Choir Collaboration

I haven’t written recently about my choir, but I figure the time was right because my choir was just featured in the Star Tribune.

This fall we collaborated with Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church and did one service at their church and one at ours. (Sadly I missed the service at our church last Sunday because I was at home with a migraine…hence why I am in none of the pictures.) We sang three pieces together (one chosen by each director and the third jointly chosen?) Amusingly Philip chose a very gospel-ish piece, “What a Mighty God” arr. Abels featuring a FMBC soloist while Sanford chose a Rossini piece featuring one of our soloists. The third piece was a gospel-y arrangement of “Come Thou Fount.”
We met for the first time the Sunday that we sang at FMBC. I was interested that not that many of our choir members had ever seen an alter call and that some of them thought that perhaps the service we’d just been in was a praise service.
I grew up in a non-evangelical Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Palmer, Alaska. I went to the church camp up by Fairbanks. Then I wanted to go to the closer church camp that all my school friends went to (not PC USA). It was a very evangelical camp. Praise songs, alter call, tears, gasoline on giant piles of logs and then lighting them on fire (to make a point that is long forgotten), bible study via mail throughout the school year. That lasted two years. Then I couldn’t do it any more. It wasn’t me, I didn’t really like many of the people and so it was back to Fairbanks. But I say this all to explain that I’ve seen both sides. Most of my friends went to a contemporary church in a school gym, when I was in middle school, so I’ve seen that style of worship.
Until October, I’d never been in a self-proclaimed “Black Baptist church” before on a Sunday morning. And WOW was it powerful. It reminded me of Black Music Ensemble performances in college. There’s a certain spirituality that is innate in their service. You can feel the vibe and that is impressive to me. There was so much love and care in that congregation and choir. I’ve been singing in the choir for almost five years. I’ve sung in at least 8 different languages on probably 150 Sundays. I feel the love that my choir has for the music, for the history; how much we enjoy singing difficult two choir pieces by Schubert or obscure pieces by Giovanni Martini. But I have never heard (or felt) as much innate joy in singing as I did singing with the FMBC choir.

Music and Meaning

(Written Thursday afternoon) For me, many pieces of music hold distinct memories. Some are unlocked simply by the title, composer, or performer, but some are held within the music itself. Music that I spent hours with in college, but had since forgotten. I’m at the North Central American Choral Director’s Association convention this week and there are lots of concerts involved. This morning the Dordt College Choir sang a song called Ngana by Stephen Leek. On paper, it rang no bells. But then came the first notes, and my voice wanted to cry out. I knew every single note. I don’t know what semester we sang it, but I remember wrestling with it and, subsequently falling in love with it.

This past Sunday, we sang a setting of When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, as the middle hymn. All I could think of was singing it with the choir at Berea. Holding hands with two tenors, surrounding the congregation, and singing my heart out. To me, that song meant concert choir. It meant that I was part of a community and that I was bound to the people next to me, both literally (during the song) and figuratively (during the semester). It also meant that my eyes wouldn’t necessarily be dry at the end of the piece, but that, five years later, if I needed a favor, I could email or call many of those choir members and they would be more than willing to help me out. Because that’s the way choir works. And while I still have some of that in my choir today, it’s a little different. Because in some ways I feel like a church is supposed to be like that anyways.

The Iowa State Singers are singing right now. I first encountered them at the national convention in 2005, and, amusingly, one of their cds is the ONLY overlap between my and Ben’s cd collection. But they just sang a piece by Cyrillus Kreek. In 2004, I went to six King’s Singer’s concerts in Germany and Austria over eight days and 1000 kilometers. The first of these was in Waldsassen, a tiny German town on the Czech border, in a massive cathedral. One of the most wonderful and eerie songs they sang in their religious program was Onnis on inimene by Cyrillus Kreek. Kreek’s music was getting slightly more well known, but I could only find one group that had recorded Onnis. To remember how the haunting Alleluias went, I wrote the notes in their relationships to each other, in my journal. That was my introduction to Cyrillus Kreek. A massive Eastern European Cathedral on spring break, sung by six English men. (For fun you can also imagine I was surrounded by Germans, I don’t speak German, no one clapped during the concert, and I had arrived two minutes before the concert started, after ten hours of travel.) It’s amazing, in some ways, that these college students from Iowa can transport me halfway around the world and six years back in time, but they can. That’s the power of music.

And because you made it this far… here’s a video clip for you of the Real Group. Because I am kindof obsessed with them now. And I was contemplating starting my own Swedish Acapella Jazz Group. But then I remembered I wasn’t Swedish, so there was another failed life plan. Enjoy!

P.S. ACDA conventions are more fun as an interloper (i.e. non choral-director) with Kate and Keith to stalk famous people with hang out with.

Bandaids Attack

On choir tour in college we had secret angels and the idea was to secretly give gifts to your angel all during tour. We had no money, so we got creative. I don’t remember if Keith was, in fact, Jared’s secret angel, but every choir member had been given a bandaid to place somewhere on Jared’s exterior sometime that day. It was highly amusing.

Praise of music

Here’s the sermon and the prayer from the 40th anniversary celebrations for Philip Brunelle at Plymouth Church. (Both links are pdfs) Or you can listen to the sermon here. Vivian has a strong Welsh accent and the recording isn’t studio quality, but it’s fun. See this post if you want more context. 

I’m trying to post more frequently, but its obviously not working that well.

Promised post – Church Music & other asides

I was going to post this earlier and edit it in the meantime, but I forgot… so here is the unedited copy written on Sunday (10/12) after church while eating lunch and reflecting. No judgment, evangelism, or uncomfort intended. Instead, I hoped that this might help people understand more about me and how I, personally work, which is unique, or so I think.



There are days that I love life and there are days that I LOVE life. Ignoring the past 30 minutes, this is one of the latter. (The past 30 minutes involved my wireless card causing three consecutive blue screens of death…so I have no internet for the afternoon.)

Image by smenzel

I know that many of you are not religious or are atheists, but most of you who know me know that I am religious, although I sometimes hide it behind choir (i.e. I’m at church because of choir) which is, at times, true. And I am most certainly not an evangelical or a conservative. I’m very quiet about my faith and I’m very liberal and inclusive. I think that my only religious t-shirt is a “Hellfire and Dalmatians” shirt.

I should start from the beginning though. Last night I was going to write a ranting post about how much I hated my work and research and the like. This was expressed well through my file naming “E:/Fall 2008/Research/I hate the world/” I’m working on Wikipedia research and we have a huge amount of data to go through. Yesterday I discovered a problem which meant that we might have to rerun our program that takes 8-9 days, because the data we’re getting is incorrect. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that we were trying to get the paper done by November 3rd and were pushing it as it was. Now, assuming that this error does actually exist (and it’s the same magnitude of difference that I expect), there’s no possible way to get the paper out in time, because it would require a minimum of a week to get the data and that’s pushing it.

So yesterday afternoon I was wrestling with data and trying desperately to make things work that weren’t currently working. Ben was amazing and calmed me down and helped me write the code that would fix what we thought the initial problem was. He also made corn casserole which ended up spilling butter onto the bottom of the oven resulting in the smoke alarm going off, billows of smoke coming from the oven and me laughing for the first time all day. (No one was hurt or items damaged, so I was allowed to laugh.) Then we watched an episode of Psych, so I went to bed feeling better already.

But today was a special day at church. Our choir director, Philip Brunelle, was celebrating his 40th anniversary as choir director/organist here. First, that’s impressive even if it’s a part time/volunteer thing. But staying in the same job for forty years is amazing, and he’s kept up or exceeded the caliber of music as years have gone by (or so he alludes to).

Image of Philip and Carolyn Brunelle from Richard Sparks

Today was an all out celebration. He was, of course, at the organ, and we sang some fun pieces (Rorem, Stainer, and Brittan). All the prayers, responses, readings, etc were about musicand I hope to get a copy of the pastoral prayer to post because it was truly gorgeous.Philip is also good about dropping out on the organ for a verse, or the alleluias at the end of a verse, etc and letting the congregation sing, a cappella. The only other place that I’ve seen this work is at Mennonite churches. Usually without the organ, the congregation drops and you can barely hear them. This morning, though, they had to bring in extra chairs, so the congregation was full and full-throated. We got to sing multiple verses a cappella and it was glorious.

In addition, the former senior minister at Plymouth, Vivian Jones, had flown over from Wales for this celebration. He split the sermon with the current senior minister, Jim Gertmenian, and both were excellent tributes to Philip and to music. I have to work a bit to understand Vivian, as I’m not used to listening to the rolling accents of the Welsh, but Vivian was hilarious and reminisced about working here (starting from before I was born…). Jim is generally more straight laced in his sermons and so I wasn’t surprised that his part of the sermon was less personal reminiscence and more lessons. (Again, I’ll try to get copies of these.) But Jim spoke of the origin of earth in the Big Bang, the Genesis story “Let there be light,” and the fact that music must be part of the origin of life as we know it. He spoke of being “almost unable to forgive” the writers of the Gospels for not including any descriptions or stories of Jesus as a musician.

Perhaps this is because of my personal strangeness, but immediately as Jim was preaching, I realized I agreed completely. My image of life is, while not focused on music, strangely partnered with music. I spend multiple hours a day listening to my ipod and I sing incessantly, when appropriate. I am strangely private about my musical life. I never want solos or to be singled out and I hate playing/singing for people. Some of you will be surprised to know that I can play (in order of competence more to less): piano, trombone, flute, clarinet, fiddle, recorder, trumpet, tuba, and drums. Five of these are due to taking an instrumental education class in college, for fun, others are out of personal interest. Last year I bought myself a digital piano. I love that I can play it with headphones and I tend to end up on the piano bench at times when I can’t face sitting at a computer or I’m frustrated with everything (although not yesterday). I play Hannon studies, the first half of Bach’s Prelude 21, a piece by Telemann, or anything that my piano will play so I only have to play one hand. I have to concentrate hard enough on these pieces that I forget everything else. Piano also requires much more hand, eye, brain coordination than most of my everyday activities. And yet most of my friends have never heard me play. I don’t think I’m much good, but I like playing for myself.

I’m also a moody music person. I get frustrated when my ipod, on shuffle, is playing “all the wrong pieces.” In the same way, I love when my ipod “knows what I want to hear.” Yeah, it sounds crazy, but I’m productive with the right music. (If only the iTunes Genius feature could be run on my 5th gen ipod on the go.) Last night, on my last bit of patience, I cranked up the volume of The Killers, because I needed angry music to program to. Then I calmed down and switched to Moxy Fruvous. And, given enough time, I might have ended with Kristin Chenoweth.

So because I’m such a musical person, at heart, a church service like this morning’s is exactly what I needed. It didn’t matter that my research was shot, that I had a searing headache, or that my butt was sore from a bike ride yesterday. All that mattered was the notes and the harmonies. And that is yet another reason why I absolutely love my church here.

(You want another reason why I love it? The 70 year old woman in a wheelchair at the back had an Obama ’08 bumper sticker on her wheelchair. How cool is that? More reasons include that one year Jim’s Easter sermon was about how the resurrection didn’t happen and one of his Valentine’s day sermons was about sex. Yes. Not abstinence or anything along those lines. Sex. I need to get a copy of that, cause I can’t find mine.)

So now, as I’m sitting, trying to work, sans internet, and waiting until the Hymn Sing at 4:30 (we’re even singing militant hymns….we never get to sing those), I’m realizing how lucky I am to be here and how much I will miss this community when/if I ever have to leave.

Picture of Plymouth Congregational Church taken by ecv5