Friday, March 23, 2012

Gospel Singing...Black Gospel, That Is!

I was personally invited to a concert by the choir of a primarily African-American two-year college in Texas, the Southwestern Christian College Choir. I was told that if I wanted to hear how music was really supposed to sound I wouldn't want to miss this concert.

I had visited the Black congregation where the concert would be held on several occasions and looked forward to seeing people I knew.

I understood the concert was to start at 2pm. The program showed a different line up. Congregational singing, a speaker, THEN the choir. That was ok I enjoy singing (obviously!) and looked forward to hearing the speaker.

My momma and I were the only whites in the assembly. This is significant only because there is a distinct difference in how southern whites worship in song (very proper, stoic, etc.) and how southern blacks worship in song. I would be out of my normal comfort zone as far as singing would be concerned. But I was very ok with that - I always enjoyed the freedom and expression that occurs during the singing at black congregations.

I attended the concert to hear the visiting choir. I did not realize that the congregational singing would be the highlight of my day.

One man would lead the majority of the songs. As I tried to harmonize with songs I'd never heard before OR songs I'd never heard sung that way before, I became comfortable with the style despite stumbling over the words. Nearly all of the songs were sung in the call & response style of singing. The leader would either introduce the phrase to be sung in echoed response by the congregation or else would sing a phrase that the congregation would respond to using the same lyrics/music.

During one song I heard clapping coming from the area where the college choir was sitting. Normally, in white congregations of churches of Christ, clapping is not permitted. I did not clap. But, I did sing along. The clapping "fit" the moment. (I will not go into a doctrinal discussion here. My response should give evidence to my view.)

Another man approached the pulpit to say a prayer. However, when he was done several in the congregation called out for him to sing THE song. Apparently he was known for leading a certain song. After a moment of feigned reluctance he took the microphone from the stand and began singing "God is Real" (I think this is the title). I recall this song from my youth but it was never sung in the manner with which it was sung on this day. He was soloist, he was leader, and the congregation responded and sang along with gusto.

The speaker was a vibrant Black man who traveled with the choir and would solicit funds for the college from those present. His lesson was dynamic. I frequently felt his intense stare as he spoke. I felt this was probably due to the fact that I was sitting as I would in a white congregation - stoic lacking expression or response - and he was wanting to elicit some sort of response. Sure, I was most definitely moved by his speaking, but after a while I was holding my stoicism to see how long I personally could hold out. Those around me were verbally encouraging him with "Amens" and "Preach it!" and the ever constant "mmHmmm" in agreement. Eventually I did feel a slow smile cross my face as he neared the end of his speech. So he did get a response though not as much as he perhaps wished for.

At 3:30 the choir took the front of the auditorium. (Remember, I thought the concert started at 2pm.)

It was a group of about 35 young people. They were dressed in jeans with choir T-shirts pulled over whatever top they might have been wearing on the trip to TN. After all, they had left TX at 4am in order to reach their destination in time. Their dress did not bother me. It fit the circumstances for many times I've traveled with students where they literally stepped off the bus in time to sing. I did find myself thinking, "Would our primarily white college chorus perform so casually to audiences?" (Our groups wear formal dresses and tuxes.)

After the 1.5 hrs of Black gospel singing I was ready for more from the choir. I was pleasantly surprised to hear a nice, though young, choral sound. Careful enunciation and pure vowel sounds. Their music was contemporary gospel (not the Black spirituals that our choruses keep as mainstays in their repertoire). My only criticism would be that it was difficulty, though not impossible, to hear the soloists who led the call & response songs the choir sang.

One thing SHOCKED me...something I've NEVER seen...something I would NEVER allow in one of my concerts: An audience member sent a note up to someone on the front row who gave it to the choral director. APPARENTLY, someone wanted the choir to sing a request AND the choral director complied! Before singing the next song a young man came from the group, found the song in the hymnal, asked the congregation to get a book, and proceeded to lead the song.

WHAT?!?!?!?! (Gives you an idea of the type of choral director I am.)

Then when that song was over the choir continued with their program.

*rolls eyes*

While some business was being taken care of there was more congregational singing with the same song leader as before. He lead a version of "All Night, All Day" that I had not heard before. The words were the ones I'd learned many years ago in elementary music class, but the melody was definitely a variant - even the repeated response. However, the verses were different in that they used the lyrics to "Amazing Grace" and the response was always "Angels watching over me, my Lord."

It was over at 4:45pm. I left that day feeling refreshed and uplifted. I felt that I had experienced something that many do not get to experience - and I was thankful I was able to attend. I can't wait until next year! :)

Orchid Ensemble...and Other Reflections

Made up of three musicians this ensemble performed East Asian music vocally and on instruments: the erhu (2-string stick fiddle [pictured on left]), zheng (16-25 stringed zither-type instrument [pictured on right]), marimba [center], and various percussion instruments (I liked the Chinese tone blocks and crotales). Their repertoire was folk - both traditional and composed.

This concert reminded me of the Stringalong I attended in Wisconsin where I learned how to play the Japanese koto (also in the zheng family). During those lessons I learned that Japanese music is read from right to left, top-to-bottom. The music was not standard notation, but Japanese characters for the numbers 1-13 - corresponding with the number of strings on the koto. My training as a music teacher was challenged during that class - especially since the teacher felt I should demonstrate for the class. Though I know music I was learning just as the others in the class were. I'm glad I had that experience.

Another memory this concert prompted was a workshop I attended at Indiana University in 2004. This was an amazing workshop. For four days I was immersed into East Asian music - every day was the music of a different country (Japan, China, Korea) taught by experts in the field. I am talking about people who had actually lived and studied in the countries they were talking about.

I did not get to play the koto at this workshop though my professor was extremely curious as to who had taught me for she and only one other person in the US taught the koto. Turns out my other teacher was the one other person. So I've been taught by the best!

I also got to learn about the shamisen (3-string instrument).

I got to play in a Chinese percussion ensemble luogu, which means “gongs and drums” and accompany and perform a lion dance.

I learned how to read Erhu music - written in a system of numbers with dots and lines indicating duration. While I did not play the erhu we did play this music on recorders. Challenging!

This was probably my favorite because I got to watch a Korean drum ensemble then we got to play in smaller drum ensembles. (Sadly, I can't find the pictures of these.)

This is running longer than I'd intended. I have not even touched upon the World Music Jam I attended in 2003 at Morningside College in Sioux City, IA. (The trip I almost got a speeding ticket driving my (then) new car. So glad the trooper was nice. 72mph in a 50mph zone usually does not bode well!) Then there is the Multicultural Symposium in 2008 at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Then there are the state and national music conferences. It goes on...

Suffice it to say my life has been touched by (primarily East) Asian music. I've learned enough to know I love it. I look forward to learning more!

Ok, so this is more about my past experiences, but they are all prompted by the Orchid Ensemble concert.

Live music....

Like many people I have days worth of recorded music. Today people count the amount of music in their possession by the number of tunes on their iPod. I don't like to limit myself and also include the myriad number of CDs, cassette tapes, 8-track tapes, record albums (33s, 45s, 78s, and one Thomas Edison 16s). If I listened to everything I currently own I'd most likely fill every waking moment for a couple of years.

Perhaps that means I'm old. Nah!

The purpose of this missive is not that I have a lot of recorded music. (My record album collection deserves its own blog post!) It is meant to be about the importance of live music.

True, I am a music professor who is surrounded by live music all day long. After all, my office is surrounded by practice rooms and studio offices. At times the sounds coming forth from them is so varied creating a cacophony which causes visitors to my office to question how I can stand it as they firmly close the office door. I have learned to tune it out - until something particularly lovely reaches my ears, then I am distracted. :)

But like most people, once I leave the music building (one can hope!), I am listening to recorded music on the radio, on tv, etc. Music that is rehearsed and not put out in public until it is perfection.

Contrary to this is live music. Live music is put out there with the hopes of perfection though, as humans, perfection is rarely achieved.
In the past month I have been blessed by live music. During one weekend alone I attended four different live performances at different venues. The following blogs are an attempt to record and reflect upon the concerts.