In Praise of Church Choirs

Warbly sopranos, amateur conductors, untrained musicians—you never know what you're going to get with a church choir. But one singer explains why she keeps coming back for more...

I was barely in junior high school when I joined the church choir of my neighborhood Presbyterian Church. I was one of a few young'uns nestled in amongst the older members, many of whom had sung in church choirs for decades. We youngsters were just discovering that we might have good voices and because of that were a little cocky. Mrs. Whiteside, a quavering soprano not wedded to pitch, was the main target of our rude whispers and giggling.

But bigger choirs—this one was about 40—cover a multitude of sins. Our choir conductor had a way of coaxing a decent sound out of singers of varying ability and tone quality. And something about that early experience hooked me. For well on 40 years now, I have sung in a church choir. That's far longer than my tenure with any community chorus.

Like a long marriage, my relationship with church choirs has had its ups and downs. I've threatened to quit and sometimes I do. But I always come back.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the democratic nature of the church choir. To me this reflects a theology: by grace we enter the family of God, by grace we find our place in the choir loft. Then whatever our different abilities, it is our responsibility to make of ourselves a community, and to make music, if we can.

Come one, come all

I'm aware that some church choirs have an audition requirement that is at least as rigorous as the best community choruses. I am envious of these choirs, but in the end I probably would not want to sing in any of them.

At my small inner city church in Washington, DC, desire and the ability to carry a tune gets you in (and we're even a little lax on that last one). If we have three people on a part, that's a bonafide miracle.

This "come one, come all" ethic can be challenging—one tires of hearing "I can't read music" from the same person for 20 years, when there are many resources out there to remedy this deficit. I'm sure my choir-mates tire of me showing up late, yet again, for Sunday morning rehearsal (I once chose a church simply because its service started later than any other in town).

Like a long marriage, my relationship with church choirs has had its ups and downs. I've threatened to quit and sometimes I do. But I always come back.

But inclusion also opens up room for serendipity, better known in church circles as the movement of the spirit. Recently, the two different congregations that share our worship space came together. Some speak only English; others only Spanish. The service—running to 25 pages in the bulletin—alternated between the two languages. It is "loosely contained chaos," one of our choir members noted.

Our little choir of English speakers had learned the Spanish songs as best we could (the Lord's Prayer was set, oddly, to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun," which helped). Our two little choirs stumbled along, singing each other's languages, and then at the end, a man from the Spanish congregation, whose voice could carry the length of a football field, got up to led a call and response, "Alabare a mi Senor."

We sang louder and louder, and then we were moving, and then, despite the fact that we are Episcopalians, some were dancing. "Something quite wonderful took place in a completely easy and natural way," one of our pastors said. "Our separate congregations became one in the spirit."

Down in the valley

Of course, the spirit, or whatever we call that ineffable thing, roams to and fro where it will, uncontained by any edifice, church or otherwise. It shows up on a regular basis in my community chorus. How else to explain the sob that rose unbidden in me as we neared the end of the "Dona Nobis Pacem" of Bach's B Minor Mass. "Grant us peace" became not just Latin words, but a prayer, a kind of "sighing too deep for words." It was one of those "mountaintop" chorus experiences.

I've traveled to the mountaintop with my church choir, too—singing the Duruflé Requiem, comes to mind—but more often we're living down in the valley and looking for the spirit in the day-in and day-out rhythms of the liturgy. Some Sundays I show up in a muddle, barely believing in God—or at least convinced that my belief really doesn't matter very much. And then we sing songs of praise—badly, very well, middling—and the effort means something, even if I can't figure out what. It's like the last lines of Brooks Haxton's poem "If I May":

God I want to thank
especially, if He exists, which I believe
He does. He may not. Probably not.
But I would like to thank Him. Thanks.

I've often said that if there were no music, I would not go to church at all. The dogma and theologizing take me only so far—and more and more these days, they disappoint. But music carries me, like a boat moving across the face of a friendly lake. In my church choir, we are all rowing, though not always in sync, and we are being rowed. At least that's what it feels like today. It makes a difference. Thanks.