Choirs bring a 'heart connection'

Choirs bring a 'heart connection'

Unitarian Universalist church choirs strengthen community, deepen personal spirituality.


On any given Sunday Gale Johnson constitutes the soprano section of the choir at the thirty-six-member Universalist Unitarian Congregation of St. Johnsbury, Vermont. When everyone else is there, she joins five altos, two basses, and one baritone/tenor.

When Johnson joined the choir three years ago there were other sopranos. But now she is alone. “I know there is no one but myself to rely on, and this in turn motivates me to be there and to always know the music. I am needed.” And, she admitted, “It gives me a lot of pleasure to sing with others to the best of my abilities.”

Steve Finner, minister of music, added, “Our choir members are incredibly faithful through all kinds of weather because they see this choir as a ministry. And, we usually have fun!”

What would our Sunday mornings be like without our choirs? Fortunately most of us will never have to find out. All across the country there are friends and members of our congregations who are committed to giving us music. They have written “choir practice” on their calendars for Wednesday night. Every week they show up with music folders and water bottles in hand and then on Sunday morning they pour their hearts out for the rest of us.

They’re riding a cultural wave. The organization Chorus America estimates that more than thirty-two million adults regularly sing in choruses, up from twenty-three million in 2003, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children.

There’s more to a choir than simply exercising one’s vocal cords. “A choir is a place of deep spiritual practice,” explained the Rev. Jason Shelton, minister of music at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and a former board member of the UU Musicians Network. “It can be transformative and life-changing for choir members. Singing in a congregational setting is probably one of the most physically vulnerable things people do in their regular life. It’s rewarding, too. Studies show there are significant health benefits to singing in a choir, and choir members have an opportunity to wrestle with the theological ideas that our music expresses.”

Choirs also create community. In many congregations they are the strongest small group, helping hold the congregation together and creating bonds among themselves. Some choirs share joys and sorrows after rehearsal and bring treats for members’ birthdays. “If there is something pressing in a choir member’s life, we make sure to talk about it,” said Ila Stoltzfus, music director at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “We’ve noticed that those who are connected with the choir are more likely to stay connected to the church.”

Choirs tend to look after their own right up to the finale. Some choirs show up at choir members’ weddings and funerals. Among the six choirs at First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, is the Threshold Choir. Partnered with the congregation’s pastoral care ministry, the choir sings “simple healing music,” including hymns, chants, lullabies, rounds, and spirituals at the bedsides of parishioners struggling with illness or approaching death.

Groups of choristers at the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, have gathered to “sing out” three of their own members in their final days, said minister of music Mark Slegers. “These are moments that none of us forget.”

The Portland congregation, which has 1,050 members, may have the largest music program in the Unitarian Universalist Association, with 300 volunteer musicians in ten choirs. There are three adult choirs—two that require auditions and one that is open to all comers. There are also three choirs for children and youth and five hand bell choirs.

“I am always surprised by the emotional impact our choirs have on people,” said Slegers. “I get emails from people—‘You had no idea what I was going through and your music reached out to me.’ It’s the power of community.”

One of the issues every choir faces is what type of music to present. Slegers, who consults with congregations, says this is the most common reason for congregations to seek his advice. “If a congregation presents only classical music then some people get what they want, but others don’t.” Typically, he said, a younger minister will arrive and want a broader array of music from a variety of cultures, but will sometimes meet with resistance from the congregation or musicians. Slegers’s answer is to survey the congregation, then let the survey speak for itself. “Everyone in the congregation needs to be touched by the music now and then,” he said.

Singular moments in the life of a choir bond choir members to each other and to the congregation. For the choir of the Free Church Unitarian of Blaine, Washington, it was the Christmas concert that the choir did a cappella one year because their beloved accompanist, Reah Freeman, was ill. “Afterward we went to her house and did it again for her. That was something!” said member Vikki Soffoniason.

A choir from First Unitarian in Portland serendipitously found itself on a European tour right after the Berlin Wall came down. “That was very moving for us,” said Slegers. Choir members formed enduring relationships with Unitarians in Prague. Then, in 2003, the choir embarked on a visit to Cuba just as American bombs began to fall on Baghdad. “We were able to make a different statement than our government did,” said Slegers. “It was life-changing for us and for the people we met with in Cuba.”

Choirs can have a big role in social justice work, said Sarah Dan Jones, music director at Georgia Mountains UU Church in Dahlonega, Georgia. “At peace and immigration rallies they add the soundtrack to our social justice work,” she said. “The Standing on the Side of Love campaign has a song by the same name attached to it. We’re using music there just like the civil rights movement used ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around.’”

Jones, the director of communications for the UU Musicians Network, added that choirs can help improve congregational singing. “A choir sets a tone for worship. It can also help a congregation sing better, especially when a song leader explains the hymns and creates some enthusiasm. Singing is such a visceral emotional activity. In a world in which we live in our heads maybe too much, music is our heart connection. An effective choir and song leader can give congregations that heart connection they might not have otherwise.”

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