Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Making a Joyful Noise

When I was in grade school, we had singing class each week. I remember lining up and walking down to the gym where we’d sit on the bottom row of the bleachers and sing songs from tattered blue books that had simple line drawings of singing, marching children wearing silly hats and wide smiles. I loved music class, a half hour break in the day. Besides, singing lifted my spirits, leaving me smiling and light-hearted.

For a long time, singing came naturally to me—as we got older, my sister and I enlivened dish washing time by singing the top ten tunes we heard every day on the radio. Three years older, she favored Elvis numbers, “Don’t step on my blue suede shoes,” while I preferred the harmonies of the Everly Brothers and the girl singers who sang of unrequited love, “To know, know, know-o him, is to love, love, love-a him.”

After I turned twelve, I joined her in the choir at the little Baptist Church where I had been baptized that summer. We were the youngest choir members, surrounded by gray-haired ladies whose voices ranged from Mrs. Mallory’s strong alto to tiny Mrs. Adams’ shaky soprano. There really weren’t any “great” singers among us and I’m not sure what we sounded like on those long ago Sundays. I do remember that there were a few times when, there in that shabby little church, allowing my own tentative voice to mingle with theirs brought me a tiny glimpse of what it was like to stand on holy ground.

But I grew up and it wasn’t long after I left the church and that small town in Oregon that singing lost its lustre. It happened one sunny summer day. I was making lunch, my baby daughter in her high chair next to me, giggling and cooing. I was singing “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure and wear flowers in your hair” when I heard my husband’s low growl from the other room, “People who can’t sing really shouldn’t try.”

It was very a long time before I sang again, long after that marriage ended and years after I had married Zack. One evening, coming quietly into a room where I was singing as I worked, he asked me, “Why don’t you ever sing? You have a nice voice.” I didn’t tell him that I felt ashamed and embarrassed because I wasn’t “good enough.”

I just read a book written by Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls duo and her father Don Saliers, a renowned church musician. In the introduction to “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live” the authors say: “It has become easy to forget that music deepens and makes more vivid the beauty, the delight, and yes, even the lamentable terrors and sufferings of our world. Music is rooted in the human body and the human soul, and it gives voice to the spirit of human communities. Without songs to sing, life would be diminished.”

“Without songs to sing”—it does not say “without songs to listen to.” Strangely enough, it is only some of the richer, “first world” nations that have forgotten that singing is part of what it means to be human. In many countries, the presumption is that everyone can sing and they do. Certainly there are those who have more naturally melodic voices, those who are trained and educated, but communal singing is as old as human history. Singing as a way to worship and praise the Holy is probably nearly as old.

This year my husband surprised me with a very special Christmas present. He paid the tuition for a four-session singing class taught by Katie Ketchum, the substitute musician at our church several years ago when Kira went to Russia. Katie is also a trained singing teacher. The class was for women, many of whom I discovered had similar experiences.

Waiting for that first class to start I paced and hyperventilated outside the classroom. However, once it began, with Katie’s calm presence, a sense of safety and peace came over me. The fifteen women talked and laughed and there were even a few teary-eyed moments. We shared our stories, Katie taught us exercises to help us loosen up, and we sang a few simple songs.

Last of all we practiced a traditional round together, a bit weak at first, then I heard the voices around me grow stronger and more beautiful by the moment. I closed my eyes and kept singing. Standing in that circle of women, most of whom had been strangers just an hour before, I realized we had crossed over onto holy ground, that place where people open their hearts to each other and share their deepest human connections.

Driving home from the last class of the series, I determined to do my best not to let the voices from the past silence my own voice any longer. I hope you do not let anyone silence yours. Scripture tells us to raise a joyful noise. May it be so.

Blessings from Country Woman

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