When I first arrived, I was, I think, overexcited by the musical opportunities available. It was almost the first thing on peoples' lips when they were introducing me to St. Columba's: music is important to us! So I immediately (overenthusiastically) signed up to join the choir. I had no excuses why I wouldn't - I live two minutes away, I've always fancied joining my home church's choir, and I would get to socialize more with St. Columbans outside of church.
I realized about four minutes into our first practice that I might be in trouble. I just didn't know what I was supposed to be singing, as all of the other women at the rehearsal were sopranos and I am (I think) an alto (there are also men on baritone and tenor). Sensing my distress, Isobel gently told me just to sing soprano until Pam, another choir member, could come back and teach me the alto parts. But when Pam came back it transpired that a requirement of being in a choir is knowing how to read music and sing harmony. In short, to be in a choir - strangely - one must know how to sing.
My choir career was shortlived, as I quit two weeks later and went back to performing solely in the shower. However, this has not dampened my enjoyment of other musical activities at St. Columba's. As I mentioned, I am taking piano lessons from my lovely friend, Helen, who practices organ in our church. Helen has shown me an appreciation of organ in addition to teaching me piano (and even once let me play it, which was pretty cool!).
My first few experiences with concerts at St. Columba's were in the early months: a brass band concert back in September followed about a month later by an impressive choral and organ concert for Reformation Sunday. Both were delightful. We also give space to two community choirs to practice, one of whom gives us a free concert each year in thanks.
The brass band concert
The hymns at St. Columba's are almost always new to me. As I mentioned before in regards to Christmas music, I find it hard to like new music that doesn't have an emotional overlay. Quite often, I'm ambivalent about most of the hymns we sing (but I love when the choir does an anthem, as they're quite impressive). However, there have been a few that struck a chord (music joke) and I always whip out my phone at the end of the service and take a picture of the text. (If anyone notices that I'm on my phone in church they never say anything....)
Part of St. Columba's passion for music comes from their organist, Nigel, who is very talented and passionate about his organ, whom he calls Mildred. Mildred is massive - you can read about her on the website here - and Nigel is intensely devoted to her upkeep and constant improvement. I've walked into the church at odd hours on numerous occasions to find Nigel inside Mildred, tinkering with her bits and pieces.
If you're wondering if the sexual innuendos in the previous sentence are deliberate...well, yes, they are. I'm not alone in making these types of jokes about Mildred and Nigel's relationship. At choir practice during my first or second week, Nigel announced that he was going to do some work on Mildred over the weekend and make sure her innards were in order. He was, he informed us, going to replace a bit of her chest pipe. Someone else piped up and added that Nigel would be spending time stroking Mildred's chest or something to that effect, and the entire choir filled in with similarly raunchy jokes and cracked themselves up.
Nigel keeps busy. Besides his involvement with Mildred, our choir, and the church services, Nigel is the mastermind behind a mainstay of St. Columba's life: Our January free organ concert series. Each year, St. Columba's hosts six visiting organists to play an hour of music at lunchtime on Saturdays. For a church that feels its size very sensitively (St. Columba's is rather small and various members of the congregation occasionally fret about this), the organ concerts brought in a huge number of outside guests, both from the organ community and the neighborhood.
Nigel keeps some of his organ parts up in the balcony, which is a treasure trove of random things
During this concert series, I helped Isobel with her Tea Trolley and poured coffees and teas for guests. It was in this way that I made friends with Nigel's wife Steph (the human wife, not the organ one) and she has become a Crafts with a Cause member and supporter!
I also got to hear some stellar organ music at this series. I had never been a big organ fan before - I didn't dislike it but I never stopped to think about it. The only time I heard it was in church on Sundays. Ascension is blessed with an incredible organist, so I never had reason to think about how hard the organ is to play!
Learning about the organ, taking piano lessons, and enjoying concerts have been a relatively small but extremely enjoyable part of my learning and growth here in England. Part of it is soaking up the musical experience just by being in proximity to those who are passionate about it.
Through my research in college, I learned about psychological sense of community (PSOC) and wrote my thesis about this concept. The idea is that there are four main ways that communities are created and maintained. The one I think of whenever I listen to music being played at St. Columba's is shared emotional connection, through participation in history, rituals, and activities. I got a little annoyed with research by the end of college - was any of this even real life or was it just made up by PhDs who had no knowledge of the real world? - but I now see PSOC in so many ways as I've worked in various places since graduation.
St. Columba's is no exception. Music is a way that the fellowship St. Columba's expresses itself and shares their ministry. When I'm listening to the choir, it's not only the songs that strike me but the way that it brings the fellowship together. While many churches could theoretically have the same events as St. Columba's on their musical calendar throughout the year, it's really more about the congregation's pride and passion for it, and this is what makes them unique.