Organ Donation

July 18, 2010

You know you’ve hit rock bottom as a musician when you play a nursing home—not as a favor or as a kindly gesture to your elders—but because it’s your job.  It happened to me about ten years ago.

I had found that churches were not interested in music directors with engineering degrees and 9-5 careers.  Instead, churches were interested in music directors with music degrees (Unbelievable!) and time available day and night to minister to the bleating flock’s musical needs—at tuppins a song.  The only gig I could find was with a Catholic campus ministry in town.  I took it so I could pretend I ran my own show.

Our day at the nursing home was supposed to be a service project for the students.  I was to be a side-show for the few inmates who might want to sing.  Luckily, I had enough foresight to take with me every songbook I could carry—because only one of the students actually showed up for the service project.

Have you heard the one about a priest, an organist and a college coed who went to a nursing home?

Yes, I said organist.  Nursing homes are also the last resting places for electronic organs.  I’m sure they take pianos too, but those quickly lose their tune and are sent to the pencil factory.  An electronic organ will produce roughly the same sound after fifty years that it produced the day it was purchased.  Of course, it sounded like crap the day it was purchased.

The residents were restless when we got there and wanted to know when the “organ concert” was going to start.  Apparently that’s how we had been billed by the warden.

Not only that, the organ faced the wall.  I might have played some songs and called it good.  But I knew I would become miserably depressed if I played the beastly instrument by itself.  My student helper, bless her heart, was not a singer.  Neither was the priest.  Our audience would know most of the tunes, but wouldn’t remember the words.  So I sang.  To the wall.

The afternoon proceeded in a round.  The lone service worker and I sifted through music books to put together a set.  I played and sang.  She danced elfishly next to me and smiled wanly at the bobbing listeners.  I filled in a little between songs with brief asides or background information (if I knew anything).  After we had completed a set, the priest, who fancied himself a stand-up comedian, told lame jokes while my helper and I scavenged for more music to play.

During one of the comedy breaks, an audience member whispered discretely to the entire room, “When are they going to start playing again?”

I played as many standards and sing-along favorites as I could find.  I’ve expunged most of the playlist from memory.  I do remember not knowing the words to a lot of the songs, which made for an interesting sight-reading/playing/singing experience.

When the priest decided I had done enough penance, he said we would wrap up with one more set.  I was down to my last few good songs.  Inadvertently, I scheduled two Irish songs in a row.  I said, “Here’s another old Irish favorite.”

An agitated voice from the back of the room said, “Don’t you have any German songs?”

Luckily I had one coming up.  But first, I sang the Stalker Song (“The Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady).  I found that it was quite a bit higher in my vocal range than I expected.

Our big finish: “The Beer Barrel Polka.”  (Is it really a German song? Heck I didn’t know.  Didn’t care.)  It was loud and fast and sounded like a good idea at the time.  It started well.  People were clapping along.  I could almost see their toothless smiles.

Then the music book took a nose-dive off the stand into my lap.  Some musicians—of the  talented variety—could have faked it through the end of such a simple song and gotten their round of applause.  Not me.  No, I stopped cold.  The room was doused in silence, like turning a garden hose on fornicating dogs.

“Oops sorry-Let me find the page-No that’s not it-One second-I’m really sorry about this-Oh here it is, where was I?”

Needless to say the moment was lost.  The priest made a few closing remarks and guilted the poor wheelchair-bound grandparents to clap for their hapless entertainer.

I packed up my books at about the same time in life when I packed up a dream of being a music director and inspiring lots of people to sing.  That dream went to the old folk’s home in my mind to brood and sulk.  But eventually all that is old becomes new again.  Creativity always finds a new outlet.  Maybe I could torture blog-readers instead of senior citizens.  Hmm …



  1. Joel says, “Character building sux.” It seems he knows what he’s talking about.

  2. Too funny! Sounds like you brought some joy to some folks that needed it! Bravo

  3. Whoever you are, librarian’s cousin or budding author, don’t stop writing. You have an excellent narrative voice. Keep posting!

  4. Thanks for reading, I appreciate it!

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