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.