Friday, February 10, 2006

3. Crossing the Continental Divide

Now, by the gods, I pity his misfortune,
And will awake him from his melancholy.

I wanna begin this post by telling you a little about me, just so's you'll know where I'm comin' from. I am thirty-five years old, I am thrice divorced, and I live in a van down by the ...

Wait a sec.

Well, I did turn 35 a few months after going to Athens, but forget the rest of that. I just figured that since my Hellenic debacle was not my first experience with touring music ministry, it might do some good to talk about one of my other such experiences, for the sake of comparison. Just so's you'll know where I'm comin' from.

One fine spring day in 1989 I sat down on my bed in my college dorm room and narrowed my summer options down to two alternatives:
(a) commit suicide or (b) audition for Continental Singers. I then chose (b), figuring that if it didn't work out, I would still have (a) to fall back on. I guess that means (a) was my Plan B.

The most succinct way to describe the Continental Singers is "the Christian Up With People." They send groups around the world performing CCM songs in a "show choir" format, with video, lights, bright costumes, and choreography. I grew up attending Continentals concerts at my church, and had always harbored a desire to join them. The music is undeniably bland by a critic's standards — but you must understand that Continentals perform mostly in churches, many of which are rather conservative, and they have to choose material that won't give too much offense. By age 19 I wasn't exactly a big fan of the music they perform, but I still wanted to go on one of their tours. This may explain why I chose to audition as an instrumentalist rather than a singer.

To truncate a tome (a phrase which here means "to make a long story short"), I was accepted as the third-chair violist in the Continental Orchestra (the only one of their groups with string players) and spent the summer playing around the United States and Europe. It saved my life.

Surely you haven't forgotten (a) from an earlier paragraph — I was suicidal, and suicidal people tend not to have positive or cooperative attitudes. I have no doubt that I was a complete pain in the rear for my tour director during rehearsal camp and the first leg of the tour. But our bus that summer was a microcosm of Christian community, and the support I received from my leaders and tourmates pulled me out of my depression and gave me a renewed sense of self-worth that I've never lost since then — although I've been in plenty of situations that brought it under attack (more later about that). So I don't care what you think of Continentals' music; what they did for me is far more important than a matter of taste.

At the beginning I didn't have such a high opinion of our leaders (but, you will remember, I had problems of my own). I even met once or twice early in the tour with a group of six or eight disgruntled musicians who wanted to propose some changes in the way things were run. I'm pretty sure that our director listened fairly to our proposals and rejected most of them, if not all. But I've forgotten what they were. Over the course of the tour, the director proved himself, by his behavior, to be a person of unimpeachable integrity. And because of this, our objections ceased to matter (to me, at least) long before the summer was over.

Here are a few things the Continentals did right:
  • We attended a week-long rehearsal camp before we hit the road, which gave everyone time to learn the music and choreography and start to form relationships.
  • Our light tech and sound tech were part of the team. They trained along with us at rehearsal camp, and planned in advance for our equipment needs.
  • The leaders made an effort to personally engage every group member, one on one, and get to know what made them tick. I am sure this was not easy for them in my case.
  • If the leaders felt any self-doubt about their leadership ability, they didn't tell the group about such doubts. If they made mistakes, they did it with confidence. If their decisions bore an explanation, they gave one, within reason.
  • The leaders sacrificed their personal comfort and convenience for the benefit of the group. They set examples for us by being on time for every call, keeping their cool in tight situations, and treating us fairly and graciously while nonetheless maintaining strict boundaries. There were times my tour director was brusque with me, but it's not as though I didn't give him cause. Eventually we earned each other's respect.
  • The leaders themselves were musicians. Our director was a trumpet player; his wife was a vocalist; and our three assistant directors were a vocalist, a French horn player, and a violinist.
  • Expectations were clear. There were rules for what you wore, what you did with your free time and your time on the bus, what you did during setup, performance, and tear-down, and how you behaved around your host families. Every day had a schedule and it was given to everyone first thing in the morning. The tour itself also had a schedule, and it was given to everyone before we hit the road. You knew where you'd be playing every night.
  • Each day was structured to include some down time, even if it meant just taking a nap on the bus. Some days included free time or activity time, schedule permitting, even if it meant just stopping at a shopping mall for a few hours. But you knew in advance when you were going to have free time, when it would begin, and when it would end.
  • Every day included at least 90 minutes of sound check/rehearsal/warmup before the gig.
  • Spiritual disciplines (group prayer and Bible reading) were practiced consistently, with gusto. We sang together in private as well as on stage.
  • We were fed.
So there are just a few characteristics of a successful touring ministry. You might want to keep them in mind later on, when the Big Fat Greek Vacation actually reaches Greece. At some point we'll ponder whether it's fair of me to judge my experience on the Continent by my experience with the Continentals.

Until then, happy surfing.


Post a Comment

<< Home