A Simple Praise, Part 1
Let’s travel back to when Lorna was still married. Chuck was the Chairperson of the Music Ministry in his local Methodist Church. Lorna was a failed Methodist, but the small church choir needed a good-enough soprano voice. Chuck asked Lorna to help them. That’s how Lorna started going to church regularly for several years beginning in 2003. This story is about her experience in that little church choir…
What do characters in a hokey Hollywood musical and a small church choir have in common? Heart, that’s what. With the odds against them, tons of drama and a lot of hard work, the ending is nothing short of astounding. Maybe it’s great in Hollywood musicals, but I’ve found that being astounded isn’t always a good thing in my life.
Take Babes in Arms starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Mickey plays a plucky guy conveniently named Mickey. He’s a tough-nut that comes from show-biz stock and wants to be a star; but he, Patsy (Judy Garland’s character) and some other hooligans are sentenced to school so they can become honorable citizens like bankers and politicians. Mickey cooks up a scheme to avoid education. He has one month to convince the judge that these spirited scallywags belong in show business, not respectable society.
How does Mickey do it? He puts on the show to end all shows. They’re poor as dust, but willing to work hard. With the help of kind town folks and mammoth Hollywood magic, they produce a show with glittering costumes, elaborate set designs, a cast of hundreds and a full orchestra.
The only trouble is Mickey’s ego. He’s torn between the heady lure of guaranteed fame and keeping his velvet-voiced sweetheart Patsy. The suspense is almost too much to handle.
Chuck’s Methodist rural church choir didn’t have Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, or mammoth Hollywood magic. It had eleven well-intended, devout volunteers on the best days and five or fewer on the worst days. The only qualification for being in the choir was the desire and courage to sing. Being able to walk to the choir loft and stand and sit without assistance was also a plus since most of the choir members, unlike Mickey’s crew, were Medicare-eligible.
Most of the choir members couldn’t read music, either—not because of impaired vision, but because of impaired or missing musical training. Some members sang by memory and another only sang her favorite notes. Off key. We rehearsed for forty minutes before the service for the music we sang that morning. Sometimes we rehearsed pieces for future weeks, but not always. Musically, we were on the “it’s better than listening to another sermon” side of pathetic. But we had beautiful robes, making us appear melodious, pious and prepared.
Some of us wanted to venture beyond the simple hymns found in the standard hymnal. We fantasized about real rehearsals during the week and actually being ready for snazzy anthems. I could imagine Mickey’s voice pleading with the judge, “Golly, your Honor, it sure would be swell if you would let us give it a try. I know we could do it!”
Chuck, our choir’s unofficial leader, approached Choir Director with a request for an anthem requiring more than two-part harmony. He replied, “I’m not sure we’re ready for anything that complicated. We have so little time for rehearsals. Most of you don’t read music and I never know who’s going to show up from one Sunday to the next.”
Mickey would’ve said, “That may be true. But, Sir, we have something more important than time or talent. We have heart!”
Chuck said, “You never know what we can do until you challenge us. We’re ready for a challenge, aren’t we?” He looked around the choir loft. Some of us were nodding enthusiastically and others had a wide-eyed look of either confusion or optimism; it was hard to tell.
The choir director
gave up agreed. Since the average age in our choir was 75, we simply smiled and nodded in thanks. Mickey’s gang would’ve jumped and cheered; that kind of behavior in our choir could’ve caused a cardiac calamity. We couldn’t afford to lose anyone due to joy.
Choir Director chose A Simple Praise for our “someday anthem.” He played it for us; we listened. It was beautiful and had a few key changes and some odd harmonies. Perfect.
He began with the sopranos, who had the melody for most of the song. Over half of the choir sang soprano because they got to sing the melody, not because their vocal range was high. Most were women, but we had men who sang the melody an octave lower. I was the only soprano who comfortably sang at or above the top of the staff. On pitch. On good days. “Pitch,” outside of baseball and barnyard work with hay, was a foreign concept to that choir.
The sopranos sang through the first two pages. The piano stopped; most of the sopranos didn’t. They each ended in their own time and on various notes. I heard a faint, pained sound from Choir Director, who was usually such an optimistic fellow.
“What’s that?” one of the sopranos asked me quietly, pointing to a half note.
“That’s a half note,” I said.
“What does that mean?”
“You hold the note for two beats.”
“What’s a beat?”
Stay tuned to see if this choir with heart was up for the challenge…