Thursday, November 20, 2014

Treasures :: A Black Folder Full of Choral Music

Inspired by Leigh McLeroy's book Treasured: Knowing God by the Things He Keeps, I'm asking: What tangible pieces of my spiritual history would I place carefully in my own cigar box for safekeeping? What stories have shaped my journey with this ever-faithful, treasure-keeping God? Below is part eight of the "Treasures" series. 

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VIII. A black folder full of choral music
When I first auditioned for the Indiana Wesleyan University Chorale, I didn’t really care much about whether I got in. Being in a choir was a requirement for joining a ministry team, my real dream and priority. Choir? Been there, done that. Might be fun, have to sign up anyway, here we go...

Yet by the end of my college career, I would identify my time with the University Chorale as the  most meaningful part of my college experience, the absolute last thing I ever would have given up. How can I sum up what membership in that group grew to mean to me?

We sang “Now, Shout” the first week of rehearsal—a chaotic twentieth-century piece that changes time signatures approximately every other measure and involves actual shouting. It’s a staple of the chorale, so all the returning members dropped their folders and launched into the a cappella piece, clapping at the appropriate times and thundering on the risers as they stomped to the beat. I, like most of the freshmen, wanted to assume the fetal position. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in high school anymore...

I spent frantic hours in the practice rooms, plunking out the second soprano part and trying to memorize songs the upperclassmen could sing in their sleep. On our first major trip, to the Gaithers’ “Praise Gathering,” I got yelled at by upperclassmen for “cutting the risers.” I didn’t even know what that meant.

And yet, even with the intimidation---even as I floundered in loneliness and struggled to learn my lines, find my place---I fell in love with this group. At 4:30 PM, four days a week, our conductor would sit down at the piano and play “More than Enough” or “I Want to Be Like Jesus,” and all sixty-five of us would flood the cinderblock walls with praises.

During my second semester, word spread that the chorale’s former conductor would return the following fall. He had left the university just before I arrived, causing no small amount of drama among the upperclassmen. Some had quit, unwilling to continue without Dr. Todd Guy at the helm. They told terrifying stories about him, yet they adored him.

The women’s chaplain, a junior who was mentoring me, was thrilled at the prospect of Prof Guy’s return, but I was dismayed. I loved Todd Syswerda, the professor who had taken Prof Guy’s place and the only conductor I’d ever known. I wasn’t sure I wanted to experience this legendary man who had been known to bend music stands and rip the clock off the wall.

Again, I couldn’t have imagined how much I’d grow to love Prof myself, or the influence he’d have on me over the next three years. Yes, he was demanding. Yes, his temper occasionally exploded. But he was the most passionate man I had ever known, and his passion was for us to make excellent music, the caliber of praise that our glorious God deserved.

We didn’t talk during rehearsal. We held our folders at eye level (after four years of that, it took me a while to break the habit of wanting to hold my hymnal that awkwardly high during church). We stood on the balls of our feet and never, never took our eyes off our conductor. We ended words with mouths wide open, producing “high, forward, resonant” sound. And we took Prof’s exhortations to heart—phrases he repeated so often they were almost meaningless clich├ęs, only they weren’t, because he meant them every time.

“Good is not good enough where excellence is expected!” 
“You can’t put a nickel’s worth in and expect a dime’s worth out!”
“I will not offer my God a sacrifice that doesn’t cost me something!”
“He deserves more than that!”

He’d point to the framed photos of former chorales lining the wall behind him, and tell us that they were watching us, expecting us to uphold the legacy they’d helped to build. He’d tell us that 4:30 was our sanctuary, our time to leave everything else at the door and come worship. And it was, and I did.

Prof worked so hard during rehearsals that the knees of his pants would grow dark with sweat. Never before or since have I seen a conductor move so much, communicate so much. I’m sure other choirs made fun of him behind our backs, just as we scorned their conductors for being so wishy-washy and unclear. Let them mock; Prof was dancing on that podium, and it was beautiful to behold. Every flick of his wrist gave you direction. If you watched him, he’d tell you *everything*---entrances, cutoffs, tempo, volume, feeling. And in a concert, we’d be singing “Give Me Jesus” and the tears would roll down his cheeks. My own voice would waver as I wept, a song practiced hundreds of times somehow fresh again and full of glory, its lyrics reflected on Prof’s face as he waved his arms and worshiped.

Chorale was worship, and it was also tradition. It was family. I’d never made such music; I’d also never known such community. All but one or two of my closest friendships during college arose from that group. We’d hold hands all throughout our last concert every year. During the benediction, Prof would point to each senior and mouth “I love you” as we all choked back sobs and tried to continue singing.

Once I rose to the rank of upperclassman and became an officer, I turned into one of those loud, bossy seniors who barked at the freshmen, wanting them to drop their high school arrogance and learn their place, wanting them to respect the traditions and uphold the standards, wanting to place my own bricks on that growing legacy. We were strict because we loved the group so much, because we couldn’t bear to think of it declining on our watch.

We sang Handel’s Messiah and pieces newly written by student composition majors. We performed  African spirituals and modern psalm settings, Russian alleluias and haunting medieval melodies and arrangements of traditional hymns. We spat out words, literally, overenunciating to the point of ridiculousness (someone once asked me why we sang “Cheesus”). And we produced truly otherworldly harmonies.


Our concerts took us all over Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, to Chicago and New York and Florida and Scotland. One spring break we sang a whirlwind eighteen concerts in eight days. And day after day, Prof demonstrated for me the truth of the hymn lines:

“Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

He showed me, four afternoons a week and several weekends a year, what that looked like. And the IWU Chorale gave me countless unmatched opportunities to lift my voice in majestic praise to the Creator of life and breath and music, to the Savior who gives us reason to sing.


Treasures, previously:
A broken piece of cornerstone
A sharp pebble
A pastel index card
A Bible with a broken spine
A rainbow lanyard with a pewter cross pendant
Pages of prayers scrawled in a journal
Flip-flops with holes worn through the heels 
A sparkly aqua heart necklace

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