Make A Joyful Noise
I went to Ole Miss to learn to be a band director, but there were some things they didn’t teach me and quite a few things I thought I knew until I found out I didn’t. We did learn how to teach the fundamentals of hand position and mouth formation and care for most instruments, but for some reason the fact that we would be teaching 11 year olds and not each other evaded me until I was confronted with them. In addition, exactly how to gently steer 6th graders toward tuba or French horn when every girl wanted to play the flute or clarinet and every boy wanted to play drums or trumpet was an art that is only acquired, if at all, through trial and error. Mostly error. There were a couple of other things about being Mr. Music in a small town I wasn’t prepared for. Strangely enough, church was one of those things.
Most small towns in the South have more than their share of churches and denominations. Denominations are people’s interpretations of what God said coupled with their firm belief that their particular interpretation is the correct one. I never had the hubris to decide which was right and which was wrong and believed that if they were based on Biblical scripture God would eventually decide whether or not they were what he intended. God does, after all, have a sense of humor. Family usually plays an important part in what denomination people belong to, and I had been brought up in the Baptist church. Mama made sure we went most Sundays and some Wednesdays and that my brothers and I were well known to the other members. I didn’t know until later that our familiarity with church members was part of the secret Mothers’ Neighborhood Tracking and Intervention System, but that’s another story.
I had been on the job as a brand new band director for almost a week (without pay) my first summer out of college, and was busy doing all the things (without pay) I thought I needed to do to get ready for summer band camp and for school to start when I had a series of preachers stop by to welcome me to the town and to invite me to dinner at their respective houses. Being all of 23 I did not suspect their motives beyond church attendance, and enjoyed the first dinner until, full of fried chicken, sweet tea and mashed potatoes, the Methodist minister asked me if I would like to be their church choir director. I was more than a little surprised but particularly susceptible to his offer of $100 a month because new teachers didn’t get paid until the month after school had started and it was a stretch living on my savings because I had been a college student and didn’t have any. I had never directed a choir, Methodist or otherwise, but had sung in several. Not very well, but I could read music, so how hard could it be? Neither had I ever been to a Methodist church, but the Preacher’s explanation that Baptists and Methodists believed in the same God and differed over minor details seemed good to me. Choir practice every Wednesday at 7pm and church every Sunday at 11am. Oh, and revivals once a year for 5 nights in a row...and a Christmas program.
I found out quickly that, like most things, there was more to it than I had imagined, and that what appeared to be simple and straightforward wasn’t. At all.
My first choir practice didn’t start smoothly. The choir members arrived a few minutes early, and a couple asked to look at the music we would sing that night. Music? I had assumed we would be using the hymnals. You remember them. The big red Broadman hymnals that most every church had in the little wooden pockets on the back of every pew, along with the smaller brown Cokesbury hymnals with the shape notes that the older members loved but didn’t like to use because the print was way too small for them to read. It seemed that the choir was, in addition to the 3 hymns that were at the beginning, middle and end of every service, supposed to sing a “special” from a subscription music service the church paid for. Not only that, the choir director was supposed to pick it out to match the season or the sermon - both if possible - for the Sunday service AND take into consideration which choir members would or would not be there for the performance. I did the adult thing and admitted my ignorance, and they, being faithful practitioners of what they professed, helped me out.
There were several of the choir members that had beautiful voices but few had any musical training at all. My first inclination was to indoctrinate them with a rather lengthy and completely unnecessary explanation of chord structure and the rise and fall of the melodic line of the piece they had chosen, but was saved from this by Betty Ruth, the pianist. She had been a member of the choir for years, and the pianist and organist of record for longer than I had been alive. She informed me quickly at the beginning of my explanation that most of the members didn’t read music that well, but that she would play the parts for them and they would follow along and learn them as she played. I started, in the ignorance of youth and inexperience, to protest against her unmusical approach, but saw several of the choir members nodding their heads in agreement and made a hasty and fortunate decision to do it her way. The key to my decision was when I remembered - and just in the nick of time - this was a volunteer choir, and that if the experience for them wasn’t a combination of fun and positive reinforcement their incentives for participation would be quickly lost. I gave in, and the choir survived.
Later that evening, as the learning progressed, I noticed she seemed to be playing in a key not related to the key in which we were singing. Remembering the way she saved me from myself earlier, I waited until after rehearsal to ask her why, when the key was clearly A that she was playing in Ab. “Oh, I never learned to play in sharps” she answered quickly, “and I just replace the sharps with flats until I find a key that fits.” I thought for about 10 seconds of all the musical ways this was wrong and then said “Betty Ruth, I think you just invented the piano capo. It sounds fine.” For the second time in the same day I had exhibited adult discretion and was learning how to be correct without being right. It was a banner day, and not often repeated.
The first Sunday we rehearsed our song in the choir room before the service. I discovered that, in spite of everything I had been led to believe, my conducting was not the cue for singing or for the song to begin. Betty Ruth did all that from her piano. When she began, the song began at her tempo and with her pauses and with her endings. I was pretty much a figurehead so I tried to focus on leading the congregation when I was in fact simply following the power of the piano player. She was in charge, but was gracious enough to let me think I had control. I don’t think anyone was fooled, and it seemed musically contrarian but it also worked pretty well for a 23 year old director that really didn’t have much idea of what he was doing. In a larger sense, I was being trained on a small scale for what actually happens in marriage, but there again, that’s another story.
The choir and I struggled through several months together, and I learned again and again that sometimes it was better to keep your mouth shut and roll with the punches rather than fight the inevitable. I also learned that the same people that came to practice on Wednesday evening may or may not be the same group for Sunday morning, and the reverse applied equally well. One interesting thing - to me, anyway - I noticed was that if the Pastor thought he had presented an effective sermon we sang all the verses of the last hymn. If he wasn’t sure about it’s effect on the congregation, he cut it down to first and last verses. I don’t think anyone ever actually bet on how many people might come forward on any given Sunday, but the predicted number was a topic of discussion among some of the parishioners.
We had several extraordinary musical events, some intentional and some not. My friend Ken had a beautiful baritone voice, but was afflicted with almost terminal stage fright, and no matter what tips I gave him or how much we all encouraged him he almost always refused to sing solos. The only thing that ever really worked - as long as I didn’t use it too often - was to assign the solo to someone else knowing that person would not be there for the Sunday performance, and only telling Ken he was to sing the solo when we met in the choir room 15 minutes before the Sunday service. He would argue and try his best to nominate someone else, but usually ended up singing and doing a wonderful job. The first morning we pulled this on him, his nerves were clearly on display as his solo approached. As the piano played a short introduction before his solo, very clearly over the microphone in front of him was heard a plaintive moan of “oh hell.” I think most of the congregation missed the first half of his solo. Since it was a church service, we will call it snickering and not outright laughter.
Rose Marie was a soprano, and did not volunteer for solos but had a good voice and was regular in her attendance, which guaranteed her advancement to solo status. Many of the arrangements we sang were based on old hymns, and one morning we sang an arrangement of Let Us Break Bread Together. The 1st verse just happened to be the solo Rose Marie was singing.
Let us break bread together on our knees,
Let us break bread together on our knees.
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.
It’s a beautiful old hymn, but in this instance the 3rd and 4th lines came out “when I fall on my face with my knees to the rising sun” and, as you can imagine, disrupted the service for several minutes. The choir couldn’t sing and the congregation couldn’t listen because they were all attempting valiantly to stifle their laughter. Rose Marie was blissfully unaware of the issue and didn’t know right away what had happened. We stopped, gave everyone a few minutes to catch up with themselves, and began on the 2nd verse. It was a memorable moment indeed.
When I first began working with the choir, my musical self found that there really wasn’t too much difference in teaching kids band and in leading the adult church choir. Neither group responded well to too much correction, however well intended or musically appropriate. As one of my teachers put it, “you have to find a positive way to say negative things.” Another similarity is that if they want to participate it’s your obligation to teach them regardless of their limitations and respective abilities. Teach those that show up. One of my friends - Jerry - gave me some advice soon after I began teaching. “You need to remember a couple of things about small towns. First, everybody knows everybody else and most are usually related in some way or another. They all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and love each other anyway. Second, it’s a volunteer choir and band is an elective in school. They all feel good about singing for the services and playing in the band and expect good performances but not necessarily musical perfection. Third, the Bible says “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” It doesn’t say it has to be great, but just needs to be done with the proper spirit and thankfulness. Think for a minute” he continued, “about performances that always get applause no matter the quality.” That one was easy. “Kids” I answered, “and the smaller the kid the greater the applause for the effort. Quality is rarely even considered.” Jerry continued “that’s right, and the audience not only smiles but it touches their hearts, even when it’s musically bad.” I began to catch on. “So God considers the fact that you’re singing more important than how you are singing.” “That’s what I believe” said Jerry, “and that’s why church choirs and school bands are an important part of every small town, no matter what you might think of the quality. Now don’t misunderstand, there are some wonderful bands and church choirs and singers out there and their musical offerings are absolutely beautiful, but God recognizes the joyful noise of the folks you teach and their efforts, good and bad, as equally as important to Him.”
So making music, good or not so good, is important. How do I know that? God said so. And so did all those volunteers. Keep making those joyful noises, and those rainbows will keep appearing.