What Is It About Singing?

For almost all of my life – since about the age of 5 – I have sung in choir, beginning with children’s choirs at church and at school. Singing harmony strongly has always been a part of my life. Maybe because I grew up in a home where music of all different kinds was part of the fabric of daily life. My dad was a marvelous pianist (he learned Rhapsody in Blue by checking it out of the Los Angeles Main Library and memorizing it in chunks and he also accompanied Billy Graham’s very first ‘tent’ crusade in LA in the late 40’s) and he filled our home with his own beautiful music, and recordings of all kinds of things.

Although I have never attended an opera, or even a light opera, I heard La Boheme, Madame Butterfly and all of Gilbert and Sullivan by the time I was 12. Then, I joined the choral group at my junior high school. And I LOVED the fabulous choral music program at Glendale High School under John Key in the 1960’s – 10th grade choir, 11th grade Choraleers, a women’s group which required an audition (oh, how scary that was!), 12th grade A Capella Choir, with duets sung in public for the first time.

While a student at UCLA, I also auditioned for and was accepted by the A Capella choir there, under the direction of Roger Wagner, and sang through Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in Royce Hall at the tender age of 17. I sang lead in a barbershop quarter at the Hollywood Bowl that year as well, as part of the annual UCLA Spring Sing, and I continued to sing – in Roger’s choir when I could fit it into my schedule – or in a women’s choir when the load got too heavy for the A Capella schedule – all four years, even after I was married in the middle of my senior year.

As a young mom, I sang with our church choir at Glendale Presbyterian Church, under the direction of Don Fontana (who later went on to Crystal Cathedral fame), until I became pregnant with number 3 and the director refused to cut me any slack with sick kids. Then we moved our membership closer to our home in Altadena when our kids were 3, 5 and 7. And I began a 21 year collaboration with Roland Tabell and the music/worship program at Pasadena Covenant Church. PCC was not a large church, but they had a 30 member choir and enough instrumentalists to field a small orchestra for concerts and a worship band for Sunday mornings.

Roland nudged and encouraged me in many directions during those years – to sing solos, to produce musicals, to organize worship liturgies, to plan portions of entire services, to chair the very first Worship and Arts Committee in the early 1980’s. He was, and is, a trusted and admired friend, a gentle soul with enormous gifts with which he has lovingly and creatively served the church. Even in retirement, he is active at PCC, now singing in rather than directing the choir.

Every Thursday night for almost all of those years at Pasadena, I was at choir rehearsal – singing every part from 2nd soprano to 1st tenor – depending on the vocal make-up of any given year, or as needed on any given piece. I even sang a powerful rock/pop duet in several different concerts during those years, never feeling entirely competent to do so, and most certainly feeling completely untrained and surprised by it all. I started and sang in a women’s trio that performed for teas and sang in worship from time to time – and I loved every minute of all of it, even when I was sick and/or exhausted, even when I was pulled by the demands of family or community. It was my safety valve, my personal time, the place where I worshipped most fully and joyfully.

Then I answered this strange call to attend seminary. Didn’t know what was in store when that started, that’s for sure. And singing in the church choir got a little harder to do, although I kept it up most of that time. I also sang with a small group of seminary students who formed a choir during certain seasons of the year, and I enjoyed learning a Mozart duet for two sopranos while I was studying and working at Fuller.

For three years after I graduated from Fuller, I worked at PCC in an unpaid pastoral position, while jumping through the hoops required for ordination in my denomination. (I also joined the Ministers’ Chorus at our annual denominational Midwinter conference for a couple of years, but gave it up when my voice got tired from singing everything in the tenor range because there weren’t enough women for us to learn music in anything but TTBB format.) I became an avid John Rutter fan during my Fuller years and filled my balcony office with the sounds of Rutter/Robert Shaw/Chanticleer/Anonymous 4. I worked alone up there, and could crank it up ’til no one could hear me singing along!

For as long as I can remember, singing and/or listening to sung music has been at the core of who I am as a person and who I am as a follower of Jesus. From Brahms’ How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place in high school, through dozens of masses at UCLA to anthems, hymns and praise choruses of all kinds all through my life, song has sustained me, nourishing me in ways nothing else quite does.

When I moved to Santa Barbara, however, all of that changed. There was no regular choir at my new church, only an occasional gathering of singers with sporadic attendance and excellent – but voluntary – leadership. It wasn’t a priority, it wasn’t a value. During most of my tenure here, we met for worship in a gymnasium, with terrible acoustics. Even a crowd of 400 could disappear into the rubber floor and the vaulted ceiling. Not exactly built like a cathedral – nor even like the strangely arranged worship space at PCC. Most of the sounds we made together stopped in front of our faces and for almost 9 years, I never felt that I could sing at full volume for fear of standing out rather than blending in to the glorious sounds of a singing congregation.

But for the past 18 months, we have been enjoying our lovely new worship space, with its clear acoustics and it’s lovely structure. And our little choir has begun to meet just a bit more frequently. And our new (well, almost new) senior pastor loves (and is very conversant with) choral music and great hymnody. Joy, oh joy.

So tonight I write because I have just come back from one of our seasonal choir rehearsals. Only about 15 of us there tonight – and heavy on the tenors, of all things! – but oh, what a grand time we had! We worked through an easy Bach piece for Thanksgiving week and we looked ahead at a beautiful Christmas Eve possibility. And we sight read in the hymnal! I don’t think there is anything more satisfying than sight reading 4-part harmony. It’s a challenge, it’s invigorating, it’s worshipful, it’s wonderful. And our hymnal is an absolute treasure trove, filled with gems of all different kinds, from complicated 20th century harmonies, to the simple melody lines and clear harmonies of African American spirituals. And we finished it off with one of my favorites, “Trust in the Lord,” a call and response chorus written and arranged by my friend, Roland Tabell, and filled with good memories and happy associations for me. And even though my voice is old and out of shape (much like every other part of me, I guess), I was able to sing fully, soulfully, worshipfully and gratefully. What a gift.

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  1. You are right Diana when you say you use more words, but none are unnecessary. Eloquent blog on how church music has shaped your heart and the odd twists God brings to our lives. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Don. I’m working on the wordiness. LOVE the altarpiece!