hymnals feat

I’m a tenor. I wouldn’t know this fact had I not joined a church choir here in Pittsboro after a particularly boisterous night of Christmas caroling. Full of cookies and milk, I broke out what I guessed was something like vibrato on “O Holy Night,” and afterward, one of the sopranos said, “You should join the choir.”

Twelve of us, kids and adults carrying crumpled, handmade caroling booklets decorated with doodles and holly leaves, had been roaming the streets of Pittsboro, ducking under the magnolias and cedars to mount the porches of the old houses on Hillsboro Street.

“Oh, not me,” I replied, falsely modest. I waited to be begged a little, which wasn’t nice, but I knew this was a church choir that could field, at most, 10 players on a good day. The chances of being begged were high.

“Yes, you, oh, please,” said The Soprano.

How many times had I been asked by my daughters to quit singing in the car, and how many times had they shed real tears of mortification when I picked up the sound of some old pop song in the mall and began to sing? Thousands of times, probably. That very night, they’d asked me to tone it down a bit on “Ave Maria,” and perhaps not stand so close to them. Or better: Could I not sing at all? And now I had been asked to join a choir. Ha, girls. Ha. Ha.

“I’ve never sung in a choir before,” I said coquettishly.

“Doesn’t matter,” said The Soprano.

“I’m your man,” I said.

• • •

A week later, I attended my first Wednesday practice. By Sunday, I had a choir robe, No. 6 on the rack, a billowing maroon number with a white satin liturgical stole. Very dramatic. Before the service, we all paraded into the sanctuary toward the fenced-in, raised platform that fit a dozen people and an organ off to the pastor’s left. I looked out and saw my daughters, who looked either proud or amused. I couldn’t tell the difference. I choose to think that they were proud in the way children can be proud of a parent they suddenly suspect might seem important to others, especially their friends. Let’s admit it: Everyone looks important in a maroon choir robe with a white satin liturgical stole. My daughters also sit in the back of the church, so there was minimal chance that the sounds from my mouth could ever be traced back to me and, by association, to them. They had plausible deniability. Everything had worked out very nicely. They sat back, relaxed, curious as to what would happen next.

• • •

I’m a tenor, but not a trained one. A real tenor sings with power and one distinct voice throughout his range, one supple voice from the lower register into the upper. A trained tenor is recognizably the same singer from first note to last, a skill I never mastered. Inhabiting the notes of a tenor has meant my grappling with the implication of time’s passing. In the low sections, I hear my adult voice, the voice of my father, the sound of a 45-year-old father of two. That guy sings with authority, with hints of patience and irony. But as I sing higher, as “Be Thou My Vision” moves up above the staff, I hear the sound of the teenager singing with Violent Femmes in his bedroom. Higher, and I hear the boy who loved The Beach Boys. Those younger voices are still there, straining and squeaking at the upper notes. The effect is as if I were walking back in time, face forward, voice tentative and uncertain, but hopeful for the future and long life.

• • •

When I joined the choir, I didn’t know that The Doctor — a bass who’d sung in the choir for at least 40 years, a father of six, a town elder in every sense of the word — would soon be relinquishing his seat. The Doctor had a deep, resonant, recognizably local voice, a voice like what you’d hear from a thick old black walnut if trees could sing. He knew the blue Presbyterian hymnal cold, but sometimes we sang out of the red Baptist hymnal (a surer source of old country standards like “The Old Rugged Cross”), and when we did, the switch irritated The Doctor. I mistook this for some kind of sectarian conflict at first, an outburst of Calvinist territoriality. But eventually, he decided that reading the notes and singing harmony had become too difficult and confusing no matter which hymnal we used. One Sunday he was there behind me, and the next Sunday he was in the pew next to his wife, watching us. I could hear his absence, the empty echo where he’d once anchored us with the weight of his voice. To my ear, we sounded wispy and unformed without him, ever in danger of flying up and away. But time moves on, even in a church nearly 200 years old.

• • •

Here are other markers of time: clocks, journals, liturgical calendars, the colors on a preacher’s robe, the height of the sun through the tall, frosted windows that line the sanctuary, the appearance of poinsettias and Easter lilies, metronomes. Especially metronomes.

We didn’t have a metronome, or if we did, we didn’t use it. This is where this essay treads into the contested territory of choir drama. The struggles we had with a particular piece of music — “One Faith, One Hope, One Lord,” (OFOHOL hereafter) — could all be explained by our inability to stay together. Some of us had been drilled, possibly cruelly, from a very early age by music teachers, and we insisted that the choir sounded like a mob in full roar because we weren’t counting out the time. The others thought the problem was that the rest of us weren’t swinging along with The Organist’s interpretation, that we weren’t feeling the music in our obsession with meter and beat and time signature. (Not like The Organist felt the music, at least. The Organist who haunted music sales, played in at least three churches, and refused to be anything but optimistic about our singing talents.) The accusation stung. Looks flashed between us. We developed our own schism.

When The Pianist accompanied us, there was no such issue. He’d been an engineer; he knew math and such. The beat was never in doubt because he was hardly ever in doubt about anything. The Pianist was also an atheist. Despite his humanist declarations and his amusement at my wrestling with eschatology and the whole death question, The Pianist knew the hymns and showed up on his Sundays. He had grown up in the church and was close to his family of believers. The pious response to all this would be to say, with a smirk, “He’s on his path back to Jesus. He can’t stay away.” But that would be unfair, I think. People aren’t that easily read.

• • •

The church’s piano had been donated by a young woman, a talented pianist who’d been the church’s accompanist before her too-early death. She’d willed the piano to the church, and there it sat, to the right of the pastor. The Pianist had been close to the young woman, had spent evenings at her house playing that beautiful Yamaha grand, and on the Sundays he accompanied us, had a chance to play that piano again. He played “Rhapsody in Blue” for the offertory for so long that the ushers at the back of the church, holding the offering plates, had to bend their knees and lean against a pew as they waited to parade the collection to the front of the church. On those days, the congregation would applaud, and when they stood up to share their blessings and concerns, they’d count The Pianist and his music as a blessing, and he would nod his head modestly. He knew love and joy and beauty as well as the rest of us, and chose to mark the passage of such things, time’s relentless marching, every third week at the keyboard of his friend’s piano.

• • •

On the night we finally sang OFOHOL, The Organist dressed up the men in red bow ties. We looked spiffy, he said. My parents were visiting, and my mother sat in a pew not far from The Doctor. My daughters sat in the back, having become so used to my singing in the choir that they hardly noticed us or looked up when we sang. But my mother, who never met a church she liked much, sat very still and watched us intently.

One central and recurring plot point of my mother’s childhood stories was that my grandfather sang in the church choir, and my grandmother played the piano. My grandfather was a baritone and was quite proud of his dramatic voice. Grandfather’s hair-trigger inclination to break into song was a source of humor. He wasn’t a trained singer, but he liked his voice all the same. He liked singing.

For her own reasons, my mother stopped going to church more than 50 years ago. I’m not sure what that means, except that she knows how to dress respectably for church when she has no other option, but doesn’t ever look exactly comfortable sitting in a pew.

My grandfather died in his early 80s, nearly 30 years ago. He taught me, as he’d taught his daughters before me, how to use the black keys on Grandmother’s piano to play and sing, “The little boy went in the shed/And hit the baby on the head/And this is what the baby said/Acockadoodledoo.”

I don’t sound at all like Grandfather. My voice is higher and thinner, and yet my mother cried that day and later told me how much I did sound like him. For once, I was able to imagine my mother as a little girl, sitting in church and listening to her parents play for the congregation. I imagined she must have thought, This is the best part of all this church business.

• • •

As Sunday rolled into the next Sunday, I began to wonder what we sounded like to The Doctor. I have on occasion sat in the pews, listening to the choir, and was surprised at the sound, which was no better or worse than I had imagined, just a whole lot different. The Doctor had stood in the choir loft for so many years that I wondered if the sound of the choir came as a shock. Every Sunday after the service, he’d stand up, still taller than the rest of the congregation even with his slight stoop, and make his way over to the choir to say hello. He’d take our hands in his own big ones and then look away. I didn’t take the gesture personally; I’d much rather have caused him pity than regret.

The truth is that it’s always better there in the choir loft in the middle of the music, not because it sounds different, but because it feels different. You’re immersed, surrounded: the rustle of the choir robes, the heat from the other bodies, the peripheral glimpse of the fellow singers bending heads over their music, swaying, and tapping their toes. You remember how much everyone worked on the music, and the brilliant gossip that made you look forward to Wednesday nights. On the Sunday we sang OFOHOL, I’d wager most of us were more anxious than usual about singing, as we’d never really gotten the kinks worked out, not even close. But the introductory notes, once sounded, offered no option but to stand up together.

• • •

When do we stand up and sing for each other? Is karaoke what we have left? Nina Simone would have made a hell of a karaoke singer, but it was in St. Luke Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Tryon that Simone learned to play and sing, in a choir with its share of amateurs and caterwaulers, no doubt, but whose members nevertheless stood up and sang together.

What I heard that day my mother listened was not what the congregation heard. This, and not the recognition of my caroling skills, was the coolest gift about being asked into the choir. The sound wasn’t separable from the people singing it with me. My voice was subsumed into the greater sound. What I felt about the music — what I heard in it — had everything to do with what I felt for those people standing beside me, past and present: The Doctor, The Pianist, my grandfather. And we sounded good.

This story was published on

Murrell is the program director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and The Normal School, and a consulting editor at Southern Cultures. His work has also appeared in The Oxford American, Poets & Writers, and several other magazines and newspapers.