This article was originally published by The Mennonite

My ensemble experience

An atrocious singer (and even worse musician) follows along.

At my wife’s urging, I joined a choral ensemble. I did not join because I have any singing talent—quite the opposite. I joined because I thought I might be able to improve myself without being too big of an anchor tied around the necks of the other choir members. Or at least my wife thought so. I was not convinced.

Throughout my life I have been an atrocious singer and an even worse musician. I like to blame this on my Catholic upbringing, because it allows me to share in community with my fellow vocally-challenged, ex-Catholic Mennonites. After 18 years of living with my music-major wife, she has only been able to patch over some of my most glaring deficiencies.

I no longer mistake the rhythm of the melody for the beat and am now aware that picking any handy, semi-matching note is not how to sing a four-part harmony. In exchange for these wondrous gifts, my wife is now able (after 18 long years) to hit, catch and throw a softball.
My two doomed attempts at playing instruments (piano and cello) have left me a kindergarten-like ability to “read” music. While others around me translate in real-time the circles and squigglies on a page into actual music, my reading ability is limited to noticing that the next note will be higher or lower than the previous one. By how much is a complete mystery, and generally it is an accident when the sounds I produce resemble the pitch, tempo or volume of what is written.

In the midst of this functional musical illiteracy, choir also requires me to look up every so often at the director to receive arm movement instructions. I can roughly understand the intent, even though I am mostly unable to comply while I struggle not to lose my place and also continue desperately to try to match pitch. There are also a lot of verbal instructions that are literally in foreign languages, like “mezzo-forte” and “adagio,” plus secret-coded English phrases, like “articulation of rhythms.” The other choir members nod in agreement and make appropriate notes in their music. I also nod intently and use the time to mark little arrows next to what I hope is the tenor line, so I don’t lose my place from page to page.

But there is still more. I am asked to sing louder here or softer there or lightly or with enunciation while being crescendo-y and once, even “sneeringly.” Breathe here, but not with your chest and root yourself to the ground and round your Os and pronounce that hard G. There are apparently notations for each of these as well as everyone continues to scribble in their music. I wait patiently, since I’ve already finished marking the tenor line, the only marking I’ve found to have meaning.

My job in the choir, as I have defined it, is to surround myself with as many tenors as I can and attempt to amplify whatever it is they are doing. So, my singing often resembles an annoying person trying to mimic a storyteller in real-time. This role became evident in our spring performance. We apparently started one of the movements out of sync with each other—so much so that the organist simply stopped playing for a page or two until we got back in sync, which we eventually did. I say apparently, because I didn’t notice. I was standing between two outstanding tenors, and they were in agreement as to which notes we were supposed to be singing, so I just followed happily along. Ignorance is bliss, indeed.

I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor that describes my contribution to the ensemble. My standard image for failing at something is that of the slow gazelle being eyed by a hungry lion as the herd passes. But that doesn’t quite work here since it isn’t clear who is the lion. It would need to be the Slow Gazelle of Skill being run down by the Hungry Lion of Humiliation. Perhaps wildebeest would be more appropriate than gazelle in this context.

I’m the weak link in the chain. The faint black line drawn across a fine painting. The trivia partner who knows only what all his teammates already know, but is slower to answer.

But it’s all OK. Too much of my life is spent avoiding situations that might reveal my weaknesses. My self-identity requires that I always be the one who is competent and talented. I want to be one who provides grace and mercy to others when they mess up instead of needing it myself. Choir is the exact opposite of this and an opportunity to put myself on the other side and be vulnerable for one hour per week. I know I need help and must trust others to provide it. And provide it they do. These are Mennonites, after all.

You can randomly pluck 20 Mennonites out of any potluck and you’ll have enough vocal ability to match the choir of any Catholic church I’ve attended. Plus, they love nothing more than to provide grace and mercy to others. Especially the slow gazelles.

This ensemble (and its infinitely patient director) was particularly strong, and easily able to accommodate an outlier like myself. But if it was all just confusion and compassion, I’m not sure I would have survived.

What kept me coming back were those transcendent moments at the end of a movement where everyone sings at their peak capacity—full throated and without inhibition. When they do, the sound is so strong and so powerful that my music sheet literally vibrates in my hand, and I feel it deeply within my chest and body and soul. It is here, and only here, that I am finally able to let go. The note is mercifully long enough that I am able to confidently find the right pitch. After withholding my voice for so long for fear of messing up, I can just let it rip, and sing as long and as strong as my voice will allow, joining with the rushing tide.

We reach a destination for which I can take no credit in achieving, and yet it gives me a profound appreciation for the gifts and talents of others in taking me there. There is a surrender of self in simply putting my elbows out and being carried away by a rushing crowd of those who are stronger, faster and greater.

Finally, in these moments, I am fully a part of something greater, not only than me, but greater even than the sum of all of us in the ensemble. Our voices resonate together and fill the space between us. For just a moment, we are all connected—from the director to the ensemble to the audience—and have somehow become the collective embodiment of God for which our spirits yearn. And it is good.

Dan Schreiber is a member of First Mennonite of Urbana-Champaign, Ill. His ensemble experience was at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.

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