Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.


This might sound really self-inflating. Or at least self-inflating on behalf of the folks in the church choir I have the pleasure of conducting.

A couple of Sundays ago, we presented to our congregation a cantata, a multi-movement piece of choral music called “Yuhanon”. It was written by our music director and organist, Kevin Murphy, specifically for our choir and for specific instrumentalists who are a part of our congregation. Not to put too fine a point on it: it was hard.

The notes were often challenging for the singers to find. This was partly because the patches of music that preceded the choral entrances were more often than not written in 12-tone series style. For the uninitiated, which is to say, for those who have not taken graduate courses in twentieth-century compositional styles, this means that this sort of music is written without any particular tonal center. Which is to say, it’s borderline impossible to find a home-base note, a note that one can definitely identify as “do” in the classic sequence “do-re-mi”. Which is to say, singing the music sometimes felt like the equivalent of trying to grab a tennis ball that is falling during a skydive at the same rate as you are, while blindfolded.

To be fair, there were other stretches of music that did in fact feel perfectly tonal, in which it was easy for singers to find their next pitch either in relation to one they just sang, to one that some other section just sang, or to one that a nearby instrumentalist just played.

On top of that, the texts that Kevin chose were not the classic Advent texts that one might expect to hear on the 16th of December in a church; certainly if you were waiting for a “Gloria in excelsis Deo”, or lyrics that described how startled certain poor shepherds were to be addressed by a pack of angels in fields where they lay, you didn’t get either of them. At least the texts were included in an insert in our worship-service bulletin, so listeners could follow along and get the gist of each movement’s text. If you had that in front of you, you had a good chance of understanding why Kevin wrote certain sections of the work the way he did. There was a whole lotta “text painting” going on, during which the music reflected (or in fact illuminated) the intent of the music. Baroque composers frequently made sure that the highest note in one of their melodies corresponded with the words “God” or “heaven” … Kevin’s piece used pitches and rhythms and harmonies in a very much more complex way to achieve the same sorts of musical expression.

In the weeks leading up to the presentation of the cantata, Kevin did a bit of work to publicly and privately prepare people for the fact that it was a challenging piece, written in a way that might conceivably lead to a performance which was not note-perfect, but understandably so. And if the composer is on the grounds for the performance and says outright that he’s going to be okay with a presentation that isn’t precisely note-perfect … that might go some distance toward taking the nervous edge off the choir.

Or it could have been gamesmanship – a psychological ploy – even a way of lowering expectations such that if people think the piece could fall apart and it doesn’t, then we have a winner! But given that the composer is also a regular participant in the choir’s activities from week to week, I tended not to think this so much.

In any case, the way in which our choir went after that piece on that Sunday, well … quite simply, they brought their A-game. And no, the thing wasn’t completely note-perfect, but (forgive me) it was damn close and there were many more moments in which it sounded really well-prepared and confident and even brave.

And in so doing, the choir may have given people the impression that you have to be a really fine singer in order to be one of us. Unintentionally, to be sure … but I can imagine that there may have been people out in the congregation who thought to themselves, “boy, that’s over my head. I could never do that.”


Not our goal, for openers. Also, as the saying goes, “we live to serve” – not to impress. As has been chronicled in this space before, we have a great many more people in the group who have not been formally trained as singers than who have. We have many people who, if asked if they are Singers, would probably say “no; but I’m in the choir.” They may not know all the musical and physiological terminology associated with what they’re doing (I always make sure to gently define words like “crescendo” and “chest voice” and the like, something like including subtitles at the bottom of the movie screen) … but once they’ve been in the choir for a little while, they figure out how to blend their voices with all the other voices and contribute to a beautiful sound.

So, if anyone had a thought about joining our choir, or any church choir, or any community chorus … and then heard a piece of music that made them think maybe they couldn’t do it, just because it sounded difficult or complex … we apologize for the misconception.

And we suggest, nay, we beg! … that they reconsider. We won’t let them flop. Or, certainly, we won’t let them skydive alone. We’re all in this together … and it’s a blast.


December 27, 2012 - Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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