From the Choir Loft: Keeping the horse in front of the cart

by Joel Ulrich

A riddle titled “Who am I?” by Bruce Leafblad was recently shared at a National Convention for Music in Worship this past summer. Leafblad concludes the riddle with this charge to his fellow choral conductors:

“And you, my colleagues in this ancient guild, are the keepers of the SONG, the teachers of the SONG, the singers of the SONG, the leaders of the SONG in the church today.”

So, as keepers, teachers, singers and leaders, our work is and always has been the work of helping our singers find “the song.” This is a never-ending, always-in-progress work and a conversation. Throughout the history of the world, the “song” was always part and parcel of the world that people lived in. The Seattle Times recently featured an article about the Quileute Tribe on the Washington coast. A quote from David Hudson, current Quileute Chief, caught my attention:

“We live our culture here. We have our ocean, clams, smelt, halibut. The woods are at our back door with elk, cedar, bear and deer for our carving and regalia and our food. Our songs are our identity, and we can sing for hours and hours.”

Native Americans, like many other peoples on all continents of the world, have understood the connection between “identity” and singing for “hours and hours.” The Lord gave us the song as a means to keep our hearts and minds on Him and to enable His people—when alone and when in community—to keep Him as our true identity. Truly, His people have sung for hours and hours throughout the history of the world.

“The Lord has put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.” Ps. 40:3

The song of the Lord lived out faithfully in community will be a song that is not only heard, but also seen — what a concept. May the Lord find us faithful in that song — our world today needs the song as much as it ever has in the history of the world.

James Jordan (The Musician’s Soul) talks about the importance of soul in the song — what the Quileute talk about, too:

“As I observe the conducting profession, specifically the choral music genre, I have seen many fine teachers and ‘conductors.’ Their choirs sing beautifully with impeccable intonation. I have taught many conducting students who possess technical conducting gifts; that is, their hands work well. Coordination and symmetry of pattern is seemingly effortless. Yet, whether it be a children’s choir or an adult professional chorus, many times there is something missing in the sound: That something which provides a brilliance of color and accuracy of pitch that is unmistakable, if one is listening. What is missing? What is missing to those who really listen is a humanness to the sound—a sound that is born because of the conductor’s selflessness and understanding of human love through music. The often used expression ‘the music has no soul’ is not far from the truth and the aural reality. I have great concerns for music education. At the risk of over-generalizing, music education has understandably focused itself on techniques of teaching, and sometimes on the methods of teaching and its consequent learning. However, the profession has not remained focused on those basic, bottom-line elements which allow children and adults [church choirs…] to make music that really has little, if anything, to do with the reading and replication of the right pitch and right rhythm. Music in the classroom and ensembles can be ‘made,’ but it is created and generated from the very souls of those that produce it. Soulful human beings create profound music, regardless of their level of musical achievement. …Granted, technique and the mechanics of conducting must be taught and respected. However, the stuff that allows for the creation of great music is rarely dealt with in the teaching of conducting. What is usually easiest learned is hardest taught. Soulfulness is a hard thing to talk about and teach.”

I have also found in my over 42 years of working with church choirs that “soulfulness is a hard thing to talk about and teach” at times—not always, of course. I have also found that the song has been a most “releasing” idiom to begin the “soulful” conversation in the work with music. Through technique (vocalization—breath, resonance, space, etc.; solfege—finding tonality, sight-reading, etc.,; theory—key sigs, counting, etc.; and tactus—pulse, rhythm, etc.), we are able to find the song more truly, but sometimes the song conversation is taken for granted and the means becomes the end in-and-of itself. We can all tell our stories about our encounters with this problem: “soulful” choral performances are not always the most musically proficient, and musically proficient ensembles are not always the most soulful. >>>

“Keeping the horse in front of the cart” is constant work in many ways. In regard to text, Monteverdi reminds us that “The Word, the Text, with all its values and qualities, should be the Master and not the servant of the Musical Harmony.” Keeping the soul in front of technique is the constant work of choirs. And of course, even when the cart is in front of the horse, they are never miles apart, but the order is really important if we want to reach the “destination.” The conductors who influence us the most bring more than technique to the work — they bring personality and soul. Our work is to bring that to our singers.

So, 1.) nothing “new” here. So often, in all of life, remembering to do what we already “know” is the work; and 2.) this is life-long work—we never get there completely, but getting on the “right road” is important in reaching the destination.

soli Deo gloria

Joel Ulrich is Choral Director and Organist at First Covenant Church in Seattle, Wash., as well as Music in Worship Repertoire & Standards Chair, Washington State ACDA. He served as Choral Director at Bellevue Christian High School for nearly 40 years.

See all articles by Joel Ulrich