Choosing the right choral music has got to be the single most challenging task I have faced in the 35 years I have directed church choirs. I dread the idea of buying sixty copies of something that will not work well in the service; and I don’t want to spend even twenty minutes rehearsing an anthem that will not be edifying for the body of believers.
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I remember my very first attack of goosebumps. I was thirteen, maybe, one raspy voice in a middle-school choir festival a half century ago in a small town in Wisconsin, dozens of kids drawn from regional schools. The music that did it was J. S. Bach—“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” For almost fifty years I’ve not been able to hear that piece without being zapped back into that pimply choir because I was seized so chillingly—heart, soul, mind, and strength—by the beauty of that moment.
It occurred to me the other day that lining up my rather small CD collection in order of purchase date could provide an interesting study about my life.
Sometimes I’m asked to speak on the topic of recovering congregational singing. So I ask the question “What’s wrong?” The conversation goes like this:
“Apparently people are not singing like they used to.”
“We’re not exactly sure, but we’d sure like to have some tools to improve the situation.”
My Alaskan treasure doesn’t look like much. It is an extraordinarily ordinary rock. Over the years I have collected an assortment of rocks to commemorate vacations and hikes. Each possesses some quality that makes it stand out. Not this rock. After carefully examining this keepsake, my son commented, “Dad, that’s not one of your better rocks.”
This article is reprinted from The Stanza, Fall 2006, © 2006 The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (www.thehymnsociety.org). All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Three times, recently, I was aurally assaulted in a church building: once at a concert, twice at services. The weapons were large pipe organs, and the penetrating device was most specifically 32-foot pedal pipes. Each time I had been invited to “sing along” as part of a group that then became engulfed, no, drowned in ear-splitting sonorities.
When children are young, they learn words that build relationships. Some come easily: “Help!” “Why?” Parents and grandparents persistently teach them to say to others: “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” We celebrate as these words become habits. When a child without prompting tells her brother, “I’m sorry,” we know that these words are beginning to shape her life and her relationships.
It is peculiarly human to sing, and to sing together. It is a heartening exercise when done communally on a theme you believe in, as the protest marchers for civil rights understood in the ’60s with “We Shall Overcome.” Such singing was not the same as Doo-wop entertainment or pop songs with the Supremes orchestrated by the Motown machine. Street singing had a different cachet too than Fanny Crosby’s old-time revival hymns. If you yourself enter a non-professional group singing a song that is solid and well-known, it invigorates you.
For a background on Vertical Habits see Betty Grit’s article on page 4. —JB
Connecting Vertical Habits in worship to vertical habits at home and in our everyday life brings us one step closer to making those habits our natural response. The easiest way to keep those habits fresh is to incorporate them into your family or personal devotions. Here are some suggestions for an individual, family, or small group devotional time using the psalms, as well as ideas for incorporating two psalms into a Vertical Habits worship service.
In many churches it is customary to include a profession of faith in worship. This may take the form of the congregation reciting one of the ecumenical creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. Or it may include a reading from one of the Reformed creeds such as the Heidelberg Catechism. In so doing we not only affirm what we believe but also express our solidarity with the church of Christ universal.