The Spiritual Power of the Choral Experience

I’ve been a senior pastor now for over a year.  It’s been at least fifteen months since I last directed a choir.  While I know I am exactly where God has put me, I confess that I do miss the choral life.  Two current experiences are catalyzing this reflection. 

In two weeks, Grace Chapel, the former First Baptist Church of Lancaster, CA will hold its centennial celebration.  Part of the celebration is the reunion of a remarkable youth choir that flourished roughly between 1965 and 1975.  The director during most of those years was Don Swanson.  To read the Facebook posts and scan the pictures leading up to the reunion, you can’t miss the fact that Don, or “Swanold,” as he was called, was deeply loved.  Regretfully, Don went home to be with the Lord in 2000.  I never sang in the “Real Life Chorale.”  I missed out.  I was a band guy at the time and, in fact, didn’t start attending First Baptist until my senior year in high school.  But most of the people involved in the reunion are my contemporaries and I had the privilege of returning to my home church and being the Pastor of Worship from 1988-1991.  That’s why I’ve been privy to their posts.

The second experience that has caused me to reflect on the power of the choral experience is that I’ve been recently listening to music that I prepared with the choir of First Baptist, Sioux Falls for a concert in November, 2011.  It is great literature.  There’s Vaughn Williams’ Old Hundreth, complete with brass and organ, Heinrich Schutz’s Shout and Be Joyful,  a delightful, but challenging double choir psalm setting, Jane Marshall’s standard, My Eternal King,  and an incredibly beautiful new Advent anthem by Heather Sorensen and Craig Courtney, The Yearning.  I’ve listened to it, rehearsed it, and performed it countless times.  It never gets old.  That’s the way it is with great art.  It is timeless.  Good choral music begins with a profound text that is skillfully matched with melody, harmony, and rhythm that transcends the pedestrian mechanics of 95% of most music.  That’s why it never grows old. 

Why is it that the Real Life Choral alumni are so anxious to be together again after forty-plus years?  Why am I still moved by a CD that is almost worn out? 

There is a spiritual power in sacred choral music.  Mature and sensitive conductors who interpret the music both spiritually and musically are fulfilling a pastoral role.  I never really sang in choirs until I went to Biola University.  My spirituality was deeply formed as I sang under Loren Wiebe in the Biola Chorale.  For four years I participated in rehearsals and performances of timeless music.  The texts were biblical and deep.  The musical settings pushed the textual truths through my intellect deep into my soul.  Though he may not have known it, for four years, Mr. Wiebe was one of my most powerful spiritual mentors – a pastor, in effect.  

I was a church choir director for nearly forty years.  During that time, I was able to form deep spiritual bonds with the people that I’ve had the privilege to direct.  I always viewed my role and calling as pastoral.  My preferred title was “Pastor of Worship” rather than “Minister” or “Director of Music.”  Swanold was also pastor to all of his Real Life Chorale singers.

I believe that the quality of the literature sung will directly impact the depth of relationship and spirituality of the group.  The most beloved pieces for my choirs were the ones that they had to work the hardest to be able to sing.  Typically, those were the “timeless” pieces.  They invested a lot of time and emotional energy to be able to sing them.  In a way, I believe the piece “mastered” them as much as they mastered it. 

I no longer have the privilege to pastor people through choral music.  My means are now more traditional:  sermons and, most profoundly, pastoral care.  I do miss it.  But now, I believe, I more deeply appreciate it.  


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