The Old Choir Room
First of all, a music room should be quiet. This one is. Only the hum of an air conditioner stirs in this room so important to me.
The floor has risers now; I remember a gradual slope up to where we used to set up standing risers. There is carpet now; I remember a hard wood floor that hadn’t seen a shine in a long, long time. The vaulted ceiling remains. How I wish I could call back our voices from those wooden beams…
Salvation is created. Alleluia…
Let Thy holy presence come upon us, O Lord, in all the earth…
Mellow music lingers in all the balm of reawakening spring…
Somehow, the quiet suits the old choir room now.
Dark paneling climbs halfway up the side walls met there by white stucco and vertical stained glass windows. There is no color in them; they allow only light and no image to pass through. Their cranks were long ago stilled by the air conditioning.
It has been more than thirty years. In September of 1967 I stood just about where I am sitting now and sang for Mr. John Dougherty. He liked me. He said he liked to have instrumental majors in his choir because we read better than vocal majors. I had made it into the A Cappella Choir, seventy select voices.
That first rehearsal!
I had never heard voices—a choir like that. It was almost like a really good symphonic band, which was the highest compliment I could pay at that time. The sound didn’t seem to come from the mouths of the students—it came from somewhere in the middle of it all. I was hearing ensemble, many as one for the first time. Then Danny Austin, destined to become a friend for life, sang:
O, I’m goin, I’m goin away for to stay a little while. Oh, but I’m coming back!
I have gone away. In June of 1971 graduation came and I went away. I was a band director but I made the journey to music ministry. I left Arkansas for Kansas, North Carolina, Missouri, and Florida. But through all these years I kept coming back here, to this room, whenever I could. Something in this room centers me on my life’s mission. It is the most important thing I learned here: Many as One—Ensemble.
How did Mr. Dougherty do it? I don’t remember him talking about blend, but the blend was palpable. He used to say we were a choir of soloists, but somehow seventy of us sang as one voice. He drilled us on vowel sounds and tone placement. He made each of us a better singer. My range went up four steps the first semester. “Tune!” he would shout as he cocked his head to one side to listen to us. He pronounced it “Tewn” while most of us said “toon”. He made me hear vowel sounds! He insisted on unified vowels, dark vowels, head tones, controlled vibrato from straight to full depending on the music. That choral sound was imprinted on my brain. I believe the Lord wanted it so.
I’m goin, I’m goin away…
In recent years, music ministry has gone away from a European choral sound to a pop, urban sound. Of course, one sound has no more holiness than the other.
O, but I’m coming back!
Yet, there is a range of expression in the controlled, unified, classical sound that is missing in the pop sound. The dynamic range is greater, as is the expressional range. Harmonies are richer when basses sing bass parts, tenors sing tenor parts, altos sing their part and sopranos sing soprano. The tradition of Western music dating back to the Renaissance opens up to the choir and the music of today can still be sung effectively. In this very room where I conducted Thompson’s Alleluia, we also sang The Sound of Silence and The Age of Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine. We sang Christiansen, Brahms, Handel, Buxtehude, folk songs, Negro spirituals, and Broadway musicals in this room: Many as One.
Thirty years and more.
Dr. Dougherty now teaches in Tennessee. How many singers have stood here to audition, studied here and gone away from here? How many return? What did I learn here? I learned that many is easy. We come in the door that way. Many as One—Ensemble is hard. We have to be led. We have to all do things the same way. We have to each be a better singer. We have to sing worthwhile music in a worthy way. When we do, the sound will not really come from our mouths, but from somewhere in the middle of us, from many hearts made one.
Let Thy Holy Presence come upon us, O Lord, in all the earth.
The University of Arkansas, Monticello,
Fine Arts Building, Choir Room
July 20, 1998
(Time Marches On: Add 20+ more years to the chronology of this remembrance. Dr. Dougherty has passed on although we did enjoy a wonderful choir reunion on campus before that happened. One of my best music major friends has also graduated to the grand choir in the Lord’s throne room on high. Also, I must add another state to my ministry resume: Virginia. Sanctuary choirs have been largely banished from public worship and sanctuaries have lost their distinctive designs and lighting as POP music has gained control of the church music marketplace. Musical illiteracy is now quite common in musical leadership in the church. I have faith in the preferences of the Lord as I see them in the Bible and I am sure that choir and orchestral music will make a comeback. I believe a Renaissance of the worship arts is on its way as a necessary expression of the great, latter-day outpouring of the Holy Spirit predicted by the prophet Joel and preached by the Apostle Peter. Read the details of my vision here: https://stevephifer.com/are-you-ready-for-a-renaissance-of-the-worship-arts/.)
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