At a recent SING in Chattanooga, the resonant church was filled with people who love to sing. The sound from the first note was warm, the faces eager, and the excitement of experiencing something new almost palpable. Afterwards folks crowded around me asking "How do you do that?" and "Why don't we sing like this all the time?"
It got me thinking about the ease with which I can call forth meaningful singing -- and also why it doesn't often happen. First, I've spent my life working with voices. I remember my own very palpable excitement in the years of study with Robert Shaw, of having my own ears opened. I was listening to vocal sound as never before, aware of nuances in pitch, rhythm, diction and balance that I had not suspected. Second, the focus on melody that I learned, again through R. Shaw, in working together on the arrangements of folksongs, hymns and spirituals. He was fierce about limiting what I was allowed to do with those familiar tunes, no changing a note, a word, a chord; The important thing was to own the melody so completely that it felt as if you'd written it -- and then to let everything else flow from that. Respect the basic framework -- words, phrase-curves, verse sequence, rhythmic dance. Resist the temptation to make it "interesting" or "up to date". Hone each voice into an inevitable flow. Eventually think counterpoint far more than harmony.
And third, away from Shaw, a teaching style. Just as I was thinking that the Shaw method of meticulous rehearsal was the only way to achieve his results, I heard Mennonites singing in church. I began to realize that this is the real tradition, handed down from generation to generation by ear and voice. A cappella singing in home, school and church, the constant example of lovely voices singing what they believed, a culture in which listening to each other is honored to a high degree. At the same time, I was teaching Sunday School for pre-schoolers ages 2 to 5. I realized that these small people could sing anything that I wanted to teach them. We were limited to single-line melody with only one verse, but they loved the great hymns of the faith as much as I did, and sang them lustily. These two experiences convinced me that circumventing the page is the best way to achieve musical singing. I must teach that which cannot be notated.
Think how much our culture leads us in the opposite direction. Almost all music is funneled through the page, and we are taught that fidelity to the page is the principal virtue. Yet, as a composer, the page to me is a virtual prison. The music in my head streams in clear profusion, beautifully articulated. But the moment I write it down it is shuttered, corseted into those unwieldy notes, those rigid counts, that visual dullness. Rare is the group that restores it to its free state -- and I think this is because we treat the visual page as an end in itself, rather than moving through it to the aural/oral sound. How backwards can we get? We tend to teach the corset, rather than the freedom.
So, in song leading, I'm teaching by rote -- not because I have a beautiful voice, but because I have a vision of the song that is founded upon all those principles above. I project my vision, and ask people to listen and join in to that particular kind of sound. When we are all agreed on a way to sing the melody, I can suggest pedals or echoes or rhythmic figures which will enhance it. But we never lose that first communicative impulse which unites us with the song's first singers. We're not being 'correct to the page', we're being 'correct to the song'. Or lost in it. Or overwhelmed by it, compelled to sing better than ever before.
It's almost the categorical opposite of conducting. Beating a pattern does not help. Expecting a church congregation to read the music and keep an eye on the conductor is an exercise in frustration, they haven't been trained is this as have orchestral players. The traditional conductor is always working through the page, the closer the musicians adhere to the page, the better the result. (Of course, it helps if they are listening to each other as well.). But that discipline, of controlling the players to the nth degree is not what I'm after. I'm trying to release them into the song, empowering them to make the music hidden within it, just as I did with the four-year-olds. My gestures are more of a dance than a pattern, asking for expressive sound rather than controlling it. We are all intent on finding the sound that releases the song, once we have found it, we soar into free flight. That's what creates the exhilaration.
This sense of freedom within bounds is common to all the arts, as well as our theology and our lives. Dorothy Sayers, in The Whimsical Christian, (New York: Macmillan, 1979) defines a Christian aesthetic in these words: "The only way of 'mastering' ones materi al is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to cooperate with it in love. Whosoever will be a lord of life, let that one be its servant. The business of the creator is not to escape from his material medium or to bully it, but to serve it, but to serve it he must love it. " What we are communicating, in a SING, is love.
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