Unison

I began an adventure this past week, moving temporarily to a new city where I know almost no one, working in ways that require me to spend a lot of time alone. Like a lot of introverts, I don’t mind being alone, and I am blessed in never feeling lonely, but that isn’t to say I don’t enjoy all the daily interactions with others that I do have, in rehearsals and meetings and while exploring new places around me.

Author and social researcher Brene Brown has written and spoken, including most recently as the preacher at Washington National Cathedral, about loneliness as the greatest predictor of premature death – more than smoking or obesity.  She was quoting from a British study that’s making the rounds and which has caused the British government to take notice about the health care costs of loneliness.

Church as antidote to loneliness is not a new idea, but to my delight Brown mentioned that singing with people she doesn’t know is one of the best reasons to go to church. She then turned to the Cathedral’s superb choir seated behind the pulpit and, getting a good laugh from everyone, said something to the effect that those particular strangers would do!

YES! a well-trained choir is there to sing with a congregation. Occasionally, at Evensong for example, they are singing on behalf of a congregation, but never instead of, and certainly not despite.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who loved music so much, believed singing in unison was the best way for a community to pray together. The clarity and purity of unison singing – even when it’s somewhat out of tune croaking from the least musically-inclined –  for Bonhoeffer was the most joyful way to illuminate “the Word in its mystery.”

When voices come together in the words of a creed or in the tune and words of a hymn these are things which express the collective wisdom of many across time and place. Some can’t bring themselves to believe parts of the creeds we say, some cannot sing well…and yet these are still unison expressions of a community. Collectively we can believe the creeds, and collectively we can sing as one. Saying corporate prayers and singing in unison become the voice of the Church, not simply a collection of individual voices.

We need to know how to be alone as much as how to be in community, just as we need both self-sufficiency and human interactions in order to survive and to thrive. I believe that harmony and dissonance are as important to music as they are to social discourse, but as a musician I can say that it is training a choir to sing well in unison that is actually one of the hardest things there is to do. And I firmly believe that we are called on a regular basis to practice doing hard things.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

Evensong

During a recent time of transition, as I questioned so much about my vocation, I realized that I was attending the Anglican service of Evensong quite often. Christ Church (Georgetown), St. Francis (Potomac), St. Thomas (Fifth Avenue, NYC), Washington National Cathedral and Christ Church Christiana Hundred (Delaware) became scenes of gentle healing, much needed and quietly strengthening.  For the uninitiated, Evensong is that afternoon offering to our ears, hearts and minds of prayers sung by a choir on the listener’s behalf.

I recalled that during a sabbatical in 2013 I had attended Evensong twelve times in seven different churches or cathedrals over a 3 month period. I was inspired by the most glorious music, written for God, sung beautifully by well-rehearsed choirs as part of a liturgy.  Not a performance, but performed well. While I simply listened, I worshiped. I was able to absorb the beauty of the architecture around me, admire the composers’ craft, and appreciate the shape that liturgy takes in the hands of musicians who have practiced many long hours. On a good day liturgy can come together to create flow – a psychological term that describes a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity. In this case, the activity for me was participating in liturgy as a listener.

Recently, I pulled Gail Godwin’s 1999 novel, Evensong, off the shelf to re-read. I’ve always loved her writing with its artful descriptions of simple joys and complex emotions. She intimately knows the Episcopal church, and writes perceptively about the broken people who are all around us. Who are us.  In Evensong she writes about those living in and passing through a small North Carolina town. Each character in some way has been abandoned, mostly by a parent or spouse, but also by their friends, schools, and yes, even their churches. I hadn’t noticed this theme the first time I read the book, but it was quietly apparent this time around.  God hadn’t abandoned any of Godwin’s characters, of course, but each sometimes felt alone in their earthly abandoned states.  And it would be unrealistic to think you might not question whatever grains of faith you had during those times.

“I’m beginning to think that the times when you lose your faith are the times of your deepest blessing. . . . It is the dark night of the soul. The mystics have written about it. You’re at your very lowest, you have no further to fall, everything is dark and then you can kind of be quiet and see what is speaking to you out of the darkness. . . . I would be more worried about the person who never lost her faith.” — Gail Godwin, from an interview in 1999.

I don’t think anyone feels particularly blessed in their aloneness, but perhaps that is the gift of Evensong. Finding an understanding of the difference between loneliness and aloneness, you can be quiet…experience what is speaking to you out of the darkness, and actively listen for wisdom, reminding you that you are not alone after.

The traditional canticles sung during Evensong are Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s Nunc dimittis. The link below is to one of my favorite settings, by Tudor court composer Orlando Gibbons.  Both Mary and Simeon are alone in their prayers, speaking to God in the darkness…and listening.

Peace,

Sonya


Where I’ll be:

May 22, May 29 and June 5 – organist/choir director for the 9:00 am, 11:15 am and 5:00 pm service at St. John’s, Norwood, 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland.  Experienced choral singers who would like sing with the choir there, come at 10:30 for rehearsal before the service.

May 31, June 2 and June 6 – performances of Brahms’ Requiem with the World Bank/IMF Chorus and orchestra, 1:00 pm each of these dates.  United Church (G and 20th) on May 31.  For performances at the World Bank (June 2) and IMF (June 6) visitors will need to get free passes by contacting worldbankimfchorus@gmail.com and allow a few extra minutes to get through the security checks at these institutions.

June 12 through August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s, Norwood.  Come and sing with the Summer Choir there.  9:15 am rehearsal.

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.