Friday, April 19, 2013

Singing Praises

What better reason to burst into song?

Of all things, I discovered the singing of hymns at our annual gathering of Quakers in Florida. This might sound unexpected, especially if you know how rare singing is in our kind of silent Quaker meetings. In contrast to some other churches where music and song are big parts of the Sunday service, we can go a whole year without piping up a single note until the annual Christmas season causes us to lift the lid on the piano and dust off those books of carols.

There are exceptions. We have one attender who often gives his spoken messages in the form of impromptu song. And there was the time when our visitor from Haiti, whose sister had been injured in the earthquake there, led us in the spontaneous singing of a hymn whose appropriate refrain was "Alleluiah!"

But at this annual gathering we happened to stumble into a workshop on "chanting." For an hour a group of us were led in singing some simple plainsong that more resembled Gregorian chants than traditional hymns. The tunes were easy to pick up, and the words simple enough to learn after hearing them once or twice. Each was repeated "until it was over," which happened by mutual consent. The substance of the text was basically Christian, but broad enough to appeal to a wider range of kindred spirits. The experience was deeply peaceful and surprisingly emotional. Not to mention auditorially pleasing. Even our untutored voices began to sound good in the small reverberant meditation chapel where it was held.

Encouraged by this experience, I later joined a group clustered around the piano in the dining hall to sing from a hymnal. We even did that same Alleluiah piece that I remembered our visitor leading us in. I had a good time and it was over too soon. But I had one more treat in store. Before our evening business meeting an a capella chorus performed a favorite of a recently departed friend. I haven't yet tracked it down by title, but it contained a "hook" that has stayed with me since, a particular phrase that repeated, "here I am, Lord, can you hear me?" Listening to this, I felt certain the singers were heard. Certainly by me.

Home again I felt led to download an entire collection of hymns. I found one called History of the Hymnal that contains 100 hymns -- count 'em, 100! -- for the bargain basement price of only 9.49. (You can use the link to hear samples courtesy of Amazon.) Not bad for the equivalent of 3 packed CD's. But what really drew me to this particular collection was the sound of the small vocal ensemble. They perfectly capture the flavor of a small congregation with a basic organ, or a group of friends gathered around a piano. Occasionally there is a soloist or duet for variety, but generally one tune leads gracefully to the next, with simple harmonies and a sound clear enough to make the words intelligible. There's no attempt to jazz things up with modern instruments, no gospel wailing, no Mormon Tabernacle Choir, just human voices lifted in songs of praise.

So I've been walking around listening to this collection, not tired of it yet, feeling it sink into me and have an effect. You don't even have to go along with all the theology in the lyrics to get the underlying message of peace, calm, and centeredness. It's written into the effortless phrasing, the solid chord progressions that have been with us for centuries, a liturgy that has grown by accumulation over the years. You can even sing along if you want to. Part of me is still singing.

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