I was sorting through Mum’s old photos when I came across one of the Swan Hill Methodist Church junior choir. There was Mrs Arnott the elderly lady in charge, dressed in her finest outfit, a fox fur draped over her shoulder, hat perched on her head, with matching gloves. And there I was at the end of the front row.
Dad sang tenor in the senior choir. We sang a couple of duets. One, the 23rd Psalm to the tune Crimond: a hymn sung to the tune of Danny Boy. As I grew older, my voice broke and singing lost its enjoyment. Later I was to rediscover the joy of voices raised in one crescendo of noise. Singing, to a well-known tune, immersed in a large group of people remains one of those wonderful moments.
Some years ago, I was working in Port Moresby. It was Sunday, the town quiet. I wandered down to the nearby Uniting Church in time for their morning church service. There was an old wooden church raised up on cement pillars, steps leading to the front door. The service was held under the wooden church in the open air. As I arrived, three young people were singing, playing their guitars. Then, everything stopped. The congregation stood, quietly, as the minister was escorted to his seat. We were seated, introductions made, and all was quiet. Sitting in rows of seats side-on to the assembled congregation was the choir.
A whispered conversation began amongst the choir, heads nodding, pages turning, agreement reached, then silence, the hymn number announced, the choir stood. Then quiet. One voice, a male began to sing the first line, then two more joined in. By the last line of the first verse, all choir members were singing unaccompanied. The congregation stood and the under-church area exploded into sound at the second verse. Not just any sound, but 100 plus voices singing in harmony. I paused, mesmerised by the ebb and flow of individual voices raised in perfect harmony.
Church music in the Philippines was different again. I never met a Filipino who could not sing in tune. I attended the 9.00am service at a local English-speaking community. Around 1200 people attended this service. The first 20 minutes of the service was devoted to singing, led by a choir of 60 people dressed in gowns. Accompanying the choir was a grand piano, electric keyboard, bongo drums, violin, trumpets, a flute. Many of the songs were Hillsong type music, sung loudly with a strong beat. It was exhilarating. One morning, the pastor addressed the congregation. “Friends “he said. “The older members of our gathered community are complaining there are no traditional hymns for them. I have asked our conductor Bart to talk to our older people and see what he can do for them”.
Bart, a young man, was professor of music at the University of the Philippines. Later, well-known traditional hymns were added to the song list, rearranged, the tempo increased, verses reduced to a couple with a chorus. They were sung with the same exuberance. To stand with friends in this community, singing at the top of my voice together with 1200 likeminded people led by a choir and orchestra was a most wonderful experience.
On a visit to Zambia in 2013, I attended worship at St Margaret’s Uniting Church in Kitwe. At a previous time, it was largely an expat congregation, now Zambian from different backgrounds. A rough head count suggested 800 plus in the church. There were 3 choirs. One of around 40 voices. An old man sat on the end of a row of chairs with a keyboard and drums. The choir was introduced, a conductor stepped forward, the man on the keyboard played one note. The choir stood together, and a beautiful song in a local language filled that church. The keyboard silent as the man played the drums. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Later in the service (just short of two hours) we stood to sing the last song, an old, well-known hymn. It was slow and drawn out. Perhaps sung in respect of a time that had passed by this community.
Some 2 years ago Joan and I travelled to our friends in Iowa to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversaries. We joined them at their local church in the corn and soya bean fields a couple of miles from their home. On the way to church Jim asked, “Were you from a Methodist background before coming to Zambia. “Yes, we were” I said. “We were married in the Methodist Church”. “Then the hymns will be familiar to you” said Jim. Much to Jim’s disappointment, we were not familiar with any of the tunes. The following week we were able to join in one hymn.
While in South Africa in the mid 90’s, I met and became friends with the principal of a Technical College in Port Elizabeth. We both shared a love of cricket. Late one afternoon he took me to the Port Elizabeth cricket ground. As we walked out to the centre wicket, he recalled games he had watched, test players who had graced this ground. The following Sunday I joined his family at their Afrikaan Church. A pipe organ provided the music, the music familiar to my ear, the words in Afrikaan, unknown.
Some years ago, I was taking a service at Lumeah, a Uniting Church aged care facility in Preston. My friend Dorothy insisted I select old well-known hymns to sing. Some from the community came in mobile beds, others in wheelchairs brought in by the staff, still others made their own way. Dorothy would lead the singing, loudly, never quite in tune. She knew each person, moving around the room during the service to comfort and support those there. On occasions, the elderly lady pianist (in her 90’s) would play the wrong key or stop before the song was finished. Dorothy just sung a little louder as she continued. Often, those elderly people would be motionless, until a tune aroused something within, a past memory triggered, past times recalled.
Perhaps music is food for the soul. It reminds us of ‘our father in heaven’, that gift of knowing God through word and music. Together, these two elements transport us, for a fleeting moment, to another place, another world, a past time. The music triggers the words. The words draw us to our God to explore our deepest emotions. They bring us for a short moment to a place of peace, and comfort. The sheer joy of voices raised in unison brings hope, defining a community.
The virtual service created by many talented members of our faith community introduced us to different experiences. Each form of music has come together in one service. To achieve this, we have all had to give up something, to create something new together. For some, it has been the opportunity, while isolated, to sing along with friends. For others, the opportunity to sing in our home, be recorded and brought together as unseen voices making music. For still others, the opportunity to transport the energy and vitality of youth in song and movement through video. It has brought together different expressions of music across all generations in one place at one time.
The virtual service has created a window of hope in difficult times. We glimpse the gifts and talents within this community across the generations. Music can be a source to unite and create community that welcomes all peoples because it brings together those gifts of word and music to move us together to another place. For that to happen, we all need to give up something that is very precious to then enable us to explore, to become excited about a new song, sung from a new song sheet.
Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder created a song Ebony and Ivory. Black and white keys played together to create a beautiful harmony. When our different tastes in music are played together, when we recognise and respect differences in music, we sing a new song in perfect harmony.