Singing with Purpose

A personal message to the Choir members of the Toronto Chinese United Church:

In Primary 3 (Grade 3) in Hong Kong, I was invited to join my school's Junior Choir. Heep Woh Primary School (協和小學) had a wonderful music program, and both the Junior and Senior Choirs won awards in competitions regularly. At the student assembly (週會) every other Saturday morning, the choir would sing The Lord is In His Holy Temple (主在聖殿中) at the start of the service. And although every student knew the song by memory, our music teacher still insisted on practising it intensely at each week's rehearsal. It was a reminder to me that singing for God is our privilege, and we must strive to sing with purpose. Nothing less than our full attention will suffice.

The Lord is in His Holy Temple is an amazing piece of music. When it is sung well, it sets the tone for the entire worship service, and prepares our hearts and minds for what is to come. The end of the chant leaves us with an urgent sense of anticipation: a wonderful spiritual journey with Jesus Christ is about to begin. Most of us—myself included—have sang this chant thousands of times; some members have even sang it long before I was born. With all this experience with us, it is easy to conclude that we have mastered the music, and that we have learned all there is to learn. Gradually, our singing becomes routine, and The Lord is In His Holy Temple becomes merely a chant that we must sing right after the Call to Worship. Why? Because that's our “church tradition.” We forget why we sing; we forget the meaning of the text; we forget that how we sing will surely affect the congregation. Then, the chant ceases to be this amazing piece of music. When we sing without purpose, The Lord is in His Holy Temple is old and boring and silly. Now, well into the second decade of the 21st Century, who would want to sing that anymore?

I hope that short exercise last Sunday rekindled some sense of excitement that we had when we first encountered God through this song. I have no doubt that when we start singing it with zeal and creativity again, the congregation will share that sense of excitement. I have included a scanned in a copy of my interpretation of The Lord is in His Holy Temple. The red markings will show additional dynamic markings and comments on how I believe it should be sung. There is nothing outlandish in my interpretation, but it does demand focus and attention to details. It is my hope that the choir will adopt to this interpretation.

I also want to expand on a thought I tried to convey—although perhaps unsuccessfully—at last Sunday's rehearsal. Choirs like ours are a rarity among Chinese churches, and not just in Toronto. In particular, there are three aspects of our choir that makes us a very special group:

  1. We have the one of the most balanced choir. Most church choirs are “top heavy” with too many sopranos, while weak on the altos, tenors and bass sections. Sometimes the all-important “middle voice” can be missing completely. Of course, we can always benefit from having a few more altos, but we are surprisingly strong in all sections, compared to other church choirs. As a contrasting example, for the past three years, I have conducted the North Toronto Chinese Alliance Church (NTCAC, 多倫多城北華人宣道會) Choir in Richmond Hill for their Good Friday, Easter and Christmas Eve services several times. At the best of time, we were only able to muster 5-6 men in the choir. (I counted 11 men at last week's service at TCUC. Also, this is not a criticism of NTCAC's choir. Quite the contrary, as you will find out.)
  2. We have a tremendous amount of musical talent and experience. Instead of spending weeks “learning the notes” and other basic technical aspects of a song because many members of the choir cannot read music (as was also the case with at NTCAC), we only need to spend minutes on it. The rest of the time we can devote to improvements and refinements. Also, as I have alluded to earlier, most of us have decades of singing experience under our belt, and we can handle the vigorous schedule of Sunday services, and special performances.
  3. We have a stable membership. We don't have to worry about who would show up on any day, because everyone has dedicated their time for this work. At NTCAC, the choir only performed a few times a year, and each time, I had to start with what is practically a new choir from scratch.

It is actually unfair to use my experience with the NTCAC Choir as a counter example, because despite all their shortcomings, we were able to tackle difficult works like Et in terra pax from Vivaldi's GloriaHallelujah from Handel's Messiah, and John Stainer's Crucifixion, among other important works. The results were remarkable; each rehearsal I see a group that has practiced diligently during the week; each rehearsal the bring their focus and zeal. It was a tremendously invigorating experience to work at NTCAC, and I look forward to working with them again. Theirs is a reminder that even an inexperienced choir can teach us important lessons about tenacity. The way that the NTCAC Choir tirelessly works through difficult passages sets an example for all of us here. The strength of that choir is the final missing piece of the puzzle for the TCUC Choir.

Many years ago, my father's friend Uncle Galen owned a very precious BMW 635. Despite frequent mechanical problems with the car, Uncle Galen drove it whenever he could to wherever he needed to go. After all, what good is a gorgeous BMW if  it just sits in a garage? What was the point of owning an exotic car if you never take it out for a spin, rev up the engine, and let the car do what it was created to do? Our choir is very much like my Uncle Galen's BMW, a fine machine in our service to God. We can take it everywhere the Gospel is needed; we can use it to bring people to Church; we can use it to bring Church to our community. But unlike Uncle Galen's BMW, our choir will never depreciate in value from use.  Quite the opposite, actually: the more we use it, the better it gets. We have been blessed with an amazing gift from God, let's make that gift a blessing to all. Let's take it out for a spin.