413 | Singing Till the Cows Come Home

December 13, 2015
Sunday, 10:00 a.m.
Letter #413: Singing Till the Cows Come Home


Dear Family,

Changes in the chapel schedule recently had our inmate-run leadership scrambling to adjust services to the shorter length and prioritize weekly meetings to the few time-slots granted by the chaplain. Each religious group was given just two meeting times, so the leaders opted to cut the weekly chapel-based choir practice, since I’d made room for the church choir to have space on our multi-purpose room schedule.

At the time I’d offered the practice time to them, I had noted one stipulation: that we will be calling the group the English Concert Choir, not the Church Choir, which meant it would be open for anyone to attend. The leadership agreed, grateful for the rare opportunity for meeting space, since our unit is the only one of this compound’s three units to allow inmate-led programs in its rooms.

I have attended every Monday-night practice with this choir, helping add harmonies to their songs and attempting to help bring order and unity. I was warned by the church leaders that the choir is like the Wild West and should be approached with caution.

Over the past years, membership in the choir was open to anyone who wished to join an “open cattle call” as the head pastor, Jay, puts it. Like most other prison choirs, one’s walk with God is the main requirement in this choir. In fact, it is the sole requirement, meaning we have a wide assortment of non-singers and singers alike, with only one amongst the fifteen members who can actually sing. You know, on pitch.

Not only can’t they sing, they currently run the show. The leader (and I am being generous in my labeling here) told me that “the choir doesn’t want to sing harmonies.” Oh, don’t they, now? In fact, they’ve told him that they cannot do so.

Now, pause right there. That, gentle reader, is one of my pet peeves: a person who claims “I can’t” when they are altogether unqualified to make such a determination. To say, “I can’t change my own oil,” for example, assumes that person is so vastly aware of all the factors necessary for such a task, has taken into account their own physical abilities and limitations, and has arrived at the thoughtful, albeit fatalistic, conclusion that such an undertaking would amount to an impossibility if even attempted. Far better to admit you simply do not know how to do a thing than to claim negative possibilities before ever attempting it.

Complicating matters, the choir director has the voice of a nightingale. As in, his voice is entirely within the vocal range of that bird, making it impossible for him to sing along with the choir, if the choir songs were pitched where written. Ah, but they are not! No, the director changes the key of EVERY song so that his stratospherically high range can be accommodated. As a former high-tenor myself of a very popular, good-looking boy band, I can easily reach the melody notes of the songs in their higher keys, but to add even higher harmony notes is not feasible.

The choir director, whom I will simply refer to as “Manny,” since that is his name, says this higher-pitched song strategy results in “the choir yelling out the melody.” And this is good, he thinks, though the yelling of songs takes place in church. My opinion? Like other nightingales, Manny should sing alone in the dark.

I was asked to assist with the choir’s big Christmas production, a combination of spoken word and nearly twenty yelled selections from the choir. I agreed to help, on the condition that all songs be returned to their rightful keys. Then, I took the pages of handwritten scrawl, laden with typos and Filipino-to-English language barriers written by Manny, and turned them into three succinct, beautifully laid out pages of Christmas cantata, printed and copied (which Manny proudly sent home).

Next, I assembled a core group of guys who were willing to sing harmonies, made entirely of members of my Community Choir. Each man committed to attend all the practices and two performances on top of the hours every week we already practice as a small ensemble. You should have seen the English Concert Choir’s eyes when they first heard themselves with four-part harmony added. Yep, that’s the way it’s done, son. I was all-in, trying to show by example what is possible.

Since the only way to legitimize the choir’s use of our unit’s multi-purpose room is to make certain it is open to all and is run like a class, I have an opportunity to teach for a half-hour during their hour-and-a-half practices every week. The church leadership warned me that the choir would be highly resistant to my instruction and teaching methods. However, they assured me that the choir definitely needed to be whipped into shape. (Well that is my term for what they labeled as my “expertise.”) No kidding. I’ve heard better-developed vocals from a toddler choir at First United Church of Anytown, USA. The choir that’s formed from a “cattle call” may end up sounding like cattle.

Just an example for you: I notice the choir sits or stands in no particular order, though they have all heights from Samoan to Incan Pygmy. I ask what order they stand in for Sunday church services, and I get this pious response: “Oh, we don’t go up to be professional. We just go up [to the front] to worship God,” as if to say that putting the tall guys in the back and bringing the short guys out from hiding would somehow hinder their free-spirited worship. I suggested if they are concerned with worshiping God, they should not be making each other laugh at the front of the church and instead focus on giving God their very best. I got lots of rolled eyes for that one, but I’m not giving in to their complaining and passive-aggressive resistance. With firm, but gentle leadership, vocal and personal harmony should result. Praying there’s greener pastures ahead for these guys.