This past weekend I fulfilled a lifelong dream and participated in the extreme sport of church music, the gospel choir experience. The event was the 7th annual Power Up Conference presented by The Toronto Mass Choir (TMC). There were workshops and rehearsals culminating with an opportunity to perform in concert with TMC doing songs we had only begun to learn 48 hours earlier.
Basically, we’re talking about an opportunity for lily white folks like me to learn to how to sing and move their hips back and forth at the same time, which, if you know me, is a much greater task than say, sending a man to the moon and back. In a era where saying “church music” implies the modern worship of Paul Baloche, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Graham Kendrick, Jeremy Camp, David Crowder, etc., with which 90% or more of us are familiar; this represents and entirely different genre.
The choir was started by Karen Burke, a woman who was trained in classical music but had a dream 23 years ago to bring the gospel choir sound to Toronto. The choir has been on a number of overseas tours and won a Juno Award in 2003 — the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy Awards — for best Gospel album. You can read more of the choir’s history here.
Today, among her many activities, she is an associate professor of gospel music at Toronto’s York University, where, not so coincidentally, she also directs the York University Gospel Choir. She recently presented, for the third year, another weekend of the stage show, The Evolution of Gospel Music. You can read more about Karen Burke here.
That said, I don’t think any biography would do her justice. This is a unique individual who is a gift from God to the music community in Toronto.
So how can I describe this weekend?
First of all, Gospel music isn’t so much about musical style as it is about attitude. The director’s passion and infectious joy quickly spreads. My wife did this conference with some friends a year earlier, and the first thing she said when she returned was to comment about how positive the director and everyone else was. Not about the songs. Not about the band (which really cooks). Not about the rehearsal technique.
In Gospel choirs there are only three parts: Soprano, Alto, and Tenor. Being more of a baritone combined with age and eventually exhaustion to produce some unintended results, but more on that later.
All of the parts are learned by rote, not note. There is no printed music handed out. Not even to the band members. We were given lyrics sheets, but were not to use these at the final concert. There was a fair amount to memorize in a short time.
Time was the one thing that we didn’t have, but instead of launching into each of three rehearsal sessions with wild abandon, Karen chose instead to take some time to explain the spiritual foundation for each song. She told us to sing “with our faces and with our eyes.” It’s all about communicating a message to the audience.
But you can’t do that and not be affected by it yourself. My wife and I attended a concert years ago by a large American gospel choir, and so I’ve known the energy that this music conveys. In the course of producing a radio show, I amassed a collection of Christian vinyl albums of all kinds, including a fairly large — by Canadian standards — selection of mass choir music. Still, nothing prepared me for the transformation of actually singing the material; having the lyrics embedded in your mind and soul.
Twenty four hours later the songs — especially the lyrics — are still looping in my head.
There were some major challenges for me with this event. The first was the range of the music. The first day of the conference started with seminars and then after supper we practiced until 10:30 PM. I felt I had damaged my vocal cords singing in a range to which I’m not accustomed.
We got checked into our hotel around 11:30 and had to be on the road by 8:00 the next morning. I’ve said this before, but music ministry in the modern church is increasingly a young man’s game. This was a workout that left me exhausted, which I would pay for later.
Then there’s the challenge of lyrical associations. When we sang,
The name of the Lord is a strong tower;
Everything within me wanted to sing,
The righteous run into it and they are safe;
Instead of the correct line which was,
Just call on His name you’ll have the victory.
Then there was the problem of wanting to position myself next to someone who I could ‘lean on’ musically. While there were a few TMC people scattered around the group, a lot of the people where I was seated were neophytes like me, some of whom with decidedly less musical training, and some actually hampered by extensive classical choral training.
And then there was the challenge of distractions. There’s an obvious spiritual analogy here: Keep your eyes on the conductor and you won’t get lost. But what do you do when, as in the dress rehearsal, a baby carriage starts rolling backwards down the center aisle toward the communion table? The amount of concentration and focus needed to sing this style is truly more than you might imagine.
…My greatest fear was screwing up in the concert, and I was not to be disappointed; although the way it happened was unforeseen. I figured I might blurt out a line in an inappropriate place or sing a note completely off pitch. Instead, it happened on the final note of the third of four songs, an arrangement of the hymn Jesus Saves.
We were supposed to hold the note for about four beats and somewhere between beat two and beat three, my voice just gave out. Between the lateness of the hour (it was closing in on 10:00 PM when the Power Up group combined with TMC), lack of food (we hadn’t eaten since noon and were subsisting on the sugar in fruit candies), or just the formula of age-plus-exhaustion; I ran out of air on that last high note and instead of just fading out, my pitch dropped not unlike the Doppler affect one hears when a truck passes on a busy road.
Actually forget trucks. It was more like a train wreck.
I considered the possibility of who might have heard this:
(a) Just me — most unlikely
(b) Just me and the two guys next to me — that would be nice
(c) Just me, the two guys on either side, and the director — sadly, she doesn’t miss a trick
(d) The entire audience — entirely possible, it was a sustained chord for both choir and band
(e) Me, the people around me, the director, the entire audience and every music teacher I have ever had — that’s how I visualize it.
For the final song, I combined the despair of the previous song into the mix of challenges and didn’t do the greatest job I could have. My only consolation is that having heard some things and talked to some people in the rehearsal, I am sure mine was not the only mistake that night. But it’s a small consolation when all your musical training is about excellence. When you’ve spent your life as a “music guy” who plays almost every instrument and has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, it’s humbling to find out there’s something you really can’t do.
Gospel choirs are an entirely different paradigm from the church music I grew up with. The music is up-beat and joy-filled. I have a new respect for the people who compose the arrangements, teach the songs and perform the pieces; and I’ll never listen to it the same way again.
But it’s also, to some degree, an endangered species. With church choirs replaced by worship teams, and Christian radio playing a steady diet of Chris Tomlin, Mercy Me, Casting Crowns, Third Day, and anyone else who fits that formula; it’s easy to see a new generation emerging who will simply never be exposed to the mass gospel choir sound, either live or recorded.
I am so thankful for an opportunity to not only enjoy it this weekend, but learn how the pieces fit together. I’m glad I got to swim with the dolphins, though I need to warn you; they are excellent swimmers, they were born to swim, and they swim all the time. Still, it’s fun to splash around in the same water, even if you make a bit of a mess of it!
…To watch videos of the four songs we learned, performed mostly by the original artists, click on the comments section of this article.
Footnote: If you ever see an advertisement in your local newspaper with the words “mass choir” or “gospel choir,” just quickly order tickets. You’ll be glad you did.
Footnote: The concert we performed in also featured Greg Sczebel, an artist from western Canada who the MC described as a “nerdy white guy” who reminded me of a performer from an earlier generation, Bryan Duncan. Check out his music.