Saturday, February 14, 2009

Copland Songs

One of the gifts God gave me was to have been raised in a church where music was central to worship and fellowship. It was a big (for its time) Southern Baptist church, big enough to support a "graded-choir program," a "minister of music" (not a mere music director), an accomplished organist who was a perfect match for a grand pipe organ, and a concert level pianist. A "graded-choir program" meant that there was a choir for every age group, beginning with the little ones (the "Cherub Choir"), the middling ones (the "Junior Choir"), and then the teenagers (the "Youth Choir"). At the top sang the adults (the "Sanctuary Choir").

We had a complete Christian Education program, built around Sunday School, which itself was divided according to age into "departments." Music was a central feature of that program too. The "educational building" rivalled the Sanctuary building, if not in beauty then certainly in function and floor space. During the Sunday School "hour," each Sunday School department had an "opening assembly" of about 10 to 15 minutes, following which the students "went to our classes", boys to theirs and girls to theirs, small groups of maybe around 6-8 children. There might be 6 or 7 of those classes per age group. Using materials from the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, the teacher led us. He or she had come to church the Wednesday night before where, at a "teachers' meeting," the "superintendent" of that department would have gone over the upcoming lesson.

We sang at the opening assembly of our Sunday School department, often singing from hymn or song books designed for our grade level. Each Sunday School department area had a piano and there was always a pianist, drawn from a talented pool of amateur musicians in the congregation. As we got older, the pianists, usually adult women, gave way to our peers who had been "taking piano" from an early age. By the time we were in high school, one of us was "leading the singing" and another of us was accompanying. Sometimes the minister of music would come in and with the piano accompany a solo or an ensemble presentation given by our peers who sang in the choir. Sometimes the solo or ensemble presentation was accompanied by one of us as well.

There were "music festivals" where our choirs would meet at assemblies of other Baptist choirs. We would sing our best numbers and be "evaluated" by panels of judges. There were presentations not only of choirs, but of ensembles (I sang in a "quintet" during high school with my cousin, Ken) and of individuals, either as pianists or "song leaders."

Our youth choir went on tour by bus several times. We had a tour to New Orleans one summer, for example, but the most unforgettable was the trip to the 1964 World's Fair in New York City. We sang in Baptist churches all the way up the East Coast and all the way back. Our choir not only gave a concert in the sanctuary of the church, with a sacred program, but at a "fellowship" time after the concerts, our ensembles presented lighter fare - one of them being something called "the Grasshopper Opera," which was a scream.

I was a boy soprano in the younger choirs, but by junior high all of the choir boys had voices breaking down, and the thing to be was a bass. It was OK to be a tenor, but to be a bass - that was where I wanted to be. (My father, also a singer, liked to refer to "the men and the tenors" in the choir. He, of course, was a bass.) So I thought I was a bass throughout the period, but I got no solos. The nicer voices were those of the boys who turned out to be real basses and of the boys who embraced their tenor hood. The main problem, in addition to my attitude, was that my voice was not developing as quickly as that of the other boys. So I did not sing solos. Of course, with my modest ego, that was fine. (Right.)

When I went to college, I kept singing, and as a freshman auditioned for and was admitted to the Men's Glee Club, the Sanctuary Choir (the one that sang every Sunday in the Duke "Chapel"), and a more select group called the "Chancel Singers." The music directors put me in the second tenor section of each group. It was OK. When you go away to college, you are expected to kick down the traces, and Dad had no idea. I also found the First Baptist Church of Durham a little dull and soon quit going. Besides, I was taking Old Testament at Duke the first semester and New Testament the second from an absolutely marvelous professor, Barney Jones, who was also a Methodist Minister. So my Sunday mornings were at Duke Chapel, singing in the tenor section of the choir.

There I was, singing tenor and doing Bible study with a Methodist. Everything we were warned about back in Sunday School concerning college was coming true. (I won't mention discovering Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas and the aptly named Temptations. I won't mention d***eing.)

But my voice was growing up, and the ego was always there. So I asked my parents, who were dealing with the financial burden of putting me through college (my dad was too proud to fill out the financial aid forms and my mother had gone to work for Eastern Air Lines), to pay for voice lessons. They did. I found my way to the music department at Duke, which was different from the campus choral organizations, and to John Hanks, who was an accomplished tenor. Mr. Hanks became my voice teacher and, now and then, Ruth C. Friedberg would come in and accompany us during a lesson.

(Ms. Friedberg was a wonderful musician. She was an accomplished pianist and a member of the Duke faculty. When she played while I sang, something happened between us. Sometimes I think she was deeper into what I was singing than I was, like a mother deeper into her child's play than even the child, at least on a conscious level. It was not about me, of course, it was about her exquisite gift of listening to others. What a marvelous woman. She is now Professor Emerita of Music at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.)

One can have a big ego and still not have a lot of confidence, and I was that person, especially as a singer before Mr. Hanks. He believed my choral singing was not good for my still-maturing voice. He said that ensemble music directors exploited their good choir voices by encouraging those singers to "over-sing." So he got me jobs at churches in Durham singing on Sundays where I would solo frequently. My junior year I sang in the choir of an Episcopal church in Durham, which was really good because the chairman of the History Department, Dr. Watson, was in that choir and I got to know him well. When my senior year arrived Mr. Hanks had me take the job as the soloist at the First Church of Christ Scientist. During that time I finally got over my stage fright. At the Christian Science Church I led the singing at the Wednesday night service and on Sunday morning, each Sunday morning, I sang a solo.

The Christian Scientists were simply wonderful people to sing with and to sing to. To them, there would always be something good about whatever I sang, and they told me about it. And I soon got over trying to lay the ground-work for low-expectations with them when, before the service, I might tell the reader that I had a sore throat or that I did not sleep well, or some foolish thing like that (I soon learned to go to bed early enough on Saturday night.)

Among the high points of my music at Duke were the vocal recitals of my senior year. There may have been two of those that year, but I only recall what I sang and what the recital hall looked like when I sang and how I felt. I could have sung those songs at separate recitals or only at one. Of course, I was one of several young vocalists who sang, and I do remember those others very well - they had voices far superior to mine, but I was OK with that by then. (Finally, I'm beginning to grow up!) The songs I remember singing were John Duke's Yellow Hair and Copland's arrangements of Simple Gifts and Gather at the River.

This entire post so far is simply prologue to the video I have embedded below. Marilyn Horne sings the very two Copland numbers that I sang (along with a third, Long Time Ago). She sings so very beautifully, and listening to her set off this train of memories that I have recounted. Her Gather at the River moves me nearly to tears, because I'm back at Central Baptist Church again, singing Shall We Gather at the River from the Broadman Hymnal. And my mind at the same time is transported "over yonder" where gathered are my mother and father, family (older and two younger ones) and friends. Finally, I see the future, when we will be so gathered as well. What a blessed prospect!


Anonymous said...

10th Grade Quintet was Paul, Roy, Norman, Bob & Danny.

11th Grade Quartets =

1) Paul, Ken, Steve, Charles
2) Bob, Danny, Roy, Norman

12th Grade Quartet = Paul, Ken, Steve, & Norman


Paul Stokes said...

What a great memory!!! We obviously peaked in the 12th grade. Norman is on the staff at Julia's church in Tampa/Clearwater.

Anonymous said...

Small world! Indeed!