Do-It-Yourself Messiahs

So I went to a Do-It-Yourself Messiah on Sunday afternoon. This is about the fourth one I’ve attended. I’ve never been to the fancy one in Chicago; I prefer the regional ones away from the city, both because they’re easier to get to, and also because I feel less self-conscious about my relative lack of singing talent when the soloists themselves struggle a little bit.

Before my first such event a number of years ago, I actually spent an afternoon with a woman from my ward who taught voice trying to prepare my part (bass) for the various choruses. The preparation helped–a lot–but the reality is there are still places where I get lost, and when there are those long trilling passages all I can do is fake it.

Have any of you ever attended a Do-It-Yourself Messiah? What was your experience like?


  1. I get asked to conduct them fairly regularly in our Stake. It makes me feel dirty.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Your Stake does them? Really? Wow. I realize that might seem low rent to you, but I’m impressed. There aren’t a lot of stakes that could pull something like that off.

  3. I went to one in the Provo Tabernacle years ago. Loved it, except that the woman — a stranger, a soprano — singing next to me didn’t know how to blend into a chorus; she kept trilling and singing louder than everyone and drawing attention to herself. Once I found another seat during intermission, I enjoyed everything about it.

  4. My brother sang in our ward’s rendition of the Messiah one year when we were younger — he was 14, I think, and sang tenor. He practiced around the house for weeks, plunking his part out on the piano and singing it until he had it down. He has a lovely voice, and it was a pleasure to hear.

    Thanks to his meticulous preparations, I now know the tenor line to all the choruses.

    Unfortunately, I’m an alto.

    Still, I go to a Messiah sing-along every year and sit, usually, with the sopranos, and sing the parts I can hear as best I can. My favorite are the ones I’ve attended the past three years, where the university’s orchestra plays, grad students in the music school sing the solos, and the glee club scatters itself in the audience to help the rest of us.

    I’ve never been to a fancy one — I didn’t realize they had any other kind than the sort held by the University or the local Episcopal church.

  5. Hm. Actually, thinking on it, it was probably a stake rendition. Our ward wasn’t that big (and definitely not that talented). But it’s been a long time since.

  6. I was dying to go to one this year, actually, because I’ve always wanted to go, but couldn’t make it! I think the Oakland temple had one this year, too, but I could be mistaken.

  7. We used to do the “Alelujah Chorus” part for the close of our stake christmas sing every year sing my wife started the tradition here. It was a lot of fun for me, except the weeks leading up to it where I am without a wife. Now she is singing with our local pro choir, so I still get no wife for December, and I listen to a lot more fru-fru stuff like Sandstrom and Paynter.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh Ardis, I would love to do one in the Provo Tabernacle.

  9. I prefer the kind where I don’t have to sing…

  10. They do one at the Oakland temple every year. I’ve never actually gone to the sing-along, but I’ve been in the choir off and on for the last 10 years for the concerts they do later. The San Jose Symphonic Choir does one every year, too. I’ve gone to that one a few times and it’s amazing.

    (From the title of the post, I was expecting that it would be about cult leaders, not the music of G.F. Handel.)

  11. Our ward choir did one selection this past Sunday. Hard for me to not get too emotional singing it.

  12. The New York Stake does one every year, I think. One year, the soprano soloist was from the City Opera. But that didn’t help us tenors in the chorus.

    One year we went with some friends to a Messiah sing-in at Brooklyn college, directed by someone in the music department, who happened to be Jewish. He tried to have us sing “His Yoke is Easy” and of course we made a hash of it. His comment: his yoke may be easy, but that chorus isn’t.

  13. I attended the one in the Provo Tabernacle once and the Bellevue Stake here in the Seattle area does one.

  14. Not a fan of the so-called “Messiah Scream Along.” Sorry Kevin Barney, I just don’t see the point. What attracts you to all the messy noise?

  15. Our stake has done one with an orchestra and some really pretty amazing soloists. It is a big drain on resources in the stake, but we’ve been doing it here in Bellevue, WA for about 15 years or so. I’ve participated as just an audience singer on a handful of numbers, but it is fun. It always runs longer than I remember……

  16. When we lived in Washington, the Everett Stake did one. I played in the chamber orchestra for it one year, and then I took my teenage daughters with me to sing in it the last year we were there. It was a really amazing experience for all of us. I don’t know of anyone in Montana (where we now live) who does one. A couple of years, when our girls have been with us for Christmas, we have done our own, singing along with the cd, but it isn’t the same as being in a live performance with a large group.

  17. Our local Organists Guild sponsors an annual Christmas Choral Festival featuring choirs from many of the local churches. The program ends with all the choirs singing the Hallelujah Chorus together – pretty awesome! Our Stake has participated just about every year for the past decade. It’s both a missionary opportunity and a chance for our singers to perform sacred music they probably would never get to do in a Sacrament meeting ;). One of the local churches puts on Messiah with orchestra and chorus each year, plus another sponsors a Messiah sing-along – so there’s plenty of Handel to go around.

    I sing with a local semi-pro group that covers the other “fru-fru” stuff – this year’s concert includes Britten, Rutter, Mathias, and yes, even Sandstrom…. And all this in the outback of Eastern Washington State – almost an embarrassment of riches (though my wife is about ready to put her foot down and insist I spend a December at home…!)

  18. I went to one at a big Protestant church in Pasadena for several years. I loved it. I had copies of the score for most of the choruses and would practice singing with a CD. There were informal sectional practices through November (some of the baritones met in the backroom of a Hawaiian-themed restaurant, with someone pounding away on the piano), and lots of post-Messiah parties. It was great fun, and I made some good friends.

    One of the stakes in the area (maybe Arcadia?) hosted one as well, and it was well organized with a nice chamber orchestra, but it wasn’t quite the same.

  19. The Columbia Maryland Stake hosts one every year complete with an orchestra and professional solists. They used to make the congregation site by parts, but that fell by the wayside since most people wanted to sit with their family and friends. It is done on the same night as (and just before) the First Presidency Christmas Fireside. Many people do both. It was the first date for my wife and I. We would go back every year until we moved away from Maryland.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 14 Hunter, I guess my tastes simply aren’t as elevated as yours. I love Handel’s Messiah; listening to it is what kept me sane on my mission. As a missionary I had a two-cassette set of selections by the MTC (I didn’t even realize it wasn’t complete at first), which was the version I grew up with at home. Now my favorite version and the one I listen to at home is the complete three-cd version by the Academy of Ancient Music.

    I realize the Do-It-Yourselfers can’t approach that level of ability. But I love being able to participate, to strive, to try, and I relish my partial successes each year I am able to do it. Even if I’m not skilled enough to do it for real, I enjoy having the opportunity to roll my sleeves up and give it the ol’ college try.

  21. Hunter was more diplomatic than I would have been. :)

  22. I can imagine that such an event might be painful for someone with perfect pitch, but then of course, so would the singing in sacrament meeting. For the rest of us… there’s the Messiah sing-along.

  23. Kevin Barney, it’s not about my tastes being more elevated or not, really. It’s just that after becoming familiar with any of the really good period performances (like the Hogwood one you mentioned), the experience of standing around in a mass of people who may or may not be singing together/in time makes for a frustrating experience for me. Even though I love to sing, I would prefer to hear a nice performance of Messiah. But I think I understand the pull for you a little better now. Thanks.

  24. I don’t actually mind the experience; it’s the concept. I really think it’s a sort of sacrilege to deliberately perform a piece of music intended to glorify God so badly.

  25. Ah, folks, the Psalmist says, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” I happen to be one of the joyful noisies, and I am grateful for the chance to sing my joy from time to time in communty, in venues other than the shower or my car.

    Oddly enough, I was in my twenties before I ever heard “Messiah.” (It was at BYU.) The hair on my head almost caught fire.

    I do understand the wincing of those whose musical sensibilites object to such sing-alongs. I feel the same way when people with no ear for poetry read their own cliched verse on public occasions. The result, in song or verse, may be unfortunate, but I assure you, Kristine, it is not sacrilege unless so intended.

  26. By odd coincidence, I was listening to Messiah at the very moment I opened this post. And it’s the version Kevin Barney recommended to me, by the Academy of Ancient Music.

    If you’re ever in L.A. during the holidays, get tickets to the Messiah sing-in with the Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Two thousand Messiah aficionados, fantastic soloists, a wonderful orchestra and organ, and some of the most incredible acoustics in the world. I’ve been three times and been moved to tears every time.

  27. The Psalmist also says “play skillfully…” :)

    I think I wouldn’t object so much to the occasional ritual butchering of Handel if we otherwise had a thriving culture of musical excellence in the church–ward choirs that selected music they could perform well and a commitment to rehearsing to achieve some level of technical competence. But we don’t–we seem to think that we deserve to experience the spiritual thrill of Messiah without doing any work. Messiah sing-alongs bug me more because they seem symptomatic of spiritual laziness than because they are out of tune. I’m not such a good musician that I can afford to sneer at anyone’s sincere effort; I just object to the absence of effort.

  28. The Provo Tabernacle one is great. Clayne Robison (bass) is outstanding (10 years ago…). Our Calgary stake has put on Messiah every year for 30+ years. The conductor is a professional musician and was a counselor in the stake presidency. For those reasons, the performance enjoyed institutional support, and was always a decent performance.

  29. #27-
    Come join our ward choir. We rehearse often and perform difficult pieces. In fact, I think the majority of our Stake has very good ward choirs and they take it very seriously. Of course, it does help that we are not lacking for wonderful musicians –but I also think the high expectations are traditional now. Maybe some ward choirs are lousy (and aspire to lousiness), but this definitely doesn’t go for everyone.
    Generalizations…gotta love ’em…

    I’ve never participated in a Messiah sing-a-long. I was tempted to this year –the next stake over was doing one. But they held 3 rehearsals and auditions for soloists…

  30. Cheryl, if 3 rehearsals for Messiah counts as a high bar, I’m willing to stand by my generalization.

  31. Three rehearsals is way too many if you’re one of the musicians playing this over and over, every year.

  32. I wonder, Kristine, how many rehearsals Handel’s original soloists and chorus had before their first performance.

    Plus, who needs to rehearse? Isn’t that what all the da capo al fine‘s are for? To give the soloist a chance to learn it on the first run through and to do it right on the second? :-)

    I’ve sung with some terrific choir directors–one of the best in Hyde Park 30 years ago. Not only was he technically very, very good, but he had us sing twice or three times a month. There were some rough spots, one near disaster (the altos–natürlich), but a terrific experience. However, we started with a skilled accompanist, a skilled director, and 20 people who could read music and had experience singing.

    But for too many wards and branches, none of those conditions exist. What should they do?

    (For the record, I’ll sing along to my CDs, quietly, so as not to disturb the dog.)

  33. Those conditions don’t exist for most ward choirs, and there are lots of things that one can do about it. If anyone were interested, I’d be happy to write about things I’ve tried with variously skilled and mostly unskilled choirs. Unlike many things I whine about, it’s a problem I’ve worked pretty hard on and have some constructive solutions for. Singing Messiah without rehearsal is nowhere on the list of helpful things to do, though.

    Messiah’s premiere was delayed several times to allow more rehearsal (and accommodate Handel’s continuing revisions)–it’s safe to bet no one was sightreading.

  34. Your last point, Kristine, raises the question: did they spend longer rehearsing than Handel spent writing it?

    But, seriously, I’d be interested to hearing your suggestions on choir directing.

  35. Even “in” hearing them as well.

  36. Handel spent longer rewriting it than he did writing it :)

  37. I do not believe that the purpose of the typical, community Messiah sing-along is musical excellence or spiritual edification. I think it is about community and celebration. If celebrating in that way makes one feel dirty or offends their musical sensibilities, they definitively should not attend. If others enjoy it, then I say well for them.

  38. But why involve an attempt at performing a difficult musical piece if the intent is just celebration? Why not sing Christmas carols, or just have a party?

    I’m sounding really grinchy. I’ll stop commenting.

  39. “good” for them. Stupid auto-correct feature.

  40. Maybe people want exposure to something new, different or out-of-the-ordinary? Who knows.

  41. Just to be clear–are we talking about Handel, here?

  42. Yes, if it were Schuetz, it’d be a whole different set of issues! :)

  43. StillConfused says:

    Do It Yourself Messiah? As in Jesus? I am very confused.

  44. I last did a Messiah sing-along at the Kennedy Center in DC. I loved it! They have professional orchestra, rehearsed choir on stage, and pro soloists and conductor and everyone in the audience sings the choruses from their scores (sold on site if you don’t bring your own). I had learned my part many years previously, so I was not perfect, but not sight-singing. But I am sure there were people there who didn’t know the parts. Who cares? They didn’t stick out to me. It is a thrill to sing such glorious music in such a large group. At any Christmas event, I would MUCH rather sing than be sung to.

  45. Kevin Barney says:

    Well, tomorrow night I’ll be attending an event that is more in line with Kristine’s sensibilities. It’s called Songs of Good Cheer and it is a Christmas carol sing-along event. About a decade ago Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, was lamenting that people don’t get together to sing Christmas carols anymore. Her fellow columnist Eric Zorn decided to do something about it, and they organized Songs of Good Cheer for charity. I’ve been every year. They’ve all been held at the Old Town School of Folk Music (with musicians from the school providing the instrumentation), although this year they’re doing it in the larger Harris Theater at Millennium Park. It is tremendous fun, and no great singing chops required.

  46. I followed the link expecting a treatise on the virtues of our soon-to-be President. Instead, I get a plug for something even worse– advocacy for singing great music poorly. Sing-a-longs are for scouting trips and girls camp where the most sophisticated number performed is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round. One should earn the right to perform great music through discipline and practice. This do-it-yourself stuff inflicts a great disservice on society by normalizing mediocrity.

  47. Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to perform a Messiah in the temple? They danced in the Nauvoo temple, why not do a performance of The Messiah in the temple?

  48. In California, our friends used to do a do-it-yourself performance of Messiah excerpts at Easter time. Think about it — that’s really an appropriate season for this music. I’m surprised it gets so little play then.

    Our friends had two pianos in their living room, and lots of superb musicians, amateur and professional, lived among the members there. But it was definitely a homey adventure for the participants. We’d dooby-doo the trumpet parts when there were no brass that year…

    As for #24: here in Tucson the Symphony’s Christmas extravaganza includes a performance of the Jalapeno Chorus (Jalapeno! Jalapeno! Jalapeno! Jalapeno! Ja-laaaa-peno! Enchiladas! Corn tortillas! and on and on). It would be harmless piffle if it were simply some Baroque warhorse, and not Messiah. I’m with Kristine in finding it sacrilege to abuse this music.

  49. I’ve sung the Messiah with the Houston Symphony Chorus for many years with a top notch orchestra and soloists. So I’m someone with “musical sensibilities,” but I still really enjoy a Messiah sing-along — high brow or home grown. When my schedule doesn’t permit me to sing the professional version, I always try to find a sing-along, because singing the Messiah touches my soul in a way that listening to it doesn’t quite reach.

    When I lived in Boston long ago, our Cambridge ward had a tradition of doing a Messiah sing-along joining with the Quaker community next door. It was great fun. Soloists came up from the audience impromptu — sometimes sharing the solo part with someone else if two people volunteered for the same solo. I shared the piano duties with another pianist and on some choruses we both played together on the tricky parts — one of us playing treble and the other bass parts. It was exhilarating. Certainly not a great musical performance of the Messiah, but a fun experience of people getting together to share in the spirit of that wonderful music.

    I’m sitting in the audience of the Houston Symphony’s performance this weekend, and I know I’ll be wishing I was up on the stage.

  50. I attended one in Prove years ago. I’ve never been to another but when I read blogs I listen to some of the pieces on YouTube. Not close to the same.

  51. Attended the San Jose edition many moons ago. . .

    This year attended at the Carmel Basilica. The only accompaniment was a lone pianist. Polyphonic passages were problematic with the acoustics of the venue. They had us all sing the soloist’s part in select arias. Travesty, fun.

  52. I’ve participated in upwards of 20 singalong Messiahs, starting when in my home stake when I was a tweener. At this point I know the music pretty well–not memorized, but well enough not to get tripped up in the tricky parts and sing along pretty smoothly. My favorite I’ve attended was the one in Avery Fisher Hall in NYC, closely followed by the one here in Portland at the Schnitz with the Oregon Symphony (which I attended with a half-dozen or so members of my immediate family and which included local opera star Richard Zeller on the bass solos).

    My stake here used to do a singalong, but then the best accompanist in the state (not a typo) moved out of the stake, and the stake music director decided people were tired of it (I wasn’t). When we used to have it, there was always the question of what to do about the solos. One time they had people volunteer to do them, which worked okay, except that at least one person grumbled that they actually had to listen for three minutes instead of singing all the time (yeah, whatever, get over yourself). We had one time where they had whole sections sing the solos, and then they opted to skip all the solos and just do the choruses (a grievous error, imo). So now they don’t do a singalong any more, per se, but my husband was scheduled to conduct the Hallelujah Chorus at our (canceled-because-of-snow) stake Christmas Choirfest.

    My issue with singalongs is the many choruses with extensive melismas, a la For Unto Us a Child Is Born. Middling singers can get most of the non-melismatic choruses, but those measures and measures of rapidly-moving 16th notes are beyond the ability of all but the most-skilled. I advocate skipping them altogether, and substituting some of the more interesting but less-sung choruses, especially the run of perfectly fugal ones in I think part II. Why spend all that energy futilely trying to not butcher “For Unto Us” when you could be learning “He Trusted in God that He Would Deliver Him” (No. 28)?

    I vote we have a Messiah Singalong at Sunstone. Just have to find a skilled-enough pianist.

  53. Amen, janeannechovy! I made the assembled horde do “He Trusted in God…” in our Stake’s production last year–even with people sightreading, it sounded better than “For Unto Us” usually does.