The dynamics of a church choir

By  Paul Williams, Catholic Register Special
  • May 28, 2009
{mosimage}For years, I took my local church choir for granted.  Sunday after Sunday I would hardly notice the music unless I heard a favourite piece or an obvious mistake.

Then one day an acquaintance complimented me on my voice and suggested I join him in the choir.  I easily discounted the compliment, but it struck me that the quality of my worship might improve if it were more active.

So the following Thursday evening I started as a chorister at St. John’s parish in Toronto. The first thing I learned was a new respect for the teaching profession.  Our choir director is a high school music teacher who knows just how to drive his four teams of horses — sopranos, altos, tenors and basses — in their wagon train across the hills and valleys of the musical landscape.  A soprano in the choir says “he is the best, he encourages and teaches with gentle humour.”

And what a musical landscape has been given to us in this early part of the 21st century, from Renaissance to classical to spirituals and inspirational songs by present-day composers. Then there are lesser-known names too, names like Hal Hopson and Jay Althouse who reliably contribute to the rich variety that is available to us;  oh and one more name, Eric Walker, our director who writes some of the loveliest melodies in our repertoire.

The choir becomes a part of the liturgical and cultural life of the parish. To sing the Lenten Tenebrae service every year, as we do, is not only an act of worship, it is a part of religious history, particularly part of Toronto’s religious history for it was here that  Healey Willan, the talented young English composer, chose to live and work.  Our parish centennial celebrations will include a spring concert.

This fulfilling experience of the best music from across the centuries is anybody’s who cares to have it: just join your church choir. Most people are modest about their vocal ability, but it must be said that a choir is the best place to hide an indifferent voice. Indeed, people who may be reluctant to sing out loud in the congregation are liberated to do so in the choir.  There, with the right leadership, a choir is greater than the sum of its parts.  There, people find a way to help each other over their respective hurdles, playing off each other as they go.

An alto puts it: “I usually come in at the right moment, being lucky enough to read music, but I draw from the others who have proper pronunciation, proper breathing or good pitch. Then there are the other sections, and how we thrill at how high the sopranos can reach, and how low the basses can go.”

Hmmm. The basses can also go low with their humour as in this friendly jab: “We basses drive you sopranos.”  “Not so fast,” came the retort, “we sopranos lead you basses.”  And there are smirks all around when we all realize we, er, fell short of performing the music exactly as written, but miraculously not too many other people seem to know it.  That’s getting off lightly.

At the working level, that jumble of work, learning and fun is what a church choir is all about.  At the spiritual level, it is all about praising and worshipping God, or as one alto says: “Singing in the choir is a most dynamic ministry.  You get the benefit of praying to God in a special, spiritual way. At the same time, you experience the best of co-operation and community.”

A bass is moved to say, “Prayer is better when you sing it.” 

A soprano adds, “Singing in the choir lifts my spirits, it fills me with peace. Every week I look forward to this choral community.”

Being a choir member is one of life’s rewarding experiences, particularly when along with 25 other people with whom you have just performed a challenging piece, you know as you glance around that you have put together one good voice and that is what you needed to do. 

(Williams is a member of the St. John’s Choir, which hosts its annual spring concert June 11.)

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