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The choir member met me at around 6:30, and we drove through dilapidated city neighborhoods toward the sunset and through the fields to the west. She, raised Mennonite, gave me a primer on what I was about to experience at a church concert, music she wanted me to hear.
I wasn’t nervous until we entered the building and we saw everyone dressed in white. I instantly felt conspicuous. Whether my shirt was wet from the late summer humidity or a cold sweat, I still can’t say.
Men and women sat on opposite sides of the room in this congregation, so I was separated from the only person that I actually knew, dressed garishly in blue, my bashfulness heightened, eyeing my neighbors nervously. I don’t know which I feared more, banishment or proselytism. Both fears seem to have been unfounded.
Pretty soon a meek, diminutive man under neatly parted hair, evidently the choirmaster, stepped to the front of the room and quietly blew on a pitch pipe. It was the last timid sound of the evening. Before I knew what was happening, the entire room — men, women, and children — burst into four-part harmony, unaccompanied. I could hardly believe my ears. I’d heard of this stuff before, but who knew it was so stirring? One hymn after the next, the congregation blew the roof off the building.
There was no passive audience at this concert. It was more like a hymn sing, with everyone participating. I didn’t sing very much, since in such situations I prefer to sit back and let the sound wash over me. It’s thrilling to listen to a world-class orchestra tear through a great symphony, liberating to jam out to the beats of rock and roll, but you haven’t lived until you’ve heard 200 farmers sing chorales unaccompanied — something some music majors can’t do.
Unaccompanied singing has thrived in many cultures, but in the West it is now mostly eschewed, to our own detriment. One Sunday, a lady approached a colleague of mine, a chant schola [Gregorian chant] conductor, and said she heard lots of singin’ today, but no music. Her mindset is not unique. Many consider the absence of keyboard accompaniment a punishment, but they seem to miss the aesthetic of the pure human voice that results when we dare to throw away instrumental crutches. There is no other sound like it.
What I heard in that church could never be sung in a concert hall, but it was beautiful and healing, one of the most remarkable musical experiences of my life. More than that, rather than being a performance, it was a communal experience. This congregation knew that it is one thing to listen to music, and another thing entirely when everyone makes it together as a serious pursuit in leisure time. They may eschew blue shirts, but they have some riches many have never known.
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