Once a year, I go big with my choir. We do a kind of choral work called a Christmas cantata. One of the most famous Christmas cantatas is the first section of Handel’s Messiah, for example. Cantatas originate in the 17th century. Cantata means “sung” and usually includes some form of narration and is accompanied by an instrumental ensemble. It’s a series of songs that comprise a single work. This year was my sixth cantata at Goodrich.
We do a brand new cantata every year. This year, I wanted to do something very different. My son taught me something about the construction of a joke once. We laugh because the punchline subverts our expectations. That’s what I wanted to do this year, except instead of getting a laugh, I wanted to get a dynamic worship response from the congregation. Our punchline, so to speak, was African American gospel music. My choir does gospel music once and awhile and they do it very well. The congregation loves it. But we’d never done a full on gospel cantata. In fact, I’d never even heard of a gospel Christmas cantata. Joel Raney’s composition, Joy, may be a one of a kind.
Every June, I choose the cantata from the best new cantatas of the season, and there were many good ones, but this was a stand out. It was something I could subvert expectations with. But I knew that I could not go about it like I had previous years.
In listening to the demo, I nearly turned it away. I knew Raney had black gospel in mind, but there was nothing like a black gospel sound to the singers. When I say that, it is not really about race. It’s about a style that originates in the African American community, and these studio demo folks just didn’t get it. It sounded like a very good 1980s white high school show choir. Does that bring a sound to mind? Cheesy is the best word for it, actually. But as I listened, I heard something in the score. Joel Raney understands the fundamentals of black gospel music. The chords were there. The rhythm was there. And, as much as possible with a 4 part SATB score, the voicing was there. Everything I needed to start something new was there. We just needed to steer clear of the demo recording.
Now understand, there is absolutely no failure on Raney’s end. Taking a kind of music that is taught by rote (not sheet music), and notating it onto paper is challenging. You can’t take the music that’s in your head, put it onto paper, and expect what was in your head to come out of a choir of primarily white United Methodists. What I wanted to do is imagine what Raney had in mind and bring it to life. If Raney is Geppetto and his score is Pinnochio, then what I wanted to do is make into a real boy. Joel, if you’re reading, I don’t mean to sound unflattering; I’ve just worked with gospel scores and arrangements enough to have a good idea of the challenges and you’ve given us everything we needed to make something really special! It would take the right group of musicians to do this.
I didn’t hire church musicians because they’re all engaged on Sunday morning. Instead, I went to the local music scene to find a pianist, drummer, percussionist, and bass player. I sat down with the pianist in July. He would essentially be the band leader. And we imagined for awhile. We imagined a presentation of the music in its most possible authentic form. The only musician I couldn’t find to do it was a gospel music organist. They are a rare breed and all very busy. But the pianist would handle all of the flare that the organist would have done. We imagined an augmented version that would ring true. I told him if you help me with the band, I’ll see what I could do with the choir.
He may have thought I was a little nuts (spoiler alert: I am). Maybe he thought I didn’t know what I was talking about. I don’t know. Ok, so you’re going to take a group of musicians who have never played together (or in a church for that matter) to take a written score and turn it into something different than the written score and you’re going to do it in 5 rehearsals?
Yes! That’s what I wanted to do! I think he may have been a little hesitant, but intrigued enough to throw in with me. We sat down the next week and looked at it. He was prodigious beyond what I expected and I was really excited. It was summer. I told him that we would start in October and perform it in December.
I knew it would work. It was one of those Holy Spirit things. I could see it all so clearly in my head. I would give them CDs to learn their parts and a score to the pianist. Most of these musicians would be learning by ear. They would learn it in a few weeks and have fun doing it. We would find our sound; our interpretation. They would join with the choir in December and we would present it on the 18th.
Every August, I hold a choir retreat in which we play a game or two, look at some new fall material, have a potluck lunch, and look at the cantata for the first time. We all look forward to it. The choir had the same response to the demo as I did, but they trusted me so we had a good consensus on it. And so the work began. I knew from the beginning that rhythm and style would be the hardest elements and I was right. Challenging music.
What I wanted for them was not their regular traditional choral sound. I wanted something brighter, yell-ier, and freer, adding style that is not written down. There were no complaints. I spend a good deal of our rehearsal time trying to prevent them from doing that anyway. Black gospel music singing is very different than what anglo-centric choirs do. It requires a chestier sound. That means we take our speaking/yelling voices and take it on up to our higher register instead of flipping over into head voice all of the time. That requires some technique and I didn’t expect everyone to get it. Plus, there were a lot of legit soprano parts that wouldn’t allow for that. But I wanted us to do our best at sounding like a gospel choir, at least where it really counted.
In the end, it turned out that the biggest challenge was balancing the volume between the band and the choir. Our second to last rehearsal was disastrous. It was the first time we all got together and the singers were screaming trying to sing over the drums. Not good. Mutiny in their eyes, I concocted a plan to dampen the drums and amplify the choir. I prayed and prayed and when the dress rehearsal came I had nailed it. It was good.
All that was left was to worship. That is number one for me. Yes, it’s a great show worthy of a concert, but my plan from the beginning was to subvert expectations with the goal of a more spontaneous kind of worship. And I believe we accomplished that. There were amens, people wanting to move (and not really knowing how to), tears, and spontaneous clapping. Never had our program had such a profound effect. It was recorded and has been shared throughout the community. And the mandate was clear, more of this kind of music at Goodrich.
Afterwards, the pianist wrote about the importance of white people understanding and performing black music…and I added black sacred music. It’s an American original. It needs to be embraced by churches like mine with music directors who are willing to give it their best shot. And I gave it my best shot and went big.