In my first or second year in parish ministry, I was approached after the service by the wife of the emeritus minister. With a wry look on her face, she said, “I see from today’s service that you took that class in seminary, ‘How to Pick the Unsingable Hymns.’” I admitted that the hymns that morning were really quite hard to sing and that I would do better as time went on. In the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot about hymns and music, I’ve sung loud and strong and stumbled over some, but it’s always been an important element of worship for me.
For this reason, in consultation with the Music Team, members of the choir, the HR Committee, and the Board, this fall we have hired Brittney Klouse to be a song leader or cantor for our congregation. The intent of this position is to create a vibrant vocal community. What does that mean? It means that we, as a congregation, are in the process of learning to sing well together, to expand our repertoire of familiar hymns, and possibly even discover how to play with harmonies.
With that in mind, we have expanded the amount of singing that we’re doing on Sunday mornings. We’re experimenting with a Gathering Song that calls us to worship a few minutes before it officially starts. It’s an opportunity to get warmed up for worship. Those of you who have attended services in churches that are out of the African American tradition know that often there’s time for singing before the formal worship service gets going, sometimes for 10 or 20 minutes. It’ll also be a time for Brittney to offer us tips and techniques for singing better together or to help us learn something new.
There’s also a new slot for a hymn right before the sermon, so on Sundays, we’ll routinely sing four songs from our hymnals. What a lot of opportunities we have to keep building our vocal community!
These opportunities offer more, though than the pleasures of singing together. This kind of music is a way for all of us to connect to each other even if we’re not singing. I learned that lesson in my congregation in England with a long time member called Jess. Jess – short for Jessamine – had been a vital member of that congregation and a devoted activist. In the years before I arrived, however, a stroke and subsequent physical losses had left her largely unable to speak and confined to a wheelchair. Still, nearly every Sunday she was delivered to the church in a private taxi, wheeled in, and though she often slept through the sermon, she was faithful in her attendance.
One Sunday I had reduced the number of hymns that we were singing. Usually, there were four, but on this day there were several other elements to the service and I cut one out. As I was walking away after sliding the numbers into the hymn board, Jess started to make a fuss. I hurried over to see if I could figure out what was wrong. It didn’t take long to understand that she wanted me to know that I’d left one of the hymns off. I explained carefully why I had made the choice and she let me know in no uncertain terms that she was unhappy with that decision.
Later on in the day, I was recounting it to our organist who was also a long time member and a good friend to Jess. “She really isn’t able to pay attention to the words any more,” Margaret reflected. “But she is completely present to the music. I think it is where she connects most deeply.”
From that time on, I rarely reduced the number of hymns we sang. I don’t know for certain if there are those here for whom the music plays that part, but I always assume there are a few. Singing or humming or silent; creating unique harmonies (sometimes called singing off key), or in full unison, tuning into all those singing nearby – however you take part, music is a way that we can be especially joined.
So come along on this journey as we discover how we might become that even more vibrant vocal community. We’ll be experimenting as the year goes on, refining the role that Brittney plays in our singing.