Zen and the Art of the Church Leader

When I began learning to be a leader of choral music, I had to learn what it means to be a singer in an ensemble. I had been in marching band in high school, playing at halftime shows, marching contests, stage band events, and graduations. I went to school on a music scholarship and majored in music because I didn’t really have an idea to do anything else exciting. I had only been in my church children’s choir and, for a brief year, in my church’s adult choir. So, I had to learn a new way.

Quite by accident, I was vocally “discovered” by my roommate in college, Mark Allan Davis. Mark convinced me to sing in the choir in college, offering me the logical argument that it would help me pass sight-singing — a class all music majors are required to take. (Yes, it is exactly what you do — practice singing things on sight.) I sat next to Mark in my first college choir rehearsal because he was the only one that I knew in the room. At the end of the first rehearsal, the director, Dr. Charles S. Rye, said that he was conducting tryouts for the Chamber Chorale later that day. Mark turned to me and said, “You really need to do this. I’m in it. I’ve got some music in the choral library. Let’s go find something.”

Here’s my internal thought pattern at that exact moment, “Wait, what? No, I can’t. Did Mark just say I was good at this? Seriously? Me? I don’t really sing. Did he really hear me?”

I thought back to a moment a few weeks back. As a member of the college marching band, I had to arrive at school prior to everyone else. After a particularly long and arduous summer band rehearsal, I went with some friends to grab a bite to eat. In the car, this song came on the radio. I began to sing to the radio, just out of habit, and one of the guys in the car exclaimed, “Dang, Matt, you can sing . . .”

More of my internal thought pattern, “Well, maybe I could do this singing thing . . .”

Mark and I ran back to the library. I chose “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It was the only song in the book that I knew I could sing all the way through. And, darn it, if I didn’t make it into that group.

Needless to say, I had to work very hard that semester. If you got into Chamber Chorale, you had to remain in Concert Choir, too. That meant twice the class time and twice the music to learn. At times, I was in over my head . . . clearly. I had to learn SO much music, memorize it and internalize it. And, I really didn’t read music very well. I had to acquire that skill on the fly. And, worst of all, I didn’t play the piano, which most of my friends did. Oh, the time spent trying to learn that music! But, I drilled and I worked and got myself into decent musical shape.

At the end of the semester, the choir I originally started in – the Concert Choir — was to give it’s end of the semester concert — the Christmas portion of Messiah. At the dress rehearsal, I went up to my roommate Mark and said, “Oh, wow, we are really going to do this? Mark, our choir isn’t ready. Mark, this is going to be awful. This isn’t going to go well. We really need to postpone. What’s Dr. Rye thinking? Doesn’t he hear what I’m hearing? Is this is really going to happen?” I was in serious panic mode. Mark calmly looked at me and said, “Matt, you may not be ready but we are.”

The dress rehearsal began . . . the strings played the first note and I was forever hooked on the choral art and sacred music.

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. “. . . you may not be ready, be we are.” It especially came to light this week as one or two unexpected events caused some extra stress to be around my area of influence. For a while, I felt like Kevin Bacon in this scene from Animal House.

The art of being a good church musician, church leader or any leader, for that matter, is to channel the anxiety of fear and stress into positive excitement and thrilling energy. Yes, acknowledge concerns. Certainly, don’t hide or run from them. Step into the conflicts they create. Don’t let them overwhelm you and all those around into the fear du jour. Individually, you may not be ready to do whatever it is you are about to do but look at the entirety of the people around you. Take that into consideration.

If I had been required to sing my part as a solo, it would have been quite imperfect. I had convinced myself that this was where everyone else was, too. All my mind could think of and consider were my imperfections and that surely those must be everyone else’s, as well. But, by trusting and working well with those around me, my imperfections were made into glorious art. I was lifted up by what I heard around me from the singers and the orchestra. Most certainly, I carried the musical load in one area of Messiah while another carried the musical load in another passage. What I eventually came to realize, with Marks’ help, was that we, as a choir, had developed was an unspoken connection to help each other out. And, that transformed the entire experience of music and the choral art for me.

I’m not saying you don’t put in your work. Do the due diligence. Live in the pain required to succeed. Give it all you have. Absolutely, strive for perfection. But, in an ensemble, it’s the whole that succeeds in creating the art — not the individual. I think it’s the same way in worship, it’s the entire work that God hears — the music of the spheres, if you will — where an imperfect people offering their excellent praise to a perfect God, who knits together all those in ways no one could have ever imagined. And, God is pleased.

So, then, shall I be.

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