We Have Met the Choir and It Is Us

A Sermon by Beth Armstrong

Beth Armstrong, a long-time member of First Unitarian, has been singing since she could talk and clearly remembers getting a thrill singing in a group at the age of five. She’s been doing that ever since and, sometime in college, got a chance to direct other singers. There were some twists and turns in her professional and personal life, but singing, harmonizing, and conducting singers has been a non-stop theme that continues to this day. She is the director of the Chorus of East Providence and the Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. She sings in the First Unitarian choir.

Sermon Text

When my grandmother and yours were alive, I’m talking about three or four generations ago, most Americans had a piano in their home, and somebody in the family could play it. Everybody else probably played an instrument or sang, too, and family musicales were a regular feature of evening entertainment, since life did not include any of the modern forms of media. In our grandparents’ day, these times of music-making were loud and enthusiastic, included neighbors and extended family, and sometimes provided the means for dancing. We have no reason to think the music was done well. I’m sure in some families it was good music; but you and I know that genuine musical talent doesn’t show up in every member of a family very often. Most of those families’ music making would have been mediocre, at best. But they didn’t know that.

It wasn’t until recently – the last 80 years or so – that most Americans had access to great music. When the radio entered the home in the 1930’s, many people heard professional musicians for the first time. It must have been a shock to realize that Aunt Clara’s soprano or Uncle John’s piano playing weren’t of the best quality. And over the years, as it became easier and easier for people from all over the country to hear live music, or buy recordings of musicians, amateur music making has declined sharply, to the point where children at home – or in school – are not being taught American folk songs, or patriotic songs, or holiday carols, or hymns. School music programs are often the first thing cut from a strained budget and are called a “frill” by administrators and school board members. Most families do not own a piano, and few children are taught how to play one anymore.

The part that worries me the most is the reluctance of so many people to sing. When UU theologian Robert Fulghum was asked the question, “What do you do?” he responded:

“I am a singer. Not only do I not get paid to sing, but in some cases, friends might offer to pay me not to sing. Nevertheless, I love to do it. In the shower, driving to work, while I’m working, walking to lunch, and along with whatever I recognize on the radio. I sing. It is what I do. God did not put my desire together with the necessary equipment. I liked being a parent to my children when they were young and had no musical standards and would uncritically sing with me. It didn’t matter that we didn’t always know all the words or have the tune just right – we made it up. We singers are not thrown by technicalities. Singers are those who sing. Period.”

Are you like Robert Fulghum? My guess is that many of you, if you were being honest, would say that you do not sing. Many of you do not sing hymns in church – I know, I watch you. Many of you do not sing Christmas carols, or show tunes, or even Happy Birthday.  Pete Seeger once said “Our technology and our economic system seem to produce the present bad situation. Millions of people feel themselves poor and powerless; millions feel that music is something to be made only by experts.” We don’t sing largely because we believe that we aren’t good at it. We don’t sound like the professionals. We don’t have a “good voice” or a “good ear.” We judge ourselves and find ourselves wanting. So we leave the music making to the professionals.

Well, that is a crime.

I am a choral director, and I have never worked as the director of an auditioned chorus. My groups are always open to anyone who wants to sing. Sometimes I get a new singer in a group who has no experience whatsoever and is nervous and afraid that I will kick them out. Of course, I would never do that. The wonderful thing about these groups is those moments where I see how the music is affecting that new singer. I had that experience as the Tiverton chorus was rehearsing a particularly lovely and affective song called Children of Eden. As I glanced at the alto section I happened to notice one of my newest and most inexperienced singers, dissolved in tears, and still singing. I know how she feels – it has happened to me, sometimes at unexpected moments. It is such a powerful experience to make music with other people, and singing together is the most direct form of group music making we know.

Robert Shaw described the experience of group singing by calling it the sharing of an act of creation. Think about it: singers use nothing but their bodies to make the sounds, there is no machine to separate a singer from the music, nothing mechanical involved. Singing is like putting your very soul out there. And to do that with other people, strangers or friends, is to share with other people an act of creation. Music making, unlike visual art, is dynamic. Every rehearsal and every performance, every singalong and every church service, every time people sing together, they are creating art. There is nothing more powerful to share with a person than creation. And it is creation no matter whether it is flawless or a big mess.

Of course, all this has implications for our educational system, and that includes how we educate our children at home, around the dining room table. Again, quoting Fulghum:

“Imagine how it would seem if our educational system evaluated students around sixth grade and if you did not have a clear potential for playing tennis at Wimbledon championship level, you are not now and never will be a tennis player, and that would be the end of tennis for you. No way! Yet when it comes to singing, that’s exactly what we do. From sixth grade through high school, and the rest of your life, if you haven’t been labeled as having “talent” or a “good voice” or if you aren’t stubborn enough about it, you will not sing in the choir. And you will grow up at best being a secret singer, as embarrassed to be caught doing it in public as picking your nose. If you want to clear a roomful of guests at a party, simply announce that ‘we are all going to gather around the piano and sing songs.’ Good night. Same is true on a camping trip. ‘Let’s all sit around the campfire and sing’ sends most people to their tents.”

Yet the best part of camping is the songs around the campfire. You feel at peace with your fellow campers, you feel at peace with the world. You go to bed with the sense that you have contributed something of value to the very air around you. Was it good singing? Doesn’t matter.

There is a big difference between singing alone and singing with other people. In a chorus or a choir, diverse groups of people sing WITH each other to produce something that would be impossible for any individual to do alone. A chorus can be made of black, white, Latino and Asian people, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish people; children, teens, adults and seniors; Conservatives, Liberals, Independents, and Tea Partiers. And my experience is that it is almost impossible to concern oneself with those distinctions between people, those things that divide people, while singing together.

I know how naïve this sounds, but I think there are real implications for world peace in what I am saying here. If world leaders would take time from their high-level meetings in which they are deciding terms of peace treaties and weapons agreements and sing together for a while, I honestly think the talks would go more quickly and end more peacefully.

On a choral tour, a group of four of us women was housed for two nights with a multi-generational family in Meissen, Germany, in 1991, about 18 months after the Berlin wall came down. We were the first westerners that this family had met for decades, and the first westerners their teenage children had ever met. One of us had a smattering of German, and their 15-year-old daughter had a year of high school English. We sat in the back yard, drinking schnapps and singing, with a guitar. To our delight, we found we knew many of the same songs – not necessarily with the same words, but the same tunes. We sang together for a couple of hours. I will never forget the grandmother at the head of the table, weeping and murmuring “meine kinder” as we sang – I am sure she was thinking that she never thought she would live long enough to see her children and grandchildren singing in the backyard with American friends. And we were friends, though we hardly knew each other. It was the singing that made that happen. Was it good singing? I have no idea, and it didn’t matter. It was a form of communication. It was a religious experience. It was a way of forming a community. And community is the hope of humankind.

When faced with extreme difficulty, how do people respond? Referring to September 11, 2010, Karl Paulnack of the Boston Conservatory said:

“At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York that same day was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome.” Lots of people sang “America the Beautiful”. The first organized public event that I remember was the “Brahms Requiem” later that week at Lincoln Center.  The US Military may have secured the airspace, but recovery was led by music.”

Inspired by a Facebook-organized protest, Norwegians flocked to public squares across the country to send a message to Anders Behring Breivik, accused of a bomb-and-shooting rampage that killed 77 people, by singing Pete Seeger’s “Children of the Rainbow.” The official concert celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” not coincidentally, I am sure, the “Choral Symphony.”

The next time you attend a church service, please sing the hymns. It doesn’t matter how you sing them but it matters very much that you do it. Look at and sing with the people on either side of you and realize that singing is one of the best ways that we create community, in church and in the larger world. Sing next to your children and make sure they know you want them to join you in the community. Sing at their birthday parties. Sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the next ball game you attend. Sing grace before Thanksgiving dinner. Sing silly songs on your next car trip. Sing your baby to sleep. Sing love songs to your partner. Sing, everyone, keep singing.

I close with another quote from Pete Seeger:

“If there is a human race still here in the 22nd century, I believe we’ll learn the fun of singing again. To take a lung full of air and push it out with some kind of song is an act of survival, whether you’re singing in a shower, a car, a bar, in a chorus, at a birthday party, at a church, or wherever. Try it – you’ll live longer.”

Of course, it’ll be much harder to find songs all folks want to sing together, but that’s alright. Little by little, we’re learning to like each other’s songs and getting less enthusiastic about killing each other. And if there’s still a human race here in 100 years, it won’t be because of any one big organization, whether a big church or big political party, a big corporation or country, or even a big UN. It will be because millions upon millions of small organizations: Save This. Stop That. We’ll disagree on so many things it’ll be funny. But we’ll agree on a few main points, like:

It’s better to talk than shoot.

Bombs always kill innocent people.

When words fail (and they will), try sports, arts and food.

And industrialized, polluted, TV-addicted people will learn to sing again. Hooray!