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Posts Tagged ‘singing’

Powerhouse voice in a 5’2” body. I’ve loved her music for years but am rediscovering her soulful ballads, badass girl-power anthems and heartfelt love songs. Strong Southern women are my truth-tellers.

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Last year, one of the joys of December in Eastie was participating in a local Christmas carol choir, spearheaded by my friend Peter and often hosted by him and his wife, Giordana. (That’s their dining room table, above, complete with pencils for marking and herbal tea for scratchy throats.)

We are all keeping our distance this year, of course, but I think Peter (and some of us) could not bear to do nothing, so we’re cobbling together a pandemic-safe carol service. We’re holding rehearsals on Zoom and planning to record ourselves singing the individual parts, to be mixed together and then released as a full (amateur) recording.

I thought it might feel sad, or inadequate: like so many things, this practice is a shadow of what it was pre-pandemic. We can’t gather in anyone’s living room, or sing together in real time; instead, we all mute ourselves and sing along with recordings on YouTube, sharing the sheet music on our computer screens (with lots of attendant technical glitches).

It is messy and imperfect and sometimes hilarious, and the recordings are hit or miss, frankly. But it’s still nourishing to see everyone’s faces, and wave hello and sing together, even if it doesn’t look at all “normal.” I am learning a few songs I didn’t know, and revisiting cherished favorites, like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “O Holy Night.”

These songs have layers of associations for me, long years of singing them with family or friends or church communities, all the way up to Christmas Eve. For me, the music and the community are both vital to marking the season. So despite the tech issues and the funky recordings and the wish that we could all be together, these rehearsals – virtual though they may be – are a real source of light and warmth and laughter.

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In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

—Bertolt Brecht

The thing I miss most about church is the singing.

I enjoy other parts of church: the community, the prayers, communion, a thoughtful sermon. But the thing that often gets me in the door is the chance to lift my voice and sing. And while most of us are quarantined, I’ve been missing the faith communities I love, whose music moves me.

But the singing, like so many aspects of “normal” life, hasn’t disappeared altogether. One of my neighbors is a musician, and I can often hear her singing as she comes in and out the front door, or when I go down to the basement to do laundry. When my guy comes over, he sings as he moves around the kitchen: Motown or gospel or classic R&B. We know some of the same hymns, too, and once in a while we sing one together.

I’ve been streaming the occasional church service during this time, and tuning into the weekly chapel service from ACU, my alma mater. It’s not the same as being present with others to sing, but I like at least hearing other voices. I’ve sat at my kitchen table singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” or hummed “In Christ Alone” while I’m heating up lunch. On Good Friday, I streamed the afternoon service from St Aldates, and sang along with “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

A couple of weeks ago, ACU put out a call for video submissions of a song all of us know and love: “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” It’s our unofficial school song: we sing it at graduation, at the end of Sing Song, at the beginning and end of every school year. Our college choir used to sing it at the end of every week, and it was the final piece in every concert we performed. (My ex and I even had the congregation sing it at our wedding.) And now, you can hear more than 500 of us singing it on YouTube.

Whether you are religious or not, I wish this for you, and for all of us during this time: mercy and peace, hope and love. With an a cappella sevenfold Amen.

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y’all come sing

newport-goodnight-irene

Several times recently, I’ve found myself in a friend’s living room, paging through a hymnal or flipping through a binder of Christmas-themed sheet music. I’ve joined a holiday choir in my neighborhood, and we’re rehearsing a mixture of classic, well-known carols (O Come O Come Emmanuel, The First Noel, Silent Night) and choral arrangements that are new to me.

I used to do this all the time when I lived in Texas, whether it was a praise team rehearsal early on a Sunday morning (standing in a rough circle in the passageway leading to the baptistry) or gathering in Gail and Calvin’s living room on a Sunday night. More recently, there were many Sunday nights at Ryan and Amy’s, west of Boston, where we’d pull out the hymnals after dinner and sing a few favorite songs.

As a college student, I sang in ACU’s choir, where we performed mostly classical music – some of it complex and demanding. Our kind-eyed director, Dr. Mike, would occasionally grow frustrated when we got sloppy during an opera chorus or failed to hit the harmonies precisely. This was not, he would sometimes remind us, a “y’all come sing.” We were aiming for technique and skill beyond that.

Every Thursday, though, we would end rehearsals for the week with The Lord Bless You and Keep You, sitting on carpeted risers in the rehearsal room that felt like home. Letting the harmonies and the sevenfold Amen wind over and around each other, we let our voices be a benediction to one another before we parted for the weekend. In those moments, we simply had to show up and sing.

I understood Dr. Mike’s point, then and now: we were practicing a craft, learning new techniques and often performing really difficult music. Those pieces took focus and discipline; we couldn’t just open our mouths and sing any old way. But he knew – and so do I – that there is a place for “y’all come sing.”

There’s a place for letting the music be the reason we gather, rather than a polished end in itself. There’s a place for y’all – because where I come from, y’all means everyone. There’s a place for the beauty that comes in missed notes and unfamiliar lyrics and those moments where it all comes together in a way that feels, just a little bit, like grace.

(Photo from the end of this year’s Newport Folk Festival, which was a different kind of “y’all come sing.”)

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tulips flowers stone church Cambridge

I Worried

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

—Mary Oliver

tulip magnolia tree bloom blue sky

I love Mary Oliver, as regular readers know, but either hadn’t read this poem or had forgotten about it, until my friend Louise shared it on Instagram.

There is so much to worry over in the world – the second stanza especially hits me right in the heart, these days. But there are also so many reasons to sing.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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april reads part 2The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, Anton Disclafani
After a family tragedy, 15-year-old Thea Atwell is sent from her secluded Florida home to a riding camp/boarding school. Away from her parents and twin brother for the first time, she gradually learns to live with the other girls, while reflecting on the scandal that brought her there. Full of dark secrets and beautiful writing; Thea is a complex, compelling narrator. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 4).

Love Over Scotland, Alexander McCall Smith
The third 44 Scotland St. novel finds anthropologist Domenica studying the habits of pirates in the Strait of Malacca, Pat beginning her university course, and Matthew making a few disastrous fashion decisions. Gentle humor and philosophical questions, as always, abound. Good fun.

Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly, Susan Schorn
All her life, Susan Schorn wrestled with fear and anxiety. When she took up karate at a women-only dojo in Austin, she not only found a way to address her fear: she discovered an entirely new framework for life. Her smart, witty memoir traces her journey as a karate student and teacher, with plenty of pithy, often paradoxical life lessons and hilarious anecdotes. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 28).

She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems, ed. Caroline Kennedy
Kennedy has gathered her favorite poems under a dozen or so headings (“Falling in Love,” “Breaking Up,” “Marriage,” “Work,” “Motherhood,” etc.), with essays introducing each section. Some sections felt a bit trite, but I loved others, such as “Growing Up and Growing Old” and especially the last section, “How to Live.” A wide range of poems from different eras, and an interesting array of perspectives on womanhood.

Hattie Ever After, Kirby Larson
After a stint on a homestead claim in Montana (in Hattie Big Sky), orphan and aspiring writer Hattie Brooks heads to San Francisco to pursue her dreams. She starts out as a night janitress at a big newspaper, but quickly progresses to cub reporter – even gaining a few scoops. Hattie is a spunky heroine, but at times she seemed overly and improbably naive. Fun, but not as compelling as the original.

Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, Deborah Yaffe
Although Deborah Yaffe was a longtime Austen fan, she had no idea how huge, diverse and sometimes bizarre the Janeite world could be. But she explores the spectrum of Austenmania in this fascinating blend of memoir and reportage. She interviews Jane fans ranging from pedantic academics to a Texan who orders custom-made Regency gowns every year. She also shares her travails with a Regency ball gown (and corset). Witty, informative and warmhearted. Jane would approve. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 10).

Garlic, Mint, and Sweet Basil: Essays on Marseilles, the Mediterranean, and Noir Fiction, Jean-Claude Izzo
These are more like mini-essays – snippets of Izzo’s thoughts about Marseilles (his beloved, multiethnic home), the cuisine and culture of the Mediterranean region, which bridges Europe and Africa; and one scene featuring the protagonist of his noir novels. Some lovely sentences and images of Marseilles, mostly relating to food (see title), but the substance here felt lacking.

The World According to Bertie, Alexander McCall Smith
Our fourth visit to Scotland Street finds Bertie adjusting to the birth of his baby brother, Ulysses, while Angus Lordie fights to clear the name of his dog, Cyril, who has been impounded for biting people. I love these books for their gentle musings on our everyday interactions with one another and the philosophical questions arising from those. McCall’s love for Edinburgh is evident in every page.

The House at the End of Hope Street, Menna van Praag
The titular magical house in Cambridge, England, is visible only to those women who need it and managed by Peggy, a wise, white-haired mother figure with a weakness for cream. Alba, a young, timid student, finds herself there after a serious betrayal. Gradually she (and the house’s other guests) regain the courage to face their fears, helped by the house’s former residents, who dispense advice through their Hogwarts-esque talking portraits. Whimsical and wonderfully bookish.

Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, Stacy Horn
Though she only has a so-so voice and she’s not religious, Stacy Horn has sung with the choir of Grace Church in New York City for more than 30 years. Her memoir explores the joy we derive from group singing, with asides about the history of singing societies in the U.S. and the lives of several composers. As a singer, I enjoyed this book, though I got a bit tired of the author’s protesting-too-much assertions of agnosticism.

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When writers and artists come together, there is music. And when the people of God come together, there is music. So at the Glen, as you might expect, we played and we listened and we sang.

mount holyoke college chapel

The chapel at Mt. Holyoke

Jan Krist ably led us in worship during the brief, nightly services, which felt like a semicolon, like a welcome pause after each long, full day of what Lauren Winner admitted, one morning as we wrapped up our workshop, is “hard and holy work.”

Talking and listening and thinking about craft and purpose, and holding each other’s stories, on and off the page, is both difficult and sacred. So I found it fitting that Lauren began each class session with the same words that opened each worship service: “The Lord be with you.” Each time, sitting around a large wooden table with pens in hand or shifting in our chairs in the high-ceilinged music hall, we responded: “And also with you.”

I wasn’t sure what hymns we’d be singing together. This was a wildly diverse, ecumenical group, and I was prepared to hear (and try to sing along with) songs I didn’t know. But on the first night, Jan’s gentle chords led us into a hymn I’ve been singing all my life, one I haven’t heard much in the last few years:

I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above
Of Jesus and His glory
Of Jesus and His love…

With Kristin singing alto on my left, and Kari and Stephanie on my other side, I closed my eyes and thought back to my dad singing scraps of this song around the house, while he took out the trash or unloaded the dishwasher or puttered around on a lazy Saturday. I thought of singing each verse in the small brown sanctuary of the little Baptist church in Coppell, where I learned the words to so many hymns that still live deep in my bones.

And then I opened my eyes and looked around at the room of novelists and artists and poets and songwriters, memoirists and sculpture artists and people who make all kinds of art, every day. I had barely met most of them, but I knew: this is one thing we’re all trying to do.

I love to tell the story
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest…

We spent the week telling each other our stories – over breakfast, lunch and dinner in the spacious dorm dining hall, over glasses of wine at the bar across the street, over a wide assortment of beverages in the lounge, until the wee hours, every night. We began to explain who we are, where we come from, what we write or paint or sing about that won’t let us go. But we also spent the week reminding each other of the story we’re all telling, the one we sometimes wrestle with and question and even throw off for a while, but always come back to in the end.

I love to tell the story
‘Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.

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I love surprises of the everyday variety; I don’t always relish big life surprises. But here, a handful of the most delightful:

1. Loving my first job out of college – an admin job on campus – as much as I did.
2. Bethany moving back to Abilene, for a year and a half of wonderful “borrowed time.”
3. Finding another family in Abilene (and staying there as long as I did).
4. Becoming a total tea addict. (I never touched the stuff until college.)
5. Interning in Hawaii for a month one summer. (Surprises every DAY.)
6. Learning to navigate traffic on a bike in Oxford, and loving that, too.
7. Moving to Boston – the difficulty and the richness, and lots of other things besides, have surprised me.
8. Actually writing a novel in a month in 2008.
9. The surprise party Jeremiah gave me when I turned 21. (Yes, I was totally surprised.)
10. Singing a brief solo in the Les Miserables medley during a choir concert in college. (I was so sure I hadn’t gotten it – but I ended up with a solo from “On My Own,” my favorite Les Mis song.)
11. Writing a cover story for Radiant magazine – how surprised I was to be asked!
12. Being told (not asked) to learn to play the piccolo for a high school band concert in London.

How about you? Any wonderful life surprises to share?

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my friend Wayne

To most people at ACU, he’s the dean of campus life. I doubt most students could tell you half the things he does in a day, though we know he’s one of the busiest people on campus. We see him at chapel, sitting on the stage and giving announcements and leading prayers. Because our school is small, we also see him around, in the campus center or the administration building or at special events. But to me, he’s also the guy who leads singing at the Highland Church of Christ on Wednesday nights.

Some people call his leading style “old-fashioned” – that doesn’t really explain it, but its strict rhythm feels different than the more fluid style employed by some younger song leaders. He is never without his pitch pipe, and just last night he complained, “I can’t ever just sing with a Power Point sheet. Words on a page are just words on a page. I need to see the music!” He’s not only a “Church of Christ boy,” as he says laughingly, but a musician, and I love him for it.

His eyes are startlingly blue among their laugh lines; his smile is quick, and his laugh is always ready. Even on some Wednesdays, when he admits with a sigh, “We’re tired. It was hard to get here tonight,” I can count on a hug and a genuine interest in how I’m doing. He’s old enough to be my dad, but he treats me more like a younger sister, or, more simply, a friend.

Standing on the Highland stage with its hideous orange carpet, we joke around about the music and the sound system and what’s going on around campus this week. I tease him when he forgets the words in warm-up, and on nights like last night, when he starts to sing the wrong words during service and barely catches himself, we can’t help but look at each other and smile. He trusts me to lead prayers, goes patiently over songs I don’t know, accepts my occasional hesitant corrections on the new melodies he knows less well, and never says a word when I slip on a harmony or quaver on an ending. As the lone singer on the praise team who didn’t grow up Church of Christ, I have a slight inferiority complex – but Wayne Barnard is always glad I’m there, and he never forgets to tell me so.

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For nearly a year, I’ve been spending an hour on Tuesday nights at Jeremiah’s house, with seven or eight of my friends, “practicing” for Come As You Are chapel on Thursdays. Practice actually entails some singing, random stories about our weeks, a prayer time at the end, making fun of Jeremiah (and each other, but he usually gets it the worst), and laughter that I’m sure can be heard down the street. There are some particular nights where it’s the Nate and Jake Comedy Show (they’re brothers), or when Charity and I get the giggles, or when Mandy and Olivia canNOT stop making sarcastic comments under their breaths. Last night was all of those…as well as a lesson in what happens when you put people in front of a video camera.

Jeremiah, bless his heart, had the idea of making a DVD as a going-away gift for us, and also for anyone who wants to know more about our ministry. So he wanted to tape part of last night’s rehearsal, as well as taping Thursday’s chapel, and also interview everyone for a couple of minutes about what Come As You Are has meant to them. We sang first (fortunately), with the usual mix of hilarity and music and anecdotes out of nowhere (which included, among other things, Jake’s car getting broken into, Nate’s frustrating past two days, several blonde moments from Charity, and Brett’s classic laconic attitude when asked about GATA formal: “It was GATA formal”).

Then Jeremiah took out the camera, and started explaining to everyone that he wanted them to talk for a minute or two about their favorite Come As You Are moments and what it has meant to them. Jake (our amazing freshman tenor) got put in the hot seat first, and started in with “I’ve really enjoyed Come As You Are this year, and as the youngest person in the group, it’s been so great to be invited in…” At which point Nate lunged forward and grabbed Jake as if to choke him (hey, they are brothers), and we had to go to take 2.

That was only the beginning…we could NOT stop laughing for the rest of the night. Wooden and metal swords were brandished (Olivia: “I’m about to be attacked by the Lollars, and I don’t know what level of heaven that will put me in, but I bet it’s pretty high!”). Threats were made (Nate, tapping a sword in his hand: “We really like it when Jeff shows up to Come As You Are. We wish he would come more often!”). Of course, Charity got all teary-eyed, and I tried to keep it short and sweet (and sort of to the point), and Mandy was cool as a cucumber, even while the boys were reenacting Braveheart from either side of her. Of course, poor Jeremiah HATES to be on camera – but we told him he had to be interviewed, and fifty-seven takes later (actually only about eight), we had a good segment from him.

The last bit of the night was funny and touching all at once – we convinced April, fiance of Jeremiah’s roommate Ben, to come and tape our last song (“Blessed Be Your Name,” which is sort of our theme song). In order to get a cool angle, we had her lie down on the floor in the middle of all of us, with the camera pointing upward – slightly intimidating for her, but fun!

These people have helped teach me what “Blessed Be Your Name” means, and the meanings of all the other songs we’ve sung, like “All the Heavens,” “Shout Hallelujah,” “In Christ Alone,” “Love One Another” and “Great in Power.” They’ve helped teach me what it means to have a life that praises God, even when things are dark or frustrating or out of control or just plain mundane.

Maybe we had an advantage from the beginning. Most of us were friends already. Jake and Nate are brothers. Charity is my soul-sister. Jeremiah and Brett have been singing together for two years. And, of course, Jeremiah holds a very special place in my heart. 🙂 But I think the worship times we’ve shared together have been the main thing that’s formed us. We are not only friends any more, nor are we simply family in Christ. We are a community. Honest, funny, authentic and open. And we love each other. More, I think, than even we know.

Chapel on the Hill. Thursday, 11 a.m. And then Sunday at Highland, 7:30 a.m. (to rehearse for two services). Two last times to lift it up to God together. Until we get to heaven, that is. Or until a Come As You Are reunion in five or ten years.

Blessed be His Name…

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