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.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Choir Concerts


RIA Novosti archive, image #24089 / Tichonov / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you remember choir concerts at Christmas time? In my case my first memories are of concerts in elementary school. We’d have a Christmas assembly in the auditorium of Washington Elementary and each grade would perform various holiday songs. Those for the younger grades were fairly simple — Jingle Bells, Silent Night, and the like. The older grades would sing more difficult songs and those of us who were younger would just sit in amazement. We’d also do parents assemblies, and no matter how well or poorly you sang, mom and dad would look at you like you were Pavarotti and applaud long and loud.

Then there were junior high concerts. The music was harder, we would sing in parts, and there was one big problem if you were a middle school boy — you never knew what your voice would do, particular with the higher notes. So typically all you heard was the girls who didn’t have such problems, with a low rumble of boys singing the notes they could safely sing.

I suspect it is memories of those experiences that convince many adult men that they cannot sing. I was one of them for a while. I didn’t sing in the high school choirs at Chaney, when music was an elective. But that was where it seemed music really got to be fun. There were acapella groups, and some amazing choral songs where you heard all the parts, and it somehow worked. The guys voices were maturing and you could hear them.

Secretly, I always loved to sing, and when I more deeply embraced my faith, my love of music expanded. The main outlet for singing I had then (during college at Youngstown State) was church choirs and the big deal for church choirs was the infamous CHRISTMAS CANTATA! Christmas cantatas usually retold the Christmas story in song, and often were 20 minutes or more in length. You spent most of the fall rehearsing it. Everybody liked the Christmas cantata. The choir finally got to perform this music we’d worked on, the congregation loved the music, and probably the fact that there was either no sermon or a very short one. Maybe secretly, the minister liked it too, because he got the Sunday off.

Later in life, work and parenting kept me busy and I was on the other side of choir concerts, the proud parent side. We went to concerts my son sang in all the way from pre-school up through Men’s Glee Club concerts at Ohio State. We still have recordings of some of those concerts (useful for embarrassing your adult child!).

During my son’s high school holiday concerts, Mr. Griffin offered parents the chance to come and rehearse of few numbers and sing in a parent’s choir, and once or twice I did this, which awakened my appetite for more. It turns out it also awakened an opportunity for Mr. Griffin. Some adults asked if he would consider forming an adult choir, to provide more opportunities for those who loved singing to do this. Out of this Capriccio Columbus was born, with Mr. Griffin directing. I joined during their third season, ten years ago. This past Sunday, we performed our Christmas concert.

We closed our concert with a new arrangement of a song I first sang at Washington Elementary over fifty years ago, “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be.
With God as our Father
Brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.
With every step I take
Let this be my solemn vow.
To take each moment
And live each moment
With peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth,
And let it begin with me.

Songwriters: Jill Jackson/Sy Miller; Lyrics © Mccg LLC

I remembered singing this song with youthful idealism fifty years ago, in the Camelot years of the Kennedy presidency. Maybe you remember it as well. Having seen both the best and the worst that humans can do to each other, I sang it very differently. It was more of a prayer that the “peace on earth” that the angels proclaimed that first Christmas would take root in our troubled world.

Peace to you this Christmas! And I hope you get to hear, or sing in, a choir singing some great music this Christmas.


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!


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.