The June/July 2016 issue of Choral Journal is now available online! This issue was a focus on sacred music and features an article written by Charlotte Kroeker titled “The Church Choral Director: Leader of the Sacred, the Good, the Beautiful.” Below is an excerpt of the article, and you can read it in its entirety in the June/July 2016 issue! Go to acda.org/choraljournal and click “Search Archives.” Choose June/July 2016 from the dropdown menu.
Despite a tendency to be overlooked in the cultural landscape, church choirs profoundly influence musical and social culture, possibly more than almost any other organized activities in society. There is evidence to support the value of a church choir and reason for choral directors to invest time in its development and well-being.
Singing in Choirs: Fulfilling What it Means to Be Human
All God’s creatures got a place in the choir
Some sing low and some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
Some just clap their hands….
These lyrics are by Bill Staines, an American folk musician and singer-songwriter from New England, made popular as sung by Celtic Thunder. They allude to a simple, broad definition of “choir.” Indeed, expression of music is basic to being alive, affecting us in ways more fundamental than language.
Humans sing, but so do all God’s creatures. Singing expresses the most profound emotions and is often done in communities where it bonds us, marks events, and helps share journeys we do not want to experience alone. Daniel Levitin, in This Is Your Brain on Music, argues convincingly that music is at the heart of being human. In addition to the expression of emotion, music is critical to how our minds work and how we experience and respond to stimuli. Contrary to ideas that art and music belong to the right brain and language and mathematics are left brain functions, neuroscientists now demonstrate that music is distributed throughout the brain. Broader distribution of music in the brain explains why persons diagnosed with Alzheimer’s who can no longer speak can sing songs with words, or why individuals with motor coordination difficulties can still play the piano.1 Music unites both persons with each other and unifies a person within him/herself.
Recall how the late Pete Seeger used folk songs and spirituals to energize groups to sing about causes for social justice that moved people to action. Seeger, the son of a concert violinist and a musicologist, was drawn to music with ethnic and rural roots that found its expression in communal singing. He understood the power of music to change people. His “concerts” often became a singalong, where he borrowed shamelessly from hymn tunes and spirituals, changing religious lyrics to texts that promoted a cause for justice. Hymn tunes, which are so often folk music and easily singable, became vehicles for empowering causes for the greater good. “We Shall Overcome” is an example of music Seeger adapted that was to bring oneness of purpose to the Civil Rights Movement. Though secular in his beliefs, he often worked with churches and religious groups to achieve common goals. “My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”2
So it is with singing in church, so aptly described by Garrison Keillor in his description of Lutherans:
Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. I once sang the bass line of “Children of the Heavenly Father” in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other. I do believe this: People, these Lutherans, who love to sing in four-part harmony, are the sort of people you could call up when you’re in deep distress. If you’re dying, they’ll comfort you. If you’re lonely, they’ll talk to you. And if you’re hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad!3
Keillor captures both the delight of being part of singing in a group and the joy of being a member of a community that cares for one another. Linked with singing is a moral imperative: if I am singing with you and making beautiful music, I cannot ignore you as a human being and must care for your concerns as my own. Thus, singing together shapes the people we become. Singing together creates common understanding, bonds people together in community, and energizes them to action for good.
1 Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music (London: Penguin Group, 2006): 8-9.
2 Pete Seeger in Phillip Lutz, “Pete Seeger, Still Singing His Message at 89,” The New York Times, January 2, 2009.
3 Garrison Keillor, “Singing with Lutherans,” in the newsletter of Chorus America, 1999. Copyright Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved.
Read the rest of this article (and more!) in the June/July 2016 issue of Choral Journal, available online at acda.org.