I've been meaning to write this post since last spring, when we embarked on our first ever virtual choir project. After yesterday's return to in-person choir after two years, I decided that it was time to revisit these thoughts.
We have endured a lot of isolation and separation over many months due to the global pandemic. Prior to that, we had to downsize the music ministry plans in order to fit into our rented facility following the electrical fire at CtK. There simply wasn't room there for choir or instruments.
When everything shut down last March, I recall having the thought, "Well, I hope I can keep my salary, as music will clearly be impossible." Here's a shout out to our fearless leader, David Glade, who encouraged the staff to think creatively about what we might do that we would not ordinarily be able to do. Make lemonade out of lemons, in other words.
Prerecording service music was an adequate placeholder for awhile. As the quarantine drew on and on, I felt internal pressure to give the virtual choir thing a try.
The choir at CtK is the most fabulous group of people. I was blown away when they were all game to give the virtual choir a try! It meant learning music alone, then playing the part and accompaniment in an earbud, while recording oneself singing a cappella on a different device. Framing, clothing (e.g., not the pajama uniform many of us sported in those days), and lighting in the room were all important. They needed to find time clear of ambient noise (extra credit for parents of small children!). Then, they'd send it to me, and off to production. There was a little healthy anxiety about getting all the details right, and obviously, recording one's solo voice. The voice is such an exposed instrument: if you're tired, or ate or drank something acidic or viscous, or have allergies--any number of things--it shows up in your voice. We all shared some nervous chatter and good-natured self-deprecation over the awkwardness of it all. I only listened long enough to make sure the audio worked before passing the files off to be combined, so there was no hairsplitting over individual tracks.
When one sings with others, vocal idiosyncrasies blend together, smoothing the sound. When I finally started hearing and seeing drafts of the virtual choir, I was just stunned by how lovely it all sounded. From some of the humorously self-deprecating remarks I heard, you'd think the result would sound like a barnyard. Instead, I just thought wow--we really just sound better together.
The CtK choir and friends sang A Song of Peace and Unity by Ann Lee on May 17, 2020. For the video, please see the homepage.
Yesterday, September 19, 2021, choir sang together in person with the congregation of CtK for our 9 a.m. worship service. It was exhilarating to hear so many strong voices raised. As amazing as it was to be able to put complex music together remotely--(kudos to Charlie Calotta and Greg Hammond and their endless patience and tech support, and with whom music at CtK would have utterly failed in 2020)--I often felt the frustration of just not being totally in sync.
Don't get me wrong: classically-trained musicians practice, and practice, and practice the art of ensemble, or being in sync. It doesn't just happen by virtue of being together. The effort is to make one cohesive musical moment, free from the individuality of one marching by the beat of his own drum. There is a kind of breathless magic that happens when an ensemble of any size is in that full flow zone. Two or more people create something larger than either could do individually; it takes on an identity of its own.
Being physically apart makes achieving this elusive ensemble zone exceedingly difficult, and I would say impossible. Even with singers and instrumentalists with whom I've worked many times, and can anticipate stylistic choices and nuances, not being able to see each other, or to feel the physical resonance of one another, or to breathe together, meant that while we can simulate a high quality mash-up, that last piece of unique magic that occurs only from in-person harmony remained out of reach.
Breath is the original conduit life force for human life (Gen. 2:7). We are physical bodies, we are dust (see also Ps. 103:14); but life enters and departs with breath. Many eastern religions and other practices and traditions have made a great deal out of the power of breath, even extending to idolatry. Professionals in health and neuroscience are finding clinical support for the value and power of controlling one's breath. Breath indeed carries our vitality, but it also carries germs. When stakes are high, and stress is high, what should we do with this frustrating dilemma?
I think there is Biblical basis for both the exhilarating joy of lifting our voices together; when "everything that has breath praise[s] the LORD" (Ps. 150:6). Equally though, our dust-based bodies are vulnerable, as is all of creation, to the effects of sin.
I think the takeaway is that we are simply not in heaven yet. Many of you have heard me tell my story of learning about heaven at a young age. I had always heard that heaven is perfect, and we will live in perfect joy with God. Perfection to me, at that age, 4 or 5, meant in addition to bouncing on clouds without fear of falling, that there would be talking pegasus ponies that you could hug and ride whenever you wanted. No parental permission necessary. One Sunday, a passage or part of a hymn stood out to me; from Rev. 4:8b says that the creatures never stop praising day and night; and "there forever glorified" is a hymn phrase that comes to mind. It was something like that. I asked my mother to please explain. She said all we'll want to do is praise God forever. "No," I thought, "that's not right. Heaven is perfect, and while I like singing just fine, a perfect world is as-described above. With ice cream."
It has been easy to focus on the frustrating physical restrictions these days. I think what we forget is that we isolate and separate ourselves, allowing preferences, personalities, any sinful excuse to deny the unity that is the ultimate reality in Christ Jesus. We've missed the visceral feeling of being unified, when everyone lifts their voices in glorious praise together. And that is a taste of heaven. I pray that we will hold fast to sound doctrine (2 Tim. 1:13), however we may feel, and whatever challenges arise. We are one in the Spirit, and we share the adopted identity as God's children with all other believers and the whole communion of saints. This identity is static; no one can pluck us from His hands (John 10:28), whether we feel it at the moment or not.
Still, I am one happy camper to engage in the incredible gift and immeasurable joy of joining with all of you in live music with thanksgiving. May Jesus Christ be praised!
Christ the King Choir singing Prayer by René Clausen, and with the congregation at CtK on September 19, 2022, after a nearly 2 year hiatus.