Sunday, February 21, 2010

Spirit-Filled and Spirit-Led Singing

"All the glory, all the praise, O Lord we praise your name."

In my last post, I mentioned that a lot of choirs have a particular song that they always use to close their concert. For various choirs that I'm familiar with they include 'The Yell0w and Blue,' 'A Parting Blessing,' 'Perfidia,' 'Behold the Lamb of God,' 'Beautiful Savior,' and 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.' The One Voice Gospel Choir takes this one step further, and closes every rehearsal by standing in a circle, joining hands, and singing the song quoted above. When I was young, we used the expression 'know it by heart' to describe memorizing a song, or perhaps a poem or bit of prose. These singers know this song so much by heart that their brains are not actually able to reproduce it. During the after-rehearsal socializing, I tried to verify that I got the words correctly to put them in the blog, and was answered with, 'I can't even remember those words now,' even though they had all sung them very easily only minutes before.

OV, as they call themselves for short, performs all of their music from memory, and as a visitor for only a brief time, I had to employ a combination of already knowing a few things, memorizing some other key things, singing on instinct, and cheating by looking at a printed page. Actually, what would be called faking it in more general musical settings is rather legitimate within the gospel music genre. So, being thus led by the spirit, I made it through the longest repertoire list of any of my Itinerant Chorister visits. We sang 'This is the Day,' 'Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit,' 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands,' 'Unity,' 'Siyahamba,' 'Freedom is Coming,' and others.

One thing that set this visit apart from most of my experience as the Itinerant Chorister is that this choir makes its home base at one church (St. Paul United Church of Christ in Saline), but performs in a great variety of settings and very frequently. At rehearsal, they handed out their upcoming schedule, which included six performances in the coming two months. Today, they were at the regular Sunday worship at Webster United Church of Christ at 5484 Webster Church Road, in Webster Township near Dexter.

First, I went to rehearsal on Tuesday evening. When I arrived, some members were recording a demo tape to send ahead of them to places interested in hosting them on a tour in England planned for this coming summer. The plea for everyone to turn of their cell phones before the recording started reminded me of an incident at another of my visits. When rehearsal was beginning for real, it was announced that I would sing and write the blog, to which the retort was, 'We'll tell you what to write.' At the beginning of rehearsal, much time was spent on announcements, prayer requests, and there was also a voice vote on whether to add a newly-proposed performance onto their schedule.

After announcements and prayer, we launched into practicing the music. The group is led by hyperkinetic director Jean Wilson, who has a strong instinct for gospel music and demonstrates her passion for it both to the choir and to those they sing for. Those who are used to singing in many other choirs will need to get used to certain things. For instance, the number of times that you repeat certain verses is not set in stone, but is decided on the fly, depending on how Jean feels about how it sounds, how the congregation is reacting, and how it feels. After all, it's not a science, but an art. We used some special effects that are taboo in many choirs. For instance, in 'He's Got the Whole World...,' there were two different spots in which we sang 'hands' with a fermata (i.e. held the note for as long as the director chose). In one case, we did the more traditional thing, holding on to the vowel 'a.' In the other case, we blew past the 'a' in a split second and instead held out the word by humming on an 'n,' something a classical choir wouldn't do.

Since this choir develops a repertoire, memorizes it, and then uses it for many performances, sometimes over quite a few years, the rehearsal mainly consisted of running through the music that they already knew, and there were only a very small number of rough spots to straighten out. That meant that I needed to catch on fast, and I tried my best.

Webster Church was founded in 1834 with funding from Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, later to become U.S. Secretary of State. The church was named after him, and later the road and the township got that name, too. This church claims to be the church building in longest continual use in Washtenaw County. Along with my visit to Old St. Patrick Church two weeks ago, I have covered two of the oldest churches in the area north of Ann Arbor and Dexter.


On Sunday morning, the plan was to have a time of performance at 9:30 am, in advance of the service at 10. However, announcements to the congregation had failed to get people into the church that early. We started singing at about 9:40 and had to convince people peeking in from the narthex that we were no longer practicing, but performing, and that they should come in and sit down.

The service featured a time spotlighting the country of Ghana, in which children helped to lead. This covered the food of Ghana, including foufou, made by grinding cassava root, the symbolism associated with the colors of the Ghanaian flag, and facts such as the gold deposits in Ghana and that it is the world's largest exporter of cocoa.

The sermon was delivered by guest preacher and seminary student Elizabeth Hoban. She explained early in the sermon that this was one of the few sermons that uses a chart (I learned after the service that she is moving into the ministry after being a mechanical engineer). She held up a chart with a pyramid on it to show the concept, sometimes used in business planning, of DIKW--data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, with wisdom being the narrowest piece at the top of the pyramid. (The back side showed an inverted pyramid with no data, misinformation, ignorance, and folly.) As further illustration of the chasm between data and wisdom, she quoted from T. S. Eliot's 'The Rock,' which includes 'The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries Bring us farther from God and nearer to the dust.' She emphasized that wisdom from Earth can ruthless and counter to our best actions, while wisdom from above serves all people.

At the end of the service, there was a call for an encore from OV, and I had to fake (or rather, be spirit-led) through a medley that included 'This Train is Bound for Glory' and 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' Refreshments after the service included some Ghanaian food.

I realize that there are likely to be some divergent thoughts about a gospel choir whose members are all white. On this, I have two comments. First, I support their message and their music because of the enthusiasm and spirit that they bring to it; they know their music by heart. Second, I also hope to sing in the choir of an African-American church. I have had difficulty in making contact with a particular church that I wanted to sing in, and encourage anyone to get in touch with me to help me do this. Also, let me know about gospel choirs that are more racially integrated.

Next week: Service benefiting and celebrating Tanzania at Zion Lutheran, Ann Arbor

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