Music is truly a powerful tool. It is an art form that has been speaking to people’s hearts for thousands of years. Though styles have changed with time, the passion and purpose of music remain the same. Within that powerful sphere of music, we find many different outlets in which it can speak emotion and comfort into people’s lives. And in the time that I have spent as a musician, I have never seen any musical outlet bring people together quite like a choir.
Unfortunately, choirs are often misunderstood and underrepresented. One of the most challenging parts of a choir is getting each member to blend their voice with the person next to them and create unified harmonies. This does not mean that each person gives up their voice – but rather that they join their voice with others. Each member of a choir comes from different backgrounds, they like different things, and each one may have differing opinions on the way the music should sound. When choir members let these differences sit at the forefront of their minds, choir rehearsal tends to go … not so well.
I recently came across an article published by the Vatican News site which touched on the message that Pope Francis spoke to the musicians participating in the 3rd International Meeting of Choirs. In his speech, Pope Francis discussed the importance of a choir member’s humility when performing. Music is a sacred art – and when it is done correctly, God can use it as a tool for evangelism. Pope Francis stated, “You are the musical animators of the whole congregation. Don’t take its place, depriving the people of God a chance to sing with you and bear witness to the Church’s communal prayer.” This is a very important point to remember, yet it is one we may often forget.
A church choir is meant to inspire the members of the congregation to lift their voices in praise alongside the singers in the choir. Unfortunately, members of the choir can get so caught up in their own beautiful voices, they take away the congregation member’s motivation to join in. Pope Francis encourages choir members to continue to “promote prayer in liturgical celebrations” and praises them for using their gifts as an “instrument of evangelization to the extent that you bear witness to the depth of the Word of God, which touches people’s hearts…”.
Even the simplest music can be used as a beautiful form of expression. H.T. FitzSimons offers a wide selection of music for all difficulty levels – so that all people can be given the opportunity to make music – unhindered by their backgrounds or experiences. Ubi Caritas is an example of simple music that can still evoke powerful emotion and beauty. Written by James Syler, this a capella motet for SATB voices is short, simple, and powerful. The lyrics serve us an excellent reminder of what we should strive for in our church choirs and congregations: “Christ’s love has gathered us into one…” It is that same love that can draw church choir members together to make beautiful music that praises God.
There are very few things as inspiring as hearing a choir come together and make music – somehow, it just strikes at the very core of human existence. In the Vatican News article, Pope Francis puts it this way: “Music and song can often make certain moments unique in a person’s life because they become a precious memory that has marked their lives.” The years I’ve spent singing in a choir have given me much time to consider the parallels between choral singing and living life on this earth. Any director will tell you – their choir sounds the best when they are listening to one another and working hard on perfecting their own part. Life can teach us a very similar lesson. When we are truly focused on the tasks that we have to do in life, we can often let our determination blind us from those around us who are craving love. But when we are focused on our tasks yet still take time to listen to those around us, we become more beautiful humans. Our spirits can work together and sing harmonies that have never been heard before.
It is very important for choir members and directors to remember why we do what we do – especially in a church choir setting. The music we make – however simple or beautiful it may be – is meant to remind people of God’s power and love towards us. And, as Pope Francis stated, music can also “make the Gospel efficacious in today’s world, through a beauty that still captivates and makes it possible to believe, entrusting ourselves to the love of the Father.” The glory is not our own. Our duty as sacred musicians is to trust that God will bless our hard work and our best efforts – and any praise that will come as a result should be placed back on the One who gave us a voice.