Why I Sing


Capriccio Columbus

In less than an hour, I leave for one of my favorite activities of the week–rehearsals with Capriccio Columbus. This is now my eleventh season of singing with this choral group and it continues to be one of the joys of my life. Why do I sing?

Fundamentally, singing reminds me that there is goodness and beauty in an ugly and sometimes evil world. Every time we come together to make music, we declare out loud what we intuit deeply in ourselves–that evil and ugliness cannot and will not have the last word.

Therefore, singing for me is not an act of escapism, of forgetting the hard things around us, but rather resistance, a form of declaration, of demonstration, that the deeper story of life is one of goodness, of truth, and of beauty. It is striking to me that civil rights marchers, and even those who grieved in Pittsburgh recently gave voice to their longings, their grief, and their prayers, in song.

Singing in a choral group is a living metaphor of our longings for a unity in the midst of diversity. The very nature of harmony is that different voices, different parts, when we are doing it right, blend together to make something far more beautiful and interesting than if all of us were singing the same note. If only we could figure out that a monotone society is no more interesting than a monotone choral group!

Making music involves every fiber of my being. We learned in a vocal workshop that we sing from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads. Not only does singing involve the whole body, it engages the whole mind. To focus on rhythms, notes, and words, to tempo and dynamics, and to do all of that at once uses every one of my ever-diminishing brain cells (although some research suggests that singing enhances brain function and forestalls some forms of dementia).

Every fiber of my being includes my soul, that inner, spiritual part of who I am. To sing well means to reflect on what we are singing, and how the music accentuates phrases and moods. To sing well is not just to be technically proficient, but to incarnate the music–to sing out of oneself and what that music has come to mean to us. If I am paying attention, music often speaks of realities beyond the rehearsal, beyond the concert, to the deepest thoughts about meaning, and love, and the transcendent.

Making music is handling particular pieces of music, noting with pencil particular directions for singing it, holding it in folders, doing all this next to others, some who sing your part, some who sing others. It is trying, and failing, and learning, particularly when we first read through new music. It is holding music at a certain level, high enough that you can glance over it to follow the leading of your director, who is trying to keep 80 plus people singing four to eight parts singing together. It is real, it is physical. It is active. There is nothing passive or virtual about it.

Singing is people. One makes friends, and begins to really care not only about the rehearsal but about job losses, deaths, babies, engagements, and weddings. In a world of increasing isolation, choral groups bring people from all kinds of backgrounds into what are often called “mediating institutions.” They stand between the isolation of our individual lives and the big impersonal institutions of modern society.

Well, it is about time for me to leave. For all these reasons, this is why I sing tonight.

How I Spend My Tuesday Evenings


Capriccio Columbus (Fall 2015)

Very simple. I gather for two hours or more and sing with these people, ten months out of the year. I guess I’m thinking about this because last night was my last rehearsal until the fall and I was thinking of how much I’ve  enjoyed singing with”these people” who make up Capriccio Columbus. I’ll tell you more about them in a minute.

It started when I decided that I was tired of listening to music and wanted to make some. I have always loved singing and several times sang in church choirs. In fact, it was the demise of our church’s choir that led to auditioning for Capriccio. I had never had any vocal training, and wasn’t very good at reading music and knew just the rudiments of musical notation. I borrowed a book of Beatles songs from my son, picked one that was in my range, and practiced in the car on a trip back from Pittsburgh. The director, Larry Griffin, and associate director Karrie Horton listened to me, told me I was in and where to pay my dues and get my music. It probably helped that I am a tenor. There is never a plentiful supply of them!

I joined in the third season and we just completed our tenth season with a concert on Saturday featuring a performance of Karl Jenkins Requiem (here is a link to the Introit on YouTube). It combines the Latin Requiem Mass with Japanese haiku death poems set to music. It epitomizes what I think has made Capriccio Columbus so special. We sing so many different kinds of music. Larry Griffin grew up in the black church tradition, and so we sing a good amount of music from that tradition. This year, as part of our tenth anniversary celebration, we did a whole concert of Stacey V. Gibbs music, including a piece commissioned for our tenth anniversary. Gibbs, based in Detroit, arranges choral settings of many of the spirituals that have been part of the history of the black church. We had the privilege of being directed by him in concert. That’s not the first time this has happened either. Several years ago, we did a concert of Caldwell and Ivory music, with each of them directing portions of the concert.

I’ve been part of memorable performances with orchestras of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Brahm’s Requiem, and Orff’s Carmina Burana. A couple of my favorite concerts include one we called “Puccini and Porter”. We concluded by encircling the audience and singing Porter’s Every Time I Say Goodbye. What a beautiful moment. Another one was a performance of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Songs, a rarely performed suite of songs that includes a dance piece and accompaniment with a jazz orchestra. One of the more unusual concerts featured a piece called The Blue Grass Mass. There was a song about crossing Jordan that had me almost in tears, as I was singing it shortly after my mother’s death. This spring, even as the U.S. opened relations with Cuba, we sang a work by Cuban composer Jose Vitier, with Vitier accompanying us.

But probably the best part of Capriccio Columbus may be our Tuesday night rehearsals. There is so much laughter, often at our mistakes! Larry uses humor and exaggeration of our faults to show us how to sing the way he wants us to. He can be funny and irreverent, but he also helps you pay attention to the words and music and meaning so we don’t just sing the right notes at the right tempo but sing with heart and soul. It is such a change of pace from what I do the rest of the time. To laugh, and then work hard at singing well with those in your section and the choir often leaves me uplifted, even when I might have been mentally saying, “another rehearsal” beforehand.

Laughter during rehearsals, the mental challenge of singing a challenging piece of music, the moments where it all comes together and you are lost in the beauty of what you are singing, the chance to begin to understand a great piece of music from the inside, learning to sing a wide variety of music with different rhythms and in different languages,and the opportunity to keep the tradition of choral singing alive in our patch of Central Ohio all contribute to my answer to the question “why do you do this?” I’ve had more fun making music than I could have possibly believed. Thank you Larry and Karrie!

Perhaps you are like me and enjoy music, and dream of making it. Sometimes you just have to make space for such things, and seek out a community choir or good church choir. And if you happen to be around Central Ohio, you might check out our website and talk to me about joining in–particularly if you are a tenor!


The Goodness Leading to Thanksgiving

Photo by M. Rehemtulla [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by M. Rehemtulla [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I am celebrating Thanksgiving today. You might wonder from my post on From Lament to Thanksgiving if today was going to be a somber affair for us. No way! There will be food, family, great conversation, and football.

“But doesn’t that contradict what you wrote yesterday?” No, and here is why. While there is indeed a “problem of evil” in our world, the larger “problem” it seems to me is that of goodness. Why is it that soldiers tell jokes in the midst of battle, and show pictures of sweethearts while in the trenches? Why is it that even in the times surrounding funerals, we cannot resist telling stories that evoke laughter, even about the deceased, or enjoying good food and drink? It is because somehow, we believe deep down that the good is somehow more enduring and real than evil, that life somehow prevails over death and that with all the evil we see, we live in a world shot through with goodness.

So much of that goodness comes in the ordinary warp and woof of life. Sometimes it is the amazing feeling of refreshment after sleeping in after a good night’s sleep. Sometimes it is that first sip from the first cup of coffee in the morning. Sometimes it is in the first hug and first “I love you” of the day. There are all the shared moments and shared memories that weave the tapestry of a family’s life together.

Then there is the work of our days. Some is around our home and particularly the making of a place of welcome together. I also work in an amazing organization filled with gifted people of every ethnicity using their gifts to pursue the glory of God in the university world. I’m often amazed to be counted among them and to have been blessed to share in this work for 38 years. I work alongside amazing students and faculty, brilliant people of character pursuing their work with God-honoring excellence.

I often find myself giving thanks and rejoicing in the beauties of artistic expression, poor imitations at best of the work of our Creator. This past Tuesday in our Capriccio Columbus rehearsal, the men sat and listened to a number of our women sing a beautiful piece as our director tried to figure out who should have the solo. What struck me was all the different ways our women sang this so beautifully. While they sang the same notes and words, nuances of emphasis and varying timbres of voice reminded me that goodness and beauty have so many expressions.

I don’t think days like Thanksgiving are an escape but rather a celebration that affirms the deep sense we have that goodness, truth, and beauty will prevail in the end. And it is a day to gives thanks both to and for those who mean so much to us, and for those who believe that all this goodness comes from a good Creator, to offer that thanks to Him. And so I eagerly look forward to our family gathering today when we may do all of these things.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I also want to thank all those who read and especially who comment on this blog. Much of the joy of writing it has been in learning of the joy or insight it gives another and the thoughts it provokes that you share, which often enlighten me as well. Happy Thanksgiving!

Reading Musically

Tuesday nights are Capriccio Columbus rehearsals. One of the things I was reminded of once again was how much goes into “reading” and singing even a simple piece of music. One is paying attention to notes, pitches, tempos, dynamics and other markings in the printed music. Then there is that person up front waving the stick to beat time and communicating in a variety of ways his or her wishes (we have two directors, Larry and Karrie). There is your section–you want to blend with them so that all the voices are one and none stands out. There are the other sections with whom you want to harmonize. And there is that accompanist, or in some cases the orchestra.

Then there are the words we are singing and the mood they evoke–loving, tender, playful, jubilant, worshipful, and dancing are some of the descriptions of moods in the pieces we are currently rehearse them. To sing them with meaning that connects with the audience means grasping, and being grasped by that mood. There is “syllabic stress”– which syllables get the emphasis. Then there are languages–English, French, Spanish, and Latin are just some of those in which we’ve sung.

It is a wonderful thing when all these elements come together, especially at a concert! I’m always amazed with the process that begins with a “read through” where I hit maybe 20% of the notes, am learning the words, head buried in the score while the director tries to get our attention. With practice and rehearsals, it starts making sense as you learn the rhythms, the dynamics, and the “mood” of the piece as you pay attention to the mysterious interweave of words and music.

All this makes me wonder if there is more to reading a book, or any piece of writing, than just scanning and registering in one’s brain the sequence of words on the page, and maybe comprehending the basic sense of the sentence and if the skills one uses to bring so many different things together in reading a piece of music can also apply to reading a piece of literature or non-fiction. Might we not simultaneously be aware of character development, imagery, plot turns, allusions, the mood evoked in a work, figures of speech. In non-fiction, there is the exposition of an idea, the arguments for a thesis but also the use of wit, irony, sarcasm, humor, appeals to authority.

Reading and singing a piece of music demands one’s total attention. This makes me wonder whether reading a book well might also call for that kind of attention if one is to read on the various levels simultaneously that a well-written piece of writing demands. (I also recognize that there are “junk novels” and fun reads that may not require such attention). Does it even involve re-reading? I know that some of the great books I’ve loved disclose new depths with each reading.

Have you had the experience of reading richly and deeply? What book were you reading? What was that like for you?

Why Do You Sing…?


Do you ever find yourself in the midst of what you think is a routine event and discover there is something special and wonderful going on?  Last night was like that.  It was our first rehearsal of the year for Capriccio Columbus.  This is my sixth season with this wonderful choral group in central Ohio.   Like many rehearsals we sang a mix of music I was familiar with and new music that I stumbled through.  That was pretty typical!

What wasn’t typical was a time of introductions that followed.  We began by hearing from one of our patrons, who spoke of how Capriccio has given many singers the chance to sing with a symphony orchestra, to sing great choral works at a high level of excellence, to make music rather than just listen to it.  I found myself resonating with all this. I’d sung with a few church choirs over the years and attended many of of my son’s concerts in high school and college.  Five years ago, I decided that I was tired of listening to others sing and that I would audition, which seemed crazy–I’d never auditioned in my life and my audition practice was rehearsing a piece of Beatles music in the car returning from a work trip to Pittsburgh on the afternoon of the rehearsal.  Amazingly, they let this amateur join! Over the years we’ve sung the Brahms RequiemCarmina Burana, Vivaldi’s and Rutter’s Glorias and lots of other amazing music.  And I’ve gotten to sing with a symphony numerous times.  That’s a dream come true and an item off my bucket list!

Then all the choirs members were invited to introduce themselves.  And this was when I realized that I was in the midst of a very special moment as person after person spoke of how much they looked forward to Tuesday rehearsals, had come to us from bad choir experiences and discovered both an excellence and a joy in singing they’d longed for, how these evenings together were a ‘sanity break’ from work or parenting young children.  I realized afresh how blessed we are to have skillful directors in Larry Griffin and Karrie Horton for whom singing well and having fun go together.

I think one of the things that connects my love of great books and love of singing great music is the coming together of goodness, truth, and beauty these have in common.  As Paul the Apostle writes in Philippians 1:8:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.