Background: I’m nearly 3 years into my position as the director of music at my parish. Funerals, are, of course, part of the job. For the most part, they have been people that I didn’t know or didn’t know well. That isn’t always the case, and I found myself struggling with the normal emotions while trying to play and cantor.
Anyone have experience with this? I know it’s important to grieve and go through that process but it’s also important to do my job as a musician and serve the community professionally. How do I do both of those things?
You just do it.
A professional can sometimes break up, but you have to realize that others, more closely associated with the deceased are depending on you to support the reverence and respect of the funeral Mass.
Playing and singing well takes a fair amount of concentration. I’ve often found myself in the loft crying after everyone is gone. It’s one of those times that you have to think of others first.
God bless you, It’s hard, but you just have to do it.
I also am a music minister and I know very well what you are talking about. I find myself sometimes feeling more emotional than I would like, and singing through that can be very difficult. My voice cracks when that happens. I am so glad I can hide behind the piano so people can’t see my face when that happens. But a trick that works for me when I am feeling particularly struck by the funeral is I look just over the peoples’ heads and think of something different. I know that sounds terribly simple and I am sure you have done it, but it takes the edge off of it for me. Enough to regain control, anyhow. I recently was having a very difficult time at the funeral for a small child. I have small children. It seems so wrong and heartbreaking to have to bury one. The song of farewell was… very, very difficult to play. I had to put my head down and weep for the family when I got home afterward.
I’m just a lowly choir member but I’ve been around long enough to have sung at a few funerals and watched music directors, cantors, and accompanists sing and/or play for the funerals of their own friends and families.
As pianistclare says, you just do it. Playing and singing at the funeral is a way to help others through the grieving process but it can also be a way to help yourself grieve.
On a very practical level, if the funeral is for someone that you personally know and love it helps if you are singing and playing songs that you know well; when your eyes tear up it’s hard to see the words and notes.
Allowing yourself time to grieve properly is more important than most people realise and there’s often an attitude that grief is something that you just need to “get through” or “get over” without recognising the importance of the process itself.
Granted, sometimes you have a job to do and so may feel that you need put your professionalism first. Whether to do so is something that you need to decide for yourself each time the issue comes up rather than trying to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. You might also like to discuss the issue with your parish priest so that he is aware of your needs.
Regardless of what you choose to do, don’t forget that you are a person before you’re a professional and being a professional doesn’t mean that you have to detach yourself from your emotions. Even when you do decide to play and cantor, you still need to ensure that you provide yourself with an adequate opportunity for grieving rather than just trying to compartmentalise your emotions.
For me, I think of my liturgical/musician participation in the Funeral Mass as a gift, on that day, to that person I knew and loved… or a gift I can give for the family and friends whom I know on that day, or to all of those present whom I don’t know. My personal grief for that person usually happens at the time of learning of the death. Prayers afterwards too.
It is difficult no matter how you look at it. We sing and provide music for the grieving. That means that we are caring people. I had a vocal teacher tell that her method is to practice the music that you plan to use over and over again. She said that even if you know the song well, it helps to work through your own grief singing it over while you are alone.
For me, I can not even think about looking at those who are grieving. Tears will well up in my eyes and my voice will crack the moment I catch the tears in someone else’s eyes.