to learn about our “other” life – that other life that is the dark-side complement to the one on Sunday morning display. For we lead the two parallel lives, one very public and one largely hidden from view. The public life is perhaps the one that “matters,” but it could not exist without the secret life running alongside.
Front and center in our book of secrets would be, of course, an exposé of the huge amount of work we do that falls under the general category of “preparation.” Of this work, organ practice and choir rehearsal form but the tip of a massive iceberg. The outsider looking in expects to see us practicing hymns and teaching anthems to our choirs, but few realize how much time, effort and study goes into choosing and preparing the music for each week’s service. Few realize that we plan and rehearse weeks and weeks in advance, or that we habitually work around all sorts of obstacles: shrinking budgets, unpredictable choir attendance, quirky instruments and difficult people. Most would be surprised by the sheer amount of physical labor involved in our jobs, as we move chairs and music stands, assemble tables for our bell choirs, chase after the “cherubs” in the children’s choir and haul music folders and various paraphernalia from one place to another, upstairs and down, from one building to the next.
Our account could relate, in chapter after chapter, the frustrations and burdens we negotiate on a regular basis; we all have plenty of those stories to tell. Yet the more elusive task would be to shed light on that deeper mystery (do we fully understand it ourselves?) of why we even want to do what we do, and why we keep coming back for more. For, in spite of everything, the life of a church musician is not all toil and trouble; it is also joy, laughter, and the profound satisfaction of doing something we find beautiful and engaging. Our accomplishments often cannot be measured by a standard yardstick, and our private moments of triumph may or may not coincide with public success. But when all is said and done, I think most of us take our place at the console simply because we want to be there. Why? Is there secret treasure hidden beneath the surface of our lives? Maybe the book will tell.