The Mundane Magic of the Church Choir

Don't look particularly magical, do they?

I just went to Easter services — the one worship service I make a point of not missing, even though I’m a terrible, terrible Christian in so many ways — at a local church here in Houston. Given that we haven’t yet found a home church, which likely will need to wait until we find a, y’know, a permanent home… it was really quite nice to be just a guest.

But at this service, the absolutely mundane yet absolutely amazing fact of the church choir just struck me. I thought I’d share that with you all.

The Church Choir Is Pretty Amazing, When You Think About It

I grew up in the church, given that both my parents are UMC ministers. One disadvantage of having the church as the family business is that you see the “man behind the curtain”, as it were. While others are focusing on the beautiful sanctuary, the lovely singing, the sermon, and so on, I can’t help but think about the work of committees, staff, the pastor, the lay leaders, the various volunteers that make it possible. I can’t help but look at the printed program and critique it or admire it for professionalism. “Oh, that was well done,” is a thought that crosses my mind often, because I know how difficult it is to pull off a smooth transition from the Offertory to the Doxology. Having seen my parents work on their weekly sermons for decades, I think I’m versed in most of the ways to criticize a sermon, and often look at the techniques and the craft involved, rather than the message itself.

But until today, I hadn’t really thought about the church choir. This is an institution found in just about every single Protestant church of every size and denomination. Some are tiny and marked more for enthusiasm than beauty of performance, while others are massive, and could likely put out professional records. In one church I used to attend in Manhattan (the Riverside Church), the Easter Service would often bring on professional opera singers from the nearby Metropolitan Opera or New York City Opera as well as music schools like Juilliard. But for your everyday Sunday worship, the choir is usually the standard church choir, not studded with ringers.

What’s amazing is that most choirs sound pretty good. Whether it’s the 10 person choir at a tiny country church in a New England town, or the 100-person choir at a major metropolitan church, they all sound pretty decent. That’s actually amazing, when you consider the fact that not one person in that choir is really any good by our heightened standards. Unless you belong to some unusual church, there isn’t likely to be a single recording artist in your choir. Your choir is likely made up of some retired people, some stay-at-home moms, some working professionals, maybe a precocious high school student — all of them volunteers, all of them not pursuing music as a career, all of them more-or-less untrained vocalists. It might be the last bastion of the true amateur musician, doing music simply for his or her own pleasure — as well as possibly the idea that the other parishioners of the church appreciate their efforts.

Individually, each choir member is mediocre at best, and horrible at worst.

And yet, when you put all these mediocre people together into a single choir, somehow, all that mediocrity is transformed into real beauty. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the mundane magic of multiple bad voices somehow supporting each other to create a single marvelous sound.

Symbolic of Larger Truth?

I wonder if that mundane mystery is at work in other areas of our lives, of our world. Take flawed individuals — some of them horrible on his or her own — but somehow, blend them together into a single unity working towards the same goal, and marvelous, magical things happen.

Our politics have gotten bitter, divided, full of acid and bile. We focus so much — myself included — on the flaws of individuals, the hypocrisy of this Congressman and the arrogance of that Senator, the stupidity of this gal and the cupidity of that guy. But I wonder, if we took a step back, blended them all into a single thing that’s working towards the same goal… I wonder if we might not see magic.

Why wouldn’t organizations and businesses be the same thing? Maybe it’s not so important that this individual doesn’t get it, or that manager isn’t the best in the world. Maybe what’s important is that everybody is trying to do the same thing, sing off the same page of the hymnal, and somehow, magical things will be created out of totally mundane dross.

Truly wondrous individuals, truly gifted and talented people, have no need for a choir. They may not have a need for a company. They might not even need society to achieve what it is that they seek to achieve. Ah, let them go their own way, I figure. They’re talented; they’ll find their way and make something wonderful.

The rest of us, the rest of us who are individually mediocre, individually wanting, individually flawed… maybe the choir exists for us, not for them.

Have a happy Easter, filled with wonder, everybody.

-rsh

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3 Comments

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  1. As a member of a church choir member, I really enjoyed these thoughts.

  2. Rob – I wish I would have read this yesterday while it was still Easter, so I could wish you a Happy Easter and talk about the wonder of it, because I think you partially hit upon the wonder of it. By ourselves, alone, we exist, mostly in mediocrity; nothing splendid or spectacular about most of us, except when we are joined with someone greater than we are.

    I find this to be true regardless of what we do, whether it’s business or relationships. As one half of my marriage, I suck……but together, my husband and I are great, you know – the two heads are better than one philosophy. The same is true in business. I can manage my team, create a decent web presence, but my team members, together, we make it happen.

    We don’t have a choir at our church, but a band. Still, not one of them, the drummer, the bass or the vocalist would be the same or have much of a song…..alone.

    This was a really great post!

  3. Good post Rob. A similar phenomenon was explored in a great book by James Surwiecki called
    The Wisdom of Crowds. It is a very interesting treatment of the ability of a crowd to come up with a better answer or result than the smartest member of the crowd.
    Jim Canion

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