Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Eve + musical instruments.

If it’s not clear by now, I come from a family of nerds. Not “nerd” in the Dungeons and Dragons, greasy hair, and living in the basement sense (though we have been known to own pocket protectors). I’m talking in the friendlier, less off-putting sense.

I’m mainly referring to our status as a family of musicians. Again, not really in the traditional sense: no one’s in a band or trying to make their living off of it or anything. We’re musicians in the “we only do it because we enjoy it” way. My dad plays trumpet in a brass quintet, my mom directed Sunday School choir for years, I play clarinet (NERD) and tenor saxophone, my sister and brother play the trumpet (and have several years of piano lessons under their belts). It’s definitely safe to say that we’re musically inclined.
Mitch curbs the nerd factor with the addition of a faux-hawk.

 My father is the driving force in all of this, as anybody who familiar with us surely knows. Dad was always the one getting after us to practice our horns, and he was always willing to get out his trumpet and show us how to play something that we couldn’t quite master. Dad was a trumpet player all through high school, but he didn’t too do much with it after he graduated. It wasn’t until his kids started band that he really started playing again. He put together a brass quintet: they’ve got two trumpets, a French Horn, a euphonium, and a tuba.
The trumpets in action!
The brass quintet has been a HUGE hit around our area. They play at church services, anniversaries, birthday parties, funerals... any event a small town has, they can handle. Dad has gotten approached multiple times by a happy little old lady who requests for them to play at HER funeral.

In my opinion, the brass quintet sounds the best at Christmas. Every year for Christmas Eve, there is a candlelight service at church. It’s the largest service of the year; one of the few times our little Lutheran church is filled to near capacity. The brass quintet always sounds their best for Christmas Eve. They play a few times throughout the service, but the crowd favorite is when they play Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus. The sound of the brass fills the church, resounding high up in the rafters. It’s truly amazing, and if you’ve never heard a brass quintet in a church, I highly recommend you do so.

The brass quintet isn’t the only music for the candlelight service: that’s where the rest of us come in! As one may expect at a Christmas Eve service, there’s a fair amount of caroling. Each and every year, my siblings and I bring along our instruments and accompany the carols. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s so much fun. It’s gotten more fun now that I play the tenor saxophone. For years, we were three trumpets and a clarinet playing along, and we all had to play the same part. (Why? Because clarinets and trumpets are in the same key, of course!) Luckily, there were usually two B-flat parts, so we could at least split ourselves between them. “But wait,” say the musically educated among us. “Why would playing the tenor saxophone be more fun? It’s also a B-flat instrument!” Right you are. However, there was a special B-flat line for tenor saxophones, so I got to have that part all to myself. Besides, even though my clarinet will always hold a special place in my heart, tenor saxophones sound oh so much better.
See how much I love the saxophone?
Mitch is not in favor of the clarinet.
For the past few years, it’s been just my family and the brass quintet playing our instruments. However, there was a time when my friends Bob (percussion) and Sarah (clarinet) would bring their instruments and play along, as well. That was such fun, mostly because I got to sit by my friends in church. Not that there’s anything wrong with sitting by my family, but you can always count on your friends to roll their eyes along with you if something goofy happens in the service (which you can usually count on).
Sarah, Bob, and I on Christmas Eve, 2005.
Bob is less than pleased to be surrounded
by clarinet players.
I mentioned that it’s called the candlelight service, but the whole service isn’t done by candlelight. There’s a small portion of the service where we sing carols by candlelight, and while the effect is neat, I know from personal experience how dangerous it can be. When you first arrive at the service, you pick up a candle and a plastic holder from one of the ushers. You just hang onto it until it’s time for candlelight caroling, which is towards the end of the service. The ushers come and light the candle of the person sitting on the end of each pew, and they in turn light the person next to them, etc. Sounds just fine, and it usually is, unless you get some rambunctious kid who ends up setting his hair on fire (which, as far as I know, has yet to happen).

The real problem is when you’re trying to play your instrument and hold a candle at the same time. The brass quintet didn’t have this issue; they sat in a special section up front where the lights were still on. The rest of us occupied the choir loft, and those lights were quite dim if not off altogether. How were we supposed to see the music? Of course, we never thought to buy stand lights, and even if we did, that would take some of the fun out of it. We would usually select one person to sit out and hold the candle: we played two verses per song, so we took turns sitting out. There was one time when my friend Sarah and I thought it might work just to prop the candle gently on the music stand so we could all play. You know what happened? Scorched music, that’s what happened. We didn’t try that again.

Nowadays, we actually do use stand lights. It does make playing the candlelit carols a lot easier, though the challenge of playing by candlelight was always enjoyable. However, someone (me) still tries to keep the little candle lit while playing… and that always results in candle wax on the saxophone.

Playing our instruments on Christmas Eve has become as much of a tradition as opening stockings on Christmas morning. Sadly, it’s the one time of year that I get to play my saxophone. I suppose I could bring it back to Sioux Falls with me and practice in my apartment, but I think my neighbors would rather I didn’t. But that’s what makes playing on Christmas Eve so special: it’s the one time of the year where I will not only play my saxophone, but I’ll get to play WITH people and FOR people who are extremely appreciative.
Music: it's genetic.
So you can bet I’ll be back in the choir loft again this year, saxophone by my side. And who knows… maybe I’ll even manage to keep my candle under control this year. Christmas is the time for miracles, after all!  

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