Published: May 2007
I love singing in our church choir! Yet I've often been asked why choristers are so loyal, week after week, year after year. What brings us to Thursday night and Sunday morning practices? Why do we reorganize our schedules in order to sing for weddings and funerals?
Picture, if you will, a typical Easter morning in the church library as the ladies robe in their red cassocks, setting their white surplices aside until just before the service begins. (At that point, inevitably, some small person will put on the surplice of a larger one. Laughing at confusion is part of the choral experience.) "Happy Easter!" Hugs all around. A fuss is made over the undergraduate who is home for the long weekend; older women wonder how she grew up so fast and show her their grandchildren's pictures. She appreciates the familiarity of it all but dreads wearing the hot vestments in the chancel.
During rehearsal, those who have been to Thursday night practices for the last month help out those who are sight-reading. The brass quintet is looking casual, but when they play their accompaniments to the hymns, shivers run up and down the backs of the choir in front of them. The choir responds by upping their volume. The director diplomatically says, "Don't oversing," and also asks the brass to back off a bit. A soprano passes a cough candy to a bass with a tickle in his throat. We note last-minute instructions in our bulletins. The pre-performance tension builds.
Finally, we're lined up in the gym and the priest and lay assistants join us. "The Lord be with you!" This is how he gets our attention. "And also with you!" is our automatic reply. The Easter interchange--"Allelujah! Christ is risen!" "The Lord is risen indeed. Allelujah!"--happens only once a year and we don't always get it right. He prays that we will do God's will as we lead the worship service and we are reminded that the beauty and conviction of our music matters to the spiritual experience of the congregation. On our approach to the vestry we change our demeanour from joking singers into ministers of music.
The choir processes up the centre aisle, then splits in two, each to follow a candle-bearing acolyte while the crucifer stands at the base of the stairs to the chancel, holding high the cross. Weaving around the quadrants of the congregation, the choir enfolds everyone in worship. By the time the choir enters the chancel, the organ and brass are at full volume and, with the soprano descant, we bring the hymn to its conclusion. The Easter hymns are the same ones we've sung since childhood, and memories of departed loved ones flash through our minds. The spoken words of the highly-ritualized service are restrained in expression (we are, after all, mostly WASPs) but in the hymns the choir and congregation have the opportunity to sing out our passionate joy as Christ's living body.
In the service that follows, great anthems of Handel and Bach are often sung. "The Hallelujah Chorus" is one piece, popular for this service, that joyously repeats the word of praise, "Hallelujah," and acknowledges God's power that is greater than that of kings. The congregation's role is to stand as the phrase "King of kings" is sung, repeating the tradition of standing for royalty that harks back hundreds of years. This is grand, exhilerating music.
The choir, however, cannot experience the same emotions as the congregation because we, like the clergy, are doing a job. For example, during a funeral it's virtually impossible to choke up and sing at the same time. In an Easter service we have to be aware of such prosaic details as the fact that "The Hallelujah Chorus" is in the key of D and 4/4 time. We have to count the four penultimate "Hallelujahs" carefully to avoid accidentally singing a highly embarrassing solo during the two full beats of silence prior to the last "Hallelujah." The choir cannot enter fully into the act of worship; we're too busy checking that we have the next sheet music ready, too focused on nailing a difficult passage. This is our service to the congregation and to God. Choristers often comment, in the summer when they sit in the congregation, that they appreciate the break....
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