Every year since I started working as the music director at Goodrich UMC, I’ve done a choir retreat. It’s a good way to return from our summer hiatus and kick off the new choral year together. Food, games, and the introduction to this year’s Christmas Cantata. I suspect it’s the cantata that really gets people excited. It definitely gets me excited.
Usually starting in May, I start to get Christmas music previews in the mail for my consideration. I spend the summer break listening to every new Christmas cantata published that year. Most of it is utter crap, but I can always count on quality music from Lloyd Larson, Joseph M. Martin, Joel Raney, and Pepper Choplin. For the last 3 (maybe 4) years it’s been the same guy, Choplin. I keep thinking I’ll find something good from somebody else, but this guy is on a roll, so I’m sticking with him.
Recently, a church music colleague sneered at me just a bit for doing this kind of cantata. There is quite a bit of snobbery in the church music business over what music is “quality” music. Now to be clear, this is not like what my Baptist friends do. It’s not a big pageant with contemp Christian music that ends in a bloody Jesus on the cross. I’ve been to some really good ones, but I’m more into the baby Jesus in the manger. It’s also not Bach or Handel. It’s a collection of modern choral anthems telling the Christmas story and usually there are readings in between. It’s music that is accessible, but with no drum sets or guitars. And Choplin is consistently putting out the best.
I have more anxiety over this work than any other thing I do at Goodrich. It’s 35 minutes of music, and it takes my choir 3-4 months to get it really polished up and in a condition ready for worship. Worship is the key here. If there isn’t a sense of worship when we sing it, then all that happened was a concert. If it didn’t turn someone’s heart to God in some way, then we’ve wasted everybody’s time. So, I have to begin in August to make this happen. And it always happens! But my fears aren’t just about the music, it’s about the participation. I need full attendance to make it work. And so when I plan a retreat, I get totally stressed out. I entertain unfounded fears that no one will show up. In the past, I’ve been a little nasty about attendance and timeliness, but it didn’t work. It may have even made matters worse! Or I worry that no one will bring food, or I won’t have the music. And yeah, there was a glitch. I never received the rehearsal/demo $79 cd for the first listen. But you know what? I worked it out. I found the music online. I should trust by now that things always work out. People came. People brought more food than we could eat. I have a choir that steps in and MAKES it work. That makes my job easier.
As I like to tell my choir, this retreat always makes my PYE levels jump up to a two. PYE is something that I and my brothers struggle with every year. It can result in disruption of life and even psychological pain. Premature Yuletide Excitement (PYE) occurs when you get excited about Christmas WAY too early. It is diagnosed with levels 1 through 5. A 1 is when you find yourself humming “It’s beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” in September, but you shut it down HARD. 5 is when you put your tree and lights up before Halloween. That is serious and may require a remedial course in seasonal traditions or even hospitalization. I’m at a two, but it’s the risk of my job. It’s hard to avoid. I HAVE to study this Christmas music.
The problem with PYE is that by the time Christmas actually comes, you might be over it. That happened to me one year, and I will never let that happen again. It doesn’t help that stores are putting Halloween versions of egg nog on the shelves in October. They can color it and package it anyway they like, but it’s still Christmas in a cup.
But anyway, the choir was wonderful. No one complained about doing Pepper Choplin again. I heard only positive sounds as I played it from my iPhone and Jawbone speaker. What’s more, is they’re getting so good at sight reading that they made a pretty good start on learning it. And what’s EVEN more, Kenny brought his award winning ribs for lunch!