Why do we sing together?

Recently, two articles have been circulating on Facebook:

One bemoans the “death of church choirs” (see it here: http://www.religionnews.com/2014/09/17/many-church-choirs-dying-heres/).

Another counter-article states “9 reasons to keep the church choir alive” (see it here: http://www.theologyinworship.com/2014/09/23/9-reasons-to-keep-the-church-choir-alive/).

Singing with other people, whether at a ballgame, or in worship, or in the local community choir, is something that has declined in the last fifty years. I use fifty because, well, I’m in that age group now, and I’ve seen it decline over my lifetime. A friend and I went to a Yankees game a few months ago. When the National Anthem was played, I heard a few folks around me, but not many. It was sad. But, when the 7th inning stretch came, more folks were singing. Was it because the song was a more upbeat song, or that it was written less than fifty years ago? In any case, it was encouraging to hear more voices singing “Sweet Caroline.” At least they sang!

Societal trends are the primary reasons our musical education has diminished in recent decades. More iPods, mp3, CD, DVD, satellite radio, and any other source of music you can think of, have broadened our musical horizons, exposing us to sounds we probably never thought we’d hear unless we traveled to China, the inner reaches of Africa, frigid Russia, or sunny Hawaii.

Musical education has changed, too. In many places, the arts have been eliminated completely from public and private school classrooms. Where do people of all ages go for exposure to the arts? Where do they learn to sing? Who will teach them?

The church has, for centuries, been the epicenter for arts in community throughout the world. In some large churches, choir schools were created for the musical and academic instruction of their boy choirs. It’s only logical that choirs have survived for hundreds of years in these places. Closest to home, St. Thomas Church on 5th Avenue has a choir school that is nearing its 100th anniversary. Begun in 1919, they have been the foundation for worship life in this historic space. And if you haven’t heard them before, go. I give you permission (just not all of you at the same time!) to attend a worship service on Sunday morning, or at one of their Evensong services on Sunday afternoons.

For the most part, churches throughout the world have choirs that gather weekly for a rehearsal, and share their talents on Sunday mornings. Those who are part of a choir often remark “I was looking forward to staying home because I was exhausted. Realizing that others were relying on me, I came to rehearsal anyway. After it was over, it dawned on me I was energized and feeling great that I made the decision to go to choir.”

Imagine what worship would be like without a choir. Think back to the days when you were younger and heard a great choir in worship; how did you feel? Was it inspiring? Depending on our upbringing, it might not have been the best choir (or perhaps the worst choir you’ve heard!), but the passion and dedication from those singers have probably been passed on to you. How did you learn those new hymns? The choir was helping the congregation learn new hymns and supported the voices around you in the pews.

A 2009 survey by Chorus America found that a staggering 42.6 MILLION people participate in one of more than 270,000 choirs in America. And that’s just the number of those who actually responded to this survey — it could be higher than that. Here’s more on that study: https://www.chorusamerica.org/publications/research-reports/chorus-impact-study

I won’t comment on either article above, but I will say this: we are a singing congregation. In last week’s article I stated that “The choir is not the leader of worship; they are enablers. And that hymns belong to the people….the congregation, and not to the choir.” Choirs will continue to exist. Some will thrive, some will fail. In church, and in the community. But a church with a vision and a focus on quality worship will have a choir, if they chose to do so.

Not every church has to have a choir. But we do; five choirs, in fact, and we are blessed to be part of an amazing history of music in this little corner of Connecticut at First Congregational Church in Greenwich. And it is because of your dedication and love of singing that we have outstanding music each Sunday.

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Singing psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs…

When we gather as a choir on Thursdays and Sundays, our voices join together, in unison, in two-parts, four-parts, or more. Sometimes, it’s good enough to just hum a simple melody like “Jesus loves me” or “Amazing grace”. Our vocal chords vibrate with the sounds our brains tell it to make. Sing high, sing low, sing in the middle. Our voices are one of the wonders of creation.

But what happens to those folks facing us in the pews? What sounds do they make? Do their sounds matter? The most common response from the folks who are asked to join a choir is “Oh, I’m not any good. My voice isn’t good enough to do what YOU do!”.

One of the biggest shifts in my thinking came decades ago, but is one that I too often let leave my mind. The choir is not the leader of worship; they are enablers. And that hymns belong to the people….the congregation, and not to the choir. We should poke, prod, enable, and support the congregation. Most often, we do a great job at that. Occasionally, I need to remind myself that we need to do more with hymns, and do more to encourage congregational singing.

As we begin another year of ministry together, one of the main areas I am focusing on is hymn singing and education, both in worship for the congregation at-large, and in our Sunday school. Rosemary and I have been in conversation about how we can bolster the Sunday school curriculum to do more singing with the kids. In worship, this may involve more singing and “rehearsing” hymns at the beginning of worship; something I did a great deal when I worked in the Catholic churches.

Being raised in a musical church (albeit a BAD music church!) I quickly understood the importance of music in worship, and even more, the importance of singing in worship. Hymns help us ground our faith and, as the sayings go, “help us express what the spoken words fail to express.” For every hymn sung in worship, I’m responsible for choosing it, for good or for bad. Each (well, 98% of the time!) hymn that we sing in worship is chosen with a great deal of care. What does it say to us in the context of the other elements in any particular service? How can they help weave together the scriptures, the other parts of worship, our anthems, into a more cohesive and meaningful experience? Does the text reflect the other elements of worship?

When choosing hymns, text is primary, and music is secondary. That’s the way I approach hymn choices. Hymns begin life as a story, or a poem. Composers will tell you that it’s usually the text that speaks to them when they begin writing a hymn or other vocal music. I’ll take into account whether we know a particular tune or not, but generally, if the text fits which topics or themes are being stressed in any given service, I’ll choose it. Because the Chancel Choir is a strong musical presence, I don’t always steer clear of tunes we don’t know, because I know you’ll sing with gusto whatever I put in front of you! Some, to be honest, are just downright awful, and I won’t even consider going near them because of poor vocal lines (too many jumps/skips) or the music doesn’t really reflect the text. But that brings us back to the congregation and unfamiliar tunes. More rehearsal and enabling them to get new tunes into their repertoire.

No service is completely and fantastically crafted from top to bottom that everything and everyone is precisely coordinated and on the same page. Sometimes, that little bit of non-cohesiveness comes together on Sunday morning with some word in a sermon or a prayer. Or in an event that happened to all or one of us during the week before. In those special moments, or even the not-so-special, God is there…working through each of us.

Hymns are why I chose to do what I do. Or, as many might say, “It was God who chose you, not the other way around!” I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than sit at a piano or organ and play hymns for anyone who wants to sing them. When I’m stressed or panicked, I subconsciously find myself singing a line from a hymn: “Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life.”— “No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to that rock I’m clinging; since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” — “When Christ shall come, with shouts of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” Line after line, hymn after hymn. These words comfort, encourage, strengthen, and uplift, carrying us through another week of exhausting and tiring work and tasks.

And I hope that our corporate worship will do the same for anyone within earshot of our Meetinghouse. (A side note…one of these fall days, we WILL open ALL the doors and windows of the Meetinghouse and let our voices flow out into the neighborhood! Wouldn’t you be drawn to a place where you hear great music being sung and played?)

So I urge you to consider the stories we are responsible for sharing each week in worship. Don’t allow yourselves to blindly sing that hymn you’ve sung for “fill-in-the number” of years. Make it come alive – lift it off the page and give it your voice, your breath, and your special treatment. Words make all the difference.

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Awake, my heart!

It’s been well over 2 years since I’ve done anything with this blog, and I realized as I browsed our church website that it’s been too long. So, permit me to enter into a short time of reflection and confession.

Since 2012, it is obvious we’ve all been affected by the events of David Young’s departure in a variety of ways. Whatever stance, thoughts, or views are yours. As Mark Montgomery has pointed out during a number of sermons, one of the great tenets in the UCC is the right of private judgement. Our Silver Lake Camp and Conference Center states on their website:

We worship, learn, play, serve and work together, respecting the right of private judgement.

Throughout the past few years, I have allowed myself, for better or for worse, to lapse into a “holding pattern”; waiting for the settled senior pastor to arrive in order to put the past behind us. Your constant dedication and encouragement has enabled me to continue on when, at many points, I felt like giving up. The challenges we endured over the past 24-plus months has pushed many of us to limits we didn’t think we could handle. For me, it was truly the most challenging time I’ve had to face in my nearly 35-year career in church music. But, our weekly rehearsals and Sunday mornings together kept that fire burning in all of us. Through God’s grace and all our faithful work, we have persevered.

We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when Rick Derr announced in June that a candidate had been selected and his Candidating Sermon would be delivered a few weeks later. Even more sighs were shared after the unanimous vote to extend a call to Rev. Richard DenUyl, Jr. that morning. That light at the end of the tunnel was closer than ever before.

Now we find ourselves just past that newly opened door into the future. What does it hold? No one knows. One thing that is certain: we have been given, yes blessed with, so many great opportunities for our future growth, energy, and potential. In Acts 2 it states,

“…God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” 

Everyone will need to see visions, to dream dreams. What will First Congregational Church look like in 5 years, or 25 years? As our 350th anniversary draws closer, we have a myriad of chances to make an impact on this community just as our founding members did in 1665. They stood firm on the promises that continue to be ours to share with the world around us.

I intentionally chose “Awake, my heart” as our anthem this morning because of the limitless opportunities ahead of us. We have that faith, that source of energy, that fountain of life which renews us.

Awake, my heart, and render to God thy sure defender, Thy Maker, thy preserver, a song of love and fervor. Confirm my deeds and guide me: my day, with Thee beside me, beginning, middle ending, will all be upward tending.

Truly, our hearts are re-awakened with a new day before us. Let our deeds be guided by God, and let our songs be filled with love and fervor.

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Beautiful Savior

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Monday Musings (on a Sunday evening!)

Today was one of those special days in the life of a musician that will be cherished for a long time. To help nurture the love of singing in the life of a young person is a honor that belongs to all of us. And when it’s one as special as Charlie Baird, who many of you know much more than I do, it warms the heart. The look on his face after we were done said it all: He looked at me, patted his heart, and mouthed “Wow”.

Beautiful Savior will become, for Charlie, one of those pieces of music that will transform his life as he makes his way through the months and years at St. Olaf. Take a listen to the video above of the St. Olaf choir singing this gorgeous work. It’s just audio and you’ll have to turn the volume up at the beginning to hear it.

Think back to the time when you first sang in a choir and what piece made the most lasting impression on you. How did that piece make you feel as you were singing it? What has it meant to you all these years later?

Never under-estimate what we do as worship leaders, and as singers in general, or take lightly what we do when we raise our voices in song. Someone’s life just might be profoundly changed.

Bravo to ALL of you for making February 5, 2012, a special day for me.

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Monday Musings–November 14, 2011

“We’ll build our house and chop our wood…and make our garden grow.”

These words have not stopped swirling around in my mind since that final chord released and the burst of applause that erupted in the Meetinghouse yesterday morning. We have much to be thankful for during these final days of 2011. For me, I’m thankful that you, the Chancel Choir of First Congregational Church of Greenwich, has come into my life and made it fuller!

Our choir has certainly come a long way since our first rehearsal on September 8. And as we all know, one can never rest on the successes of yesterday; we must continue to build our technique and our sound.

I want to share with you a video of a rehearsal by my mentor, Tom Trenney. Typically one thinks of a mentor who is older, has traveled many miles in their journey and has very wise advice and suggestions to their students. Tom is just 34, not that much younger than me. However, his insight into music is just phenomenal and his artistry extends beyond his age. He brings out the best in every singer in the choir. Back in Detroit, Tom was Director of Music and Organist for First Presbyterian in Birmingham, an affluent suburb of Detroit, not unlike Greenwich. In the short time he was there, he built (with a myriad of volunteers from the church and community) an outstanding musical program, both for worship and as an outreach to the southeastern Michigan community. One of those endeavors was “sounding light”, a 24 voice professional chamber choir, sponsored through the church’s “First Foundation” endowment program. “Lay me low” was one of the pieces that defined sounding light during one of the seasons I sang with the group. Tom has since left that church and gone to Lincoln, Nebraska and First Plymouth Church, a very large UCC church where, coincidently, their pastor and David Young happen to be very good friends!

Watch as Tom leads a rehearsal with the Chancel Choir at First Plymouth. This is a section of the Brahms Requiem, “How lovely is thy dwelling place”. You’ll have to turn your volume up a bit to hear all the details. See what he asks of the choir and listen carefully to how the sound changes as a result of his suggestions.


We are well on our way to achieving choral excellence, but we must continue to listen around our sections and others to hear what they are singing.

Next week: More about defining a “sound” within an ensemble.

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Monday Musings: Homecoming 2011

It’s difficult to believe that one year ago I was packing up my office and getting ready for my final Sunday at First United Methodist in Royal Oak. As you might imagine, many things were swirling around in my head. Was I making the right move? Will the music-making be as rewarding someplace else? Can I make this all work?!?

Cut to Sept 18, 2011. As the introduction started, and I looked at all the faces of those I’m honored to lead, it was the right decision. Was the road easy? Not at all. Was it as hard as I thought it might be? Yes and no. Being apart from Vance was one of the most trying times in my life. But now that life is back in a routine, I know everything is good again. And I have you all to thank for that. Your hard work and positive attitudes are what make this ministry flourish. BRAVO!

So on to more music talk. I’m going to (as best as I can!) do weekly updates on Monday morning to reflect on our Sunday musical presentations. Along the way, I’ll also share some tidbits of greatness that are found on the interwebs :)

One of those tidbits that I found through a friend is from the great soprano, Renee Fleming. This video gets to the core of what we do as singers. Take a listen and see how she talks about consonants and the feeling of “line” in music. Sound familiar??


Take time during the week to watch this video a few times. We will talk about this a bit on Thursday evening at rehearsal and see how we can improve our clothesline of sound!

Have a great week!!

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