What I Wish I Had Said (II)

So, yeah, I’m lousy at the extemporaneous thing.  In this Zeitcast, I only forgot to say the most important thing–WHY it matters whether our congregational and choral singing is good.  Here’s why:

1) Singing is the closest we get to understanding what an exalted body might be like and what it might be for.

2) Singing together, especially as a choir that works hard, but also as a congregation that sings enthusiastically, is the best approximation of Zion we have.As I mentioned in the Zeitcast, I fell in love with choral music accidentally, and it really was exactly like the giddy, goofy falling in love people do in movies.  I didn’t have to think about it, the feelings were immediate and intense and overwhelming.  I didn’t need any reasons.  But I have begun to understand the reasons in the intervening years, and now what I think is most wonderful about singing, as opposed to, say, playing the violin or the flute, is that the music comes, unmediated, out of our bodies.  Our messy, fleshly, ugly (spongy pink lungs, weird little sinews in the throat, big honkin’ sinuses full of weird fluids) bodies are capable of producing the most perfect, ethereal, beautiful sounds in the world.  I imagine that celestial bodies will be able to do many beautiful things–one gets hints watching great athletes, for instance, of what physical exaltation might look like (as in “oh, that‘s what legs are for!”).  But surely it has to do with our spirits drawing our bodies towards the measure of their creation, making them lovely beyond what our flesh-bound imaginations can conceive.  And it seems to me that singing is a foretaste of this kind of perfection in the flesh.

Choirs are strange organisms.  They tend to be made of creative, interesting people who have strong ideas about what is beautiful.  Sopranos and tenors are competitive and insecure, altos are proud of being humble, basses move the furniture. Choir is one place in the church where the usual measures don’t apply–the “important” folks in the ward are generally too busy in meetings to come to choir practice, which often leads to a sort of leveling of the usual ranks.  Beautiful voices are, very obviously, gifts of grace–it’s possible to learn to be a better singer, to develop what talent one has, but there are also always people who just open their mouths and drip gorgeousness, and there’s no telling where this grace may break out.  As the episode of Susan Boyle demonstrates, we all yearn to believe that beauty is found in unlikely places, that the humble and meek may find themselves unexpectedly exalted–singing together lets us both believe and practice this truth, prepares us for the wildness of God’s gifts.

Choral singing also has something to teach us about the joy of work.  We speak glibly of this all the time, of course, and it’s not that there aren’t other places we experience it.  But I think there are few other settings where the rewards of work are so immediate and so transcendently beautiful–even gardening, which seems to me a fairly close approximation, requires a great deal more patience.  And, at least sometimes, the actual work is joyful, even before the product appears–it is possible to go into a rehearsal weary or sad and emerge renewed and gladdened even after a plodding practice.  Again, there are other contexts in which one has this experience, but it seems particularly reliable and likely with singing, in part, perhaps, because singing requires the full engagement of mind and body, and because it is social.

Finally, I think choral singing teaches us a great deal about the kind of unity that must characterize Zion–no one voice is ever silenced or made to sound like another, and it is precisely the mix of timbre and varied resonance that gives the music its richness.  The whole transcends the parts, without canceling any of them.  It is a true symbiosis, of a sort that is rare in human experience.

Congregational singing, it seems to me, requires a different kind of work, and a more difficult (even terrifying) kind of unity.  Giving oneself fully to hymn-singing requires very individual and spiritual work, rather than the practical group effort that characterizes the choir rehearsal.  What one must do is, simply, to learn to love one’s fellow singers enough to risk embarrassment, to let our bodies be together in ways that are uncomfortable for Westerners (at least Scandinavians, anyway!), to let enthusiasm and yearning overcome our social defenses.  If the choir’s offering is a carefully-wrapped gift to the congregation, the congregation’s singing is the ragged, unpolished gift of our selves to each other and to God.  Our hymns have the power to transform our lives, and our communion, if only we are willing to risk laying bare the deepest longings of our hearts, if we allow our longing for atonement with God to overcome our fear of broken dependence on each other.  As congregations, we come nearest exaltation when we finally stop reaching for it with our intellects and let our bodies exhale our griefs and joys and hopes.  The miracle is that those things we most fear to show each other turn out to be the loveliest of all.

That’s all.

Comments

  1. I look forward to and enjoy rehearsals too. Well, not in ward choir but normal choirs.

  2. D. Fletcher says:

    Wow. That’s a lot to say about singing.

    I think the main reason for singing in Sacrament Meeting is that it’s really the only active way the congregation participates in the meeting.

    They do get to say Amen, and take the Sacrament. And sing.

  3. but there are also always people who just open their mouths and drip gorgeousness

    Yeah, take Casey Miller for example.

  4. Singing enthusiastically is like unto Zion. Great, another thing my wife can use against me for not singing in Sacrement.

  5. Right. I assume she’s already shown you Hymn 119: “Let those refuse to sing, Who never knew our God.”

  6. Singing is the closest we get to understanding what an exalted body might be like and what it might be for.

    This happens to me in the winter with a piece of laminate/fiberglass/wax between my feet and the snow. But to each his/her own.

  7. Kristine,

    No, not yet. BCC with the family might not be a good idea after all.

  8. B. Russ–yeah, I get that hints of exaltation, at least in the form of sheer physical delight, arise in lots of places. What I think is interesting about singing, especially religious singing, is that it attaches intellectual, propositional (doctrinal) content to that pleasure–snowboarding can’t do that (I don’t think).

  9. we had a ward music person who for whatever reason insisted on selecting the most obscure hymns for our services. They may have just termed the opening and closing songs as special arrangements by the organist as there was hardly any participation at all. fortunately, that has changed over the past while such that now we have the regular 10 or so traditional lds hymns and we have much more participation.

  10. Well someone has obviously never listened to conference talks on their ipod while they snowboarded . . . .

  11. me: it won’t surprise you to know that I’ve opined about such things.

  12. B. Russ–I’ve never snowboarded at all, but I KNOW it’s wrong to listen to conference talks while doing it! ;)

  13. D. Fletcher says:

    Oh, snowboarding. I didn’t know what the heck you were talking about.

  14. If you sing in an auditioned choir, it’s often difficult to make it through ward choir practice, but having been a ward choir conductor, I try to support it. Being the ward choir conductor is truly a celestial calling.

    Kristine, I’m glad you love choral music as much as I do. So glad, in fact, this is my Christmas card to you (I’m also an art history nerd):

  15. I wish I had written that!

  16. I don’t have a good singing voice. When I was a kid, I hated to sing and wouldn’t sing, and I don’t remember how or why that stopped, but I’m sure I was an adult before I decided that I actually like to sing. I sing a lot now, much to my children’s dismay. I sang each and every one of them to sleep as babies, but they can’t stand the sound of me singing now. I’m beginning to think that even as babies they didn’t like my singing and instinctively tried to escape the sound by going unconscious. At any rate, they haven’t discouraged me. Singing is my favorite part of sacrament meeting, which may not be saying much, but it is one of the few reliable forms of worship for me. When I’m singing the hymns, I feel chastened, I feel comforted, and I get this clarity of thought that is my version of feeling the Spirit. So I like singing, and everyone who has to listen to me can just suck it up and deal.

    Incidentally, I am also in the ward choir now, but my husband says I’m mostly there as eye candy for the director. Fortunately, my husband is the director, or that might be creepy.

  17. Also, this is a really good post, Kristine. Lobster-quality.

  18. We have several great organists that do their best to play hymn up to speed and lively. Having been a choir director for several years in several wards, it is truly one of my favorite callings. To take some mostly amatuer musicians and bring them into a cohesive group is tremendous. If not the music, the spirit of cooperation and unity certainly lead us closer to a state of Zion.

  19. Coffinberry says:

    I’m just grateful for our ward choir, that puts up with an amateur director (me) and turns the whole experience joyful. I love this calling (though it frightens me to death and stretches me in ways I haven’t for years).

  20. An investigator once took me and my companion to a High Latin Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore – the Mother Cathedral for the entire United States. It’s the first cathedral built in the US (not in North America, though), so it’s rather simple as far as cathedrals go.

    Professional choir, full pipe organ, bells (the big kind, not the little hand-bells), and we were blown away. Call and response, trumpets, the Latin chants, everything. Profoundly moving experience for me.

    After mass, he sat down with us and explained that he went to church to feel that power of the Infinite, to get the realization that no matter how high he was in the ranks at work (and he was very high in the ranks), no matter what good works he did (one of the first recipients of a Points of Light award from Bush Sr.), he was still a tiny speck in the cosmos, trying to make his will conform with the will of God. He loved the Book of Mormon, loved Elder’s Quorum, got the whole priesthood and revelation aspect, but never came away from Church with us feeling like he’d had that “communion” with God that he so desperately craved.

    He was a loss of Stake President proportions. I still feel a deep sense of regret whenever I think of him.

  21. Okay, right now all that singing in our ward choir does is makes me want to cry. I do not have a beautiful voice, though I can carry a tune, and it is not altogether an unpleasant voice- it’s just nothing special. Anyhow, right now we have a WONDERFUL ward choir director. She has a beautiful voice, and she picks lovely music and great arrangements, and she tells us how she wants it to sound, and I get it, but alas, I cannot make my untrained voice do it. I think she is an angel with much patience, because she always smiles and tells us that we sound good, when I know that we don’t- not really, and I know it must be trying to her. Give me my celestialized (certainly not a real word) voice any time, because I’m sick of this earthly one!

  22. CatherineWO says:

    Beautifully said, Kristine.

  23. Ward Choir Director says:

    Kristine,
    Yes and yes to your opinions about music in church and choir singing in general. That is why I wish being in a choir was manditory. Everyone needs to know this.

    And I liked the link over to the descriptions of personalities that go along with the parts. (Things we’ve always suspected.) Except for the Alto/Tenor relationship. Altos just can’t respect anyone who is so easily swayed when they’re standing next to someone else. I’ve had to smack more tenors for drifting over to the alto part. Also, it makes Altos uneasy when the tenors can sing higher than them. You just can’t trust a guy that can sing outside your range, and I don’t mean lower. The only vindication for the Altos is that they know the Tenor part will have to be rehearsed over and over again, but not the Alto. The Altos always know their part. And the Tenor part.

    As for Sopranos and Basses. Well. Sopranos are useless on anything but the melody. Pansies. Plus all Altos know that singing that high kills brain cells. Basses are good for tuning purposes and furniture moving. Also, they are who the Altos end up with. And they breed more Altos and Basses. But at least their children can sing parts.

  24. Obviously no ambiguity on what part WCD (22) sings.

  25. I’m so glad I’m a Beta. Alphas have to work too hard, thinking all the time. I’m so glad I’m not a Gamma, or a Delta, with all that physical labor and nowhere near the intelligence of a Beta. Yep, so glad I’m a Beta.

  26. Ward Choir Director says:

    Does it show?

    I guess I’m just bitter about the (true) statement in the link that there are always being so many Altos that a choir director would sell them off at a deep discount just to get one Tenor.

    Sniff.

  27. Of course the Altos don’t need to rehearse their part. It’s only one note. : )

    And all the Tenors I know who sing the Alto part don’t “drift over there.” They go on purpose–to show off. Even if our Alto wife rewards us with an elbow to the ribs.

    Terrific post, by the way, Kristine!

  28. Mommie Dearest says:

    I guess it really shows which part I sing. hehe.

    And thanks for putting into words thing I didn’t realize I felt.
    Amen to the OP.

  29. Latter-day Guy says:

    10 points to Michael for the Huxley reference!

    It goes without saying that the OP is spot on, and it reminds me of that lovely line by Tarkovsky: “The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” I would add that the aim of music, in particular, is to prepare the soul for exaltation, but I am biased.

  30. I find the reasons given for loving choral singing to be equal for why I also love playing trumpet in bands/wind ensembles. There is something amazingly unifying about group performances of music that we simply don’t find in many other venues. I also believe that it takes a lot of courage to sight-read congregational hymns, which happens from time to time. I wish more people would be willing to sing through an unfamiliar hymn, rather than stare at the page blankly and act as if they have forgotten how to read.

    Incidentally, I am a bass and my wife is a soprano. I don’t think I’ve ever dated an alto, and she can’t stand tenors.

  31. Hey, I’m a tenor, and I admire the heck out of the altos, mainly because their parts seem always to be the most difficult and the least melodic. We did a stake Christmas program last weekend, and over half of the tenor section (8/15) were women, converted from the alto section and probably anxious for some time in the limelight.

  32. Lovely piece, Kristine.

    Our modest ward choir is delightful — many talented voices, a patient and accomplished accompanist and a scared director who tries very hard. But we have a lot of charity toward one another and get along well, and manage to sound pretty nice from time to time.

    I do love singing in a well-led choir, too, where we arrive where the conductor takes us rather than where we simply all show up, but maybe “showing up” is more Zion-like.

  33. All very true. This post really makes me want to return to Boston to sing in a Kristine-directed choir again!

  34. Whatever our respective feelings about music, I hope we can all agree that music conducting consists solely of standing in front of a choir and randomly flapping your arms around like you’re having a seizure.

  35. Cheers, Kristine. Well said.

  36. Whenever I rediscover the choral singing of my youth I likewise feel that upwelling of love. Thank you for the lesson in theological aesthetics.

  37. Hi Laura!! (And say hi to Annie for me, too :))

    Thank you for the card–gorgeous! Being in SLC for one of y’all’s Christmas concerts is high on the list of things that would make a really special season for me.

  38. Aaron (34)–sort of. It’s a purposeful sort of seizure :)

  39. You’ve captured a lot of great thoughts here, Kristine. One I would add through my own experiences with singing and choral music (having been surrounded by it my entire life) is that singing is unique in that it puts us in an immediate position of humility.

    No matter how practiced or polished, singing is an incredibly vulnerable act, and puts us immediately into a frame of mind/body/spirit to be receptive to the divine. In the end, congregational and choral singing have very little to do with vocal quality (any more than having shapely legs has anything to do with walking effectively). Those who don’t sing are losing out on as much a spiritual as a musical opportunity.

  40. Very beautifully stated, Kristine. I’m glad you didn’t say it because I can’t hear it but I can read it.

    Especially love your comments about congregational singing. However, I have a bit of a differing view. If I don’t fully agree with the text, I won’t sing, e.g. Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war. Sometimes I will quietly modify, e.g. I will divide my gifts from thee with every ‘other that I see. I want my song to be a sincere testimony and I’m usually very moved and awestruck by the eloquence and spirit of the authors and composers.

  41. James, just so, and well-said. Thank you.

  42. Great post.

    It goes without saying that ward choirs would be far better if singles and families met in the same wards.

  43. Obolus,
    Why does that go without saying? I must have missed that part of the post/thread–is it referring to something someone else said?

  44. Love the post, and the Zeitcast was great fun. Released from stake choir, eh? End of an era…

    #23. Please ask to be released. Us tenors are insecure enough without you dissing our girly voices. Besides, we have been trained to think we are indispensable and cannot cope having it any other way.

  45. “Our hymns have the power to transform our lives, and our communion, if only we are willing to risk laying bare the deepest longings of our hearts… We come nearest exaltation when we finally stop reaching for it with our intellects and let our bodies exhale our griefs and joys and hopes.” This is why we all love Kristine so much. Only she could take all the practical parts of the Mormon ritual of choir singing, endow it with a deeper aesthetic purpose, and then so seamlessly move from the exaltation of raw, spongy physicality, through the laborious sociality of the collective, and onto the highest refinement of the human spirit. So, Kristine, when Mack Wilberg goes the way of all the earth, get that resume ready.

  46. If you sing in an auditioned choir, it’s often difficult to make it through ward choir practice

    Perhaps, but probably only if you expect a ward choir to sound/function like an auditioned choir. A couple of years ago our ward choir director was a retired university voice professor, and I got the impression that it he considered it one of the most rewarding things he did while in the ward, despite the obvious fact that our abilities were far below his professional standards.

  47. “Whatever our respective feelings about music, I hope we can all agree that music conducting consists solely of standing in front of a choir and randomly flapping your arms around like you’re having a seizure.”

    My ward’s choir director is also our pianist. No seizure-like flapping of the arms for him!

  48. Scott B – Just propaganda on my part. But Having the singles around in local wards would increase enthusiasm for activities like ward choir and other musical productions. There would also be a deeper pool of talent to utilize.

    Our stages are used far less since the separation that occurred in the early ’70s when YSA wards became the norm. It seems like the gradual disappearance of road shows has coincided with that change. I think part of the reason is that YSAs brought a lot of talent and energy to traditional wards back when the program was the M-Men & Gleaners.

  49. I love this post! I really miss choral singing. Did it for 4 years at BYU and it was the most spiritually uplifting experience I had there. Ward choir isn’t quite the same, but worthwhile in it’s own way and occasionally we sound OK.

  50. Its, not it’s. Darn you autocorrect!

  51. Ron Duquette says:

    Just been reading all your comments, and so many thoughts come to mind. However, while I’d like to talk about the sopranos and altos and tenors and basses, I do have two serious thoughts about this singing “bit” we do.

    First, I truly find I can pray when I sing or listen to others singing. I have a hard time otherwise, and that troubles me, but that means I have to do the singing thing harder and more seriously and more intensely. So for all you who are troubled about the quality of your voice, remember: God gave you the voice you’ve got. If it’s good enough for Him, then it’s good enough for the rest of us (and have no right to criticize).

    Second, I just took my (combined) choir for the 10th time to a local Virginia retirement facility for a Ceremony of Lessons & Carols (ecumenical). We’ve done well before, no question; but I’ve always come away disgruntled about something that did/didn’t happen – it’s that musician’s drive for perfection. I also do recordings, and in a recording recently with a VERY fine bass-baritone who sings with the US Navy Sea Chanters, I made a comment about “In our drive for perfection, we tend to lose the heart,” which really struck him (and a couple of other folk I’ve mentioned this to). Well, Wednesday night had to be the best we’ve ever done – and the enthusiasm of the response from both choir and congregation was obvious and infectious. During those pieces that asked for congregational participation, the singing wasn’t loud – not with folk a goodly part of whom have trouble hearing someone two feet away from them – but there WAS singing from the congregation, as though it meant something important to them. And the choir – bless their hearts! – they were watching (Hallelujah!) and singing “de plein coeur” – from a full heart. I had found the heart in the midst of the search for perfection. So, indeed, I had a truly prayerful night, and I thank God for that.

  52. Would it be terribly wrong if I inscribed this whole post in very tiny letters on a baseball bat, and tried to physically communicate the importance of Music=Worship to my non-musical bishopric?

    Gorgeous post.

  53. I currently serve as both the choir accompaniest and the ward organist. I love your setiments about singing and have recently felt some of what you describe with our little ragtaggle choir. Christmas is one time when the congregation really does sing out, though the runs on Glo–ria from Angels We Have Heard On High are always a mess and behind the beat.

    As a sidenote, can anyone point me to an earlier BCC post with ideas about how to have a successful choir? At least that is my recollection of its main topic. In it, someone suggested having a choir Sunday School class. I can’t seem to find it.

  54. Mommie Dearest says:

    …choir Sunday school class…

    *perk*

  55. Ah, that was me–I did a “Ward Choir Prep” class in Sunday School once. It was 10 weeks, and the basic idea was 10 minutes of general history of sacred music, 10 minutes of history of music in the church, and 10-15 minutes of basic sightreading instruction. I keep promising to post my notes, and not doing it. It will be my New Year’s Resolution.

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