During last week’s chamber choir tour, I experienced a great deal of give and take.The choir gave gifts of song and in doing so shared the joy, gratitude, longing, excitement and contemplation intended by the creators of each melody and harmony. We also told stories of college life, Goshen, and of course gave out seemingly endless amounts of Goshen pens, t¬-shirts and Menno’s Best Coffee along the way.
But we were also taking. Each night we received wonderful hospitality from host families and were fed with delicious, healthy potluck meals. We experienced snow tubing, cross country skiing, touring the National Mall in DC and several of us even got to visit Niagara Falls. These are memories that we will take with us.
There is a give and take in the music as well. In the act of singing, we give voice to the notes on the page and an enduring song to their composer. At the same time, the rapt attention or calm contemplation from each audience invites us as performers into the experience more fully.
During tour, we received the gifts of resonant performance venues where the harmonies seemed to spin and ring even more than usual. We prepared 13 pieces, each a unique gift from a particular time and place.
We sang works of Mozart and Mendelssohn from the Western classical tradition, selections from contemporary American repertoire (Whitaker and Runestad), Gospel and Spirituals from the African-American tradition, and arrangements of West African melodies and texts.
Each song had a different context and message. It was indeed an honor to enter into each one, giving and taking.
Yet, sometimes taking can be uncomfortable. Perhaps you have felt like an imposing guest at one time or another—one that showers too long, eats too much or has too many inconvenient requests. You try to avoid becoming a hindrance or a disruptive presence by occupying only your share of the space.
Might the same idea apply to music? In a performance, we take the intended ideas from the musical score and reinterpret them for ourselves and for our audience. In doing this, we must be careful to honor, not appropriate, the music.
A good performance isn’t just a question of technical skill or achievement, but rather a process of understanding and conveying the truths of a piece. So, I wonder: despite months of practice (and praise from countless audience members), are there pieces that we will never find ourselves adequately qualified for, pieces where the give and take are not in balance?
Last week we performed “My God is a Rock,” a traditional spiritual where we sang “I know my God is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in the time of storm.” This African-American spiritual provided a message of comfort and hope within slave communities for generations. The chamber choir memorized these words and felt their emotional weight as we sang.
But I am afraid as white people we can never fully understand the meaning of these words. Our white ancestors were the storm that the text speaks of.
Not only that, but we play a role in modern day racial oppression that also can make this land quite weary. Members of a privileged class need to be very careful when singing the songs of oppressed people. Sometimes I wonder if white people should even sing certain texts.
Another piece we shared was called “Oba Se Je” (Here Comes the King), an energetic Nigerian folk song. The choir enjoyed the heartfelt intensity each time we sang the piece, and we heard appreciative feedback from our audiences. But without access to information about the piece’s background, I can’t help but wonder: who is the king that is coming? What is his significance to this Nigerian community? What backstory and emotions are we missing? How could we perform the piece in a more genuine and authentic way?
These are questions I have been wrestling with, and I still do not have answers.
Yet, I believe that within GC choirs we must continue trying to understand the context and culture of each piece in order to approach every one with respect and authenticity. We can commit to exploring how our personal stories intersect with the music.
Goshen College choirs are already preparing for our next concert, Earthtones: Songs from Many Cultures, which will feature music from Hawai’i, Ireland, India, Ukraine and the US, among others.
Like in previous years, the Earthtones repertoire will feature several songs suggested by choir members. As the whole choir learns these selections, I find special meaning in hearing stories directly from these students about what the piece means to them within their culture.
I am grateful for a community that makes space for these stories and helps facilitate a more holistic study of music.
And by the way, please join us at Earthtones on April 16 where you will hear these pieces and their stories. In the meantime, keep thinking about the give and take of music wherever you encounter it: choir, chapel or YouTube.