By Frank R. Lloyd
When I entered Occidental College in 1965 a friend from my hometown who was a year ahead of me urged me to take at least one semester of choir because the director was an extraordinary teacher and a dynamic personality. I took her advice and joined Occidental’s College and Chapel Choirs. Despite limited talent and no formal vocal training, I sang in Occidental’s choirs all four years I was there, and I have persisted in choral singing over the ensuing fifty years. Learning and performing choral works has allowed me to experience the emotional and physical thrills of blending into an ensemble whose output is greater than the sum of its individual parts. It has immersed me in caring communities, the world’s best music, and inspiring messages. Looking ahead, losing myself in the ensemble connects me to something greater which foreshadows a life to come.
I brought no choral singing experience to Occidental’s choirs. My knowledge of how to read music was acquired during one year of piano lessons in third grade my mother mandated. I could carry a tune, though, and in high school I learned to play the guitar as part of the 1960s folk music boom. My maternal grandfather, a long-time church choir singer himself, taught me the basics.
I joined Occidental’s bass section because it was easiest for me to read the bottom line of notes to find my part. Being tall, I took a place at the end of the top row. I was immediately confronted by music for classical choral anthems—Mozart, Brahms, Handel—as well as spirituals and other traditional anthems. More alarming, I received the full score for a major work to prepare for the annual spring concert: Bach’s B Minor Mass. I had jumped into the deep end!
Nevertheless, I quickly experienced the thrill of losing my voice in an ensemble that created something beautiful. This was—and is still—a visceral experience in my face and chest. I am in a place where time stands still and my current surroundings disappear. It is a specific emotional place–joy, discouragement, sorrow, triumph, hope–strong enough to make my throat catch or my eyes tear up. I do not feel this at all times, only when I know the music well enough to get past the notes and technical requirements of a passage. However, from the beginning I experienced this sensation just often enough to keep going.
For the past twenty-five years I have sung in choirs at two churches. While both pursued missions of caring, music quality, and communication, each grew my appreciation for one of these as directors changed.
The first was a culture of caring for one another. Relationships deepened through projects and social events, especially “Broadway” musicals. The scripts were written by one of the choir members. The scenery, costumes, and make-up were self-made. We were taught to sing and dance in ensembles that showcased individual members and small groups such as a doo-wop men’s quartet. The stories were stitched together with a pastiche of show tunes. The preparation and performances developed interpersonal relationships and created a community outside the choir room.
The other, where I continue to sing, was musically demanding at first. We prepared two anthems per week for worship and four for communion, ten per month. Anthems included hymn and spiritual arrangements and original compositions by renowned contemporary composers along with classical pieces. We performed major works with professional symphony musicians. The high level was a difficult challenge for me and required diligent attendance and outside study. Under a new director the choir emphasizes music that conveys a powerful message to change lives. I find joy in the missions of community, quality, and communication as well as the higher joy in losing myself in the ensemble and its music.
Now retired, I ponder death and the afterlife. Some believe that we are like raindrops. When we die, we fall into an ocean. The drop does not go away; it is embraced by the whole. Similarly, the air we breathe and expel as singing becomes air at death. If first there is a drop then an ocean, and if first there is breath then air, I am comforted that death could be like losing oneself within a beautiful ensemble. First there is a voice, then a choir. Like John Wesley, I am comforted to think that “I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God and returning to God; just hovering over the great gulf, till a few moments hence I am no more seen—I drop into an unchangeable eternity!” Choral singing suggests that the ensemble into which we are absorbed is a spiritually connected community much like an aspen grove is a single organism connected underground. I am drawn into this spiritual connection just as a voice is absorbed into the sound and community of a choir.
Frank Lloyd is the retired Associate Dean for Executive Education at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. He is a Bass II in Highland Park United Methodist Church’s (Dallas) Chancel Choir. Formerly, he was vice president at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and a human resources executive for General Motors. He and his fellow chorister wife, Barbara, live in Dallas, Texas.