Playing the Changes

Playing the Changes

By Norm Freeman on Aug 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM in The News

Listen to Simple Gifts

Playing the Changes


LAGUNA HILLS - He stands in an empty church, practicing. Always practicing. Ninety minutes every day, two mallets in each hand. They fall gently on an old vibraphone he once rolled through the streets of Manhattan in another life. Another time. Back then a long-haired Norm Freeman played Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden.

Now? He plays for a hundred people here. A hundred there. He leans over the instrument: Soft strains of "Stardust" lift to the vaulted church ceiling.

It's hard to believe he once played with the thrash-metal band Metallica. Or at the MTV Music Awards. Or on Saturday Night Live.

"Trying to prove myself in the music business ultimately left me feeling empty," says Freeman, 55, a husband and father of two. "It was from that place that I started a spiritual quest."

Now, each Sunday, this man who once played with Pavarotti, Paul McCartney and Leonard Bernstein plays the 9:30 a.m. service at St. George's Episcopal Church.

Which is why he was pleasantly surprised to get a call last year from an old friend he hadn't worked with in 12 years: How are your chops?his friend asked. You want to join us on tour - with Barbra Streisand?

Freeman was floored. He'd toured with Streisand in 1994, but so much had changed. He'd have to ask his wife. His friends at St. George's. His bishop.

See, he wasn't just the church vibraphonist on Sunday mornings. He was the priest.


The turning point came in 1988 at Carnegie Hall.

Freeman was one of New York's A-list musicians: He'd performed Broadway hits like "Grease" and "Showboat." Toured with rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman. Performed with the Moody Blues. And played percussion with the New York Philharmonic, New York Pops and Metropolitan Opera.

Legendary timpanist Saul Goodman took him aside at Juilliard School of Music.

"He taught us to reach down inside of ourselves, to come in touch with some power to inspire our playing," Freeman says. "So that what we'd bring to our performance was beyond the notes. It came up from deep inside of ourselves."

On this day Freeman was trying - as Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic for a gala event commemorating his debut as conductor - but failing.

Freeman was to introduce a passage by striking a solo chime precisely as the concertmaster began his violin solo.

"At rehearsal, we weren't together and it was my fault," Freeman says. "Bernstein would make it very clear by the look he'd give you."

Three times they stopped. Three times they tried again. With each take, Freeman got more unnerved.

That night in concert, he remembers the anxiety building toward his moment. Just before it, he lifted his hand and said a prayer: "Please God, do for me what I cannot do for myself. If people see any good in what I do, let it be You they see."

With that, Bernstein dropped his hand and Freeman reached for something deep inside.

"I just let it go, and it never had been better couldn't be any better," Freeman says.

His old Juilliard mentor, Goodman, hugged him backstage and told him so. And Freeman found himself on a path with no turning back.


In 1994, he resigned from the New York Philharmonic and entered the General Theological Seminary, the oldest Episcopal seminary in the nation. His transition wasn't always easy.

At one point, his faculty adviser said, "I don't think you're suffering enough."

Other students had given up their professions and given over their lives. Freeman still was performing.

"I wrestled with that," he admits. "Music was a significant part of my life. I thought I was ready to step away, but maybe not. I was still playing."

It was then the seminary's spiritual director told Freeman something he would never forget. Something that would make him one of the most unique ministers in the land today.


In an empty church, he plays an interpretation of "Amazing Grace" he created for a dying friend. The vibes sound like chiming bells. Soothing and tranquil.

"I never could have scripted the life I have," Freeman says.

Each Sunday, after his sermon, he plays a musical "meditation" on vibes. Several times a year, he holds jazz vespers - evening music services, accompanied by top jazz musicians. And several Saturdays each year he still performs with the New York Pops, which he joined as a founding member in 1983.

"What he does is unheard of," says Pops executive director James Johnson. "I don't know of any orchestra in the city that has a musician who comes in from the West Coast."

When Freeman was invited to tour again with Streisand last year, he asked his wife and his bishop. Both said yes, so he took a six-week sabbatical. This summer, he took off five weeks to tour Europe.

"Nobody plays with more soul, and his time is extraordinary," Streisand drummer John "J.R." Robinson says of the percussionist once nicknamed "the Normanator" and "Stormin' Norman."

In this modern sanctuary, he is "Father Norm," practicing in solitude. Thankful his parish allows him to go off as ambassador; hopeful those experiences enhance his work.

His parish is growing, so maybe his spiritual director was right long ago when he said: God calls the whole person and all of their experiences - so that one can have a life of meaning and service at same time.

That's why Freeman stayed in the seminary. And stayed with his music.

"They are essential pieces that make me who I am," he says. "I love them both."


Contact the writer: 714-796-6979 or [email protected]