The conveyance of words by singers, particularly by choirs, can often take a backseat to beauty of tone and the mechanics of singing. I’m just as guilty as anyone of not keeping the story of our anthems at the forefront of our tasks as leaders in worship.
Church choirs tend to get a bad reputation as being lax in their music-making, mostly because of the constant turn-around of music we’re responsible for learning. Think of the numbers: We sing 51 weeks a year, generally 2 anthems, sometimes one—more on Christmas, Easter, Music Sunday, and other events. That’s upwards of 125 pieces of music a year, not including the hymns or responses. Divided by 36 rehearsals…that’s a lot of music to be learned or refreshed. Quite often, the learning of the notes and rhythms supersedes the text; we can sing it just fine. And you do sing it well. But, we have a story to tell and, in the words of the old hymn, “…a story to tell to the nations.”
Think of some piece of music or a hymn that moves you beyond all comprehension. What is it about that piece that moves you; is it the text, the sounds that the notes create when they are placed one on top of another, or something else?
The church I attended while growing up was a small Presbyterian church where my parents were charter members. The membership was probably 150 people, and we had good music, at least for the size of the adult choir, which was around 15 people. There was a choir director who also taught public school music, and an organist, who was probably self-taught, and only used her left foot to play the 3-4 pedals she could reach. Addy was a sweet woman, but she was about as wide as she was tall. She always let me play when I felt I was ready with something. John, the choir director, was a talented man, and we had a decent kids choir, but I could care less about singing because all I wanted to do was play organ. At one point, he pulled my parents aside and said “You know, Craig will never really amount to much, musically speaking, because he doesn’t sing.” Fortunately, my parents never told me that until much later in life. Fast forward to my first day at Interlochen Arts Academy, the arts school in northern Michigan, where I spent all my high school years studying music. After arriving, those of us who were in ensembles gathered in rehearsal to prepare for the Opening Convocation, where we would kick off the new school year. Everything was new to me, but I wasn’t really prepared for the life-changing event that was about to happen.
Dr. Kenneth Jewell, head of the choirs at Interlochen, always started his rehearsals in the same way. Crippled from polio early in his life, he would hobble to his conductor chair, smile and say “Sing ‘A’ “…..and something close to that note would come out of our mouths. It was then I started to realize I had something others didn’t, but I didn’t know what to call it. I’d later learn the term…perfect pitch. After we got our voices warmed up, we were handed a piece of music. Singing out of an Avery & Marsh songbook in Youth Club at my home church was one thing, but this was a real piece of music; Randall Thompson’s “Choose something like a star”, with a text by Robert Frost. Following our first read-through, I finally experienced what singing was REALLY like. Hearing 4+ parts around me excited me to no end. In 2 hours, we’d polished it enough for Dr. Jewell and a few hours later we all gathered in Corson Auditorium and each ensemble shared the fruits of their 2 hour rehearsal.
Those words have stayed with me like no others for nearly 40 years now. “At times, when the mob is swayed, to carry praise or blame too far; we may choose something like a star, to stay our minds on, and be stayed.” For me, that was the beginning of my shift from loving organ and its music, to vocal/choral music.
As a conductor, each piece of music I have conducted or sung has its own special place in my heart. As Christians, the music we share each Sunday should (and must) have a deeper meaning because of what we believe. Too often (and again, I’m guilty of this as much or more than anyone) we allow our words to be shared like we are reading a phone book or grocery list. Each person who took the effort and care of crafting the words which are used in a sacred piece of music probably penned them because of an event in their life, or in the life of someone close to them.
Take our upcoming anthem, “We shall walk through the valley in peace”. Allow yourself to think of the imagery of a valley, something lush with green trees, tall grasses, a place which is not cared for by landscapers. Or that valley of the shadow of death, a metaphorical place that we’ve all gone through in some of the darkest times. But then, as the author states, “there will be no dying there….for Jesus himself will be our leader…” Imagine what life would be like with no dying, with no trials, with no shadows of death. How would you approach this piece now? You’d probably sing it with a joy, deep-down energy, and enthusiasm that would be hard to contain, wouldn’t you? It might also be hard to sing without shedding a few tears, right? That’s ok!
When we allow the words to speak to us, deep-down, to our core, we should be that emotional, whether tears or joy over-flowing.
I close with a story about a piece that some of you may know. Most of you will not have heard it before. It’s by Stephen Paulus, who wrote the piece we sang a few years ago called “The Road Home”. This past Sunday, I decided to head to Holy Trinity Lutheran at 65 & Central Park West. It’s the home of Bach Vespers, an evening service that this congregation has sponsored for 47 years. Each Sunday, from mid-October to May, they present a service of hymns, readings, homily, along with candles and incense. The cornerstone of the service is a Bach cantata. Being Reformation Sunday, the church was packed. They sang “Ein feste burg…” Cantata 80 “A mighty fortress…” But before the service began, the choir deviated from their normal routine of singing opening sentences to sing “The Pilgrim’s Hymn”, also written by Stephen Paulus, who passed away 10 days ago from a stroke he suffered in July 2013. Stephen never regained his health following that stroke. Sitting in the candle-lit sanctuary of Holy Trinity, the choir began to sing. Struggling between wanting to go into the city and wanting my usual Sunday afternoon, post-church nap, I knew I made the right choice with the sound of that first chord. The text spoke to me more than it had ever before, and the tears started to roll down my cheeks. These words are at the heart of Christianity and our relationship with Our Maker:
Even before we call on Your name
To ask You, O God,
When we seek for the words to glorify You,
You hear our prayer;
Unceasing love, O unceasing love,
Surpassing all we know.
Even with darkness sealing us in,
We breathe Your name,
And through all the days that follow so fast,
We trust in You;
Endless Your grace, O endless Your grace,
Beyond all mortal dream.
Both now and forever,
And unto ages and ages,
Here is that performance from October 26. Let the sounds of this amazing group wash over you and touch your soul.