Sang With the Choir!

As Fred Hammond’s Jesus Be A Fence All Around Me blares out of my speakers, piped in via the iPhone, I find myself reflecting on the days of singing on various church choirs. It still makes me somewhat sad that my ability to harmonize well was one of the first things to go as my hearing has continued to deteriorate, and especially since I had become so good at it. I haven’t therefore sang on a choir since probably 2001? Doing so gave me some of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had, though.
It started with the children’s choir at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. I can’t really remember if we were required to join by the parentals or if we just opted into it, but certainly all of my sisters and I were a part of the choir at that time. Rehearsals were on Saturday morning, and one could get quite exhausted working and re-working the same song until we had it.
One of the most intense songs I remember singing in those early days was a take on the Hallelujah course.
“O Lord, o Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth,
O Lord, o Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth”
Man, that piece was intense! Mostly because we had to get incredibly loud to be heard above the pounding musicians and general roar of the congregation as they got into it and stood to bounce in the aisles. By the time we got to the final, extended, “O Lord, my God,” I’d be practically on my knees and voiceless. But it was so exhilarating, too, because of the reaction that tune inspired.
We continued singing with the church even as we aged, doing so first at different locations in Charlotte, and then the pinnacle of at least my experience with that choir, our 1992 trip to New Rochelle New York to perform for one of that area’s churches.
Our hotel was actually in White Plains, and the first thing I remember about arrival there was their constant assurance that White Plains was pretty much just like Charlotte. That may be, but they sure didn’t have no grits! When I asked them for some, they acted as if I were speaking another language.
We of course also went to, and promptly got lost in, Manhattan for at least a couple of hours. My cousin and I, along with a few others, had decided we were zonked and had had enough by the time they finally located the ferry that would take people to the statue of liberty. An 81-year-old choir member who had known times of much more aggressive walking put us youngins to shame, though, and went on the tour with the rest.
Somehow, a New Yorker managed to commandeer a city bus that took us back close enough to our White Plains hotel to get a taxi, where a driver tried to take us around the way because “I need more money to tickle my hands!” Uh-uh, buddy.
On that epic trip, we also went to see the Broadway play Jelly’s Last Jam, and quite a few of us had our picture taken with Gregory Hines in front of the theater in which that play took place. It was great.
That was probably the most extravagant trip I’d gotten to take with that or any choir. Once my folks relocated, at least most of us, from Charlotte in 1994, I never did join the choir in our new church home of First Baptist Missionary in Southern Pines, North Carolina. In 1996, after some trickery by my resource teacher at Pinecrest High School that luered me into their auditions, I did get to experience a different kind of choral singing. Unlike our church choirs, this required me to learn to blend in and use what to me sounded more like an operatic tone. I’m certainly not saying that either way is better than the other, just that they’re different kinds of singing. I think it’s good for a musician to be exposed to such variation anyway, and would say that my chorus instructor at Pinecrest did more to bring out my voice than anyone I’d ever known.
People submitted to sing the major solo in our final concert my senior year, but being the shy, confidence-lacking person I was, I didn’t bother putting my name in that hat. Still, he gave me the biggest solo and worked with me every other day for 30-45 minutes to ensure that I learned it.
Singing in the harsh spotlight that I could actually feel shine down on me, I’d rarely felt the flood of happiness that came from achieving that goal. And that’s probably the main thing I gain from any sort of musical experience, a sense of pleasure and fulfillment equaled by nothing else.
Onto the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where I participated on both types of choir at the same time. Now that’s some real fun.
The Unlimited Praise gospel choir traveled to Greensboro, Salisbury, and some points around Charlotte to sing at churches and such. Being a part of that choir gave me a community to belong to at a time when I really needed it.
And my cousin and I found out how valued our contributions to it were when we left due to a rapidly intensifying semester. They decided they wanted us to come with them for support at a competition in Rocky Mount, a town that makes one feel he is traveling back in time. We took an insane day trip that began in Charlotte at 4:29 AM and returned at 3 AM the following day. Hearing six different groups, including one from Long Island that stole the show, was great; but my favorite thing was the food. But isn’t that always the case?
In the University Chorale we never took long-range trips, because some knuckleheads were uncooperative the year before I got there. This left the instructor more inclined to just stay local.
We did, however, get to perform inside of a place called Oasis Temple. I’m not sure if that place has a religious background, but it’s very nice. I think we may have sang at a couple of other local churches as well.
I should probably find a church here in Durham, that is if I really want to experience that kind of connection. And if I do, I might still try and see if I can’t belt out a tune. I might have some issues with flatness or whatever, but hey I know some folk on choirs who are, um, tone deaf? But as long as they enjoy it, it’s all good! We shall see if any of that happens again for me in the near future. In any event, it was fun to reflect on. And as I close, the phone is playing Dottie Peoples, He’s an On-Time God, another foot stomper!

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3 thoughts on “Sang With the Choir!

  1. I loved your article! It brought back memories of my church choir growing up. We sang at area churches almost every Sunday afternoon and we would have so much fun – piling into the few cars owned by choir members and establishing friendships with the singers and musicians from the other churches. Every year, we had a joint concert with three or four other churches, further extending our friendships.

    You also named a lot of familiar places. We have a church in New Rochelle, and I can probably figure out which hotel you stayed in in White Plains! I have a friend from Southern Pines, NC, and our denomination’s chief institution of higher learning, Livingstone College and our seminary, Hood Theological Seminary, are both located in Salisbury. Every 4 years we would travel to Salisbury for our denomination’s Sunday School General Convention, where my friends and I looked forward to the convention choir. We also travelled annually during the week between Christmas and New Year’s for other Christian Education meetings where we sang with the choir – belting out the newest John P. Kee or Hezekiah Walker favorites. Thanks for helping me relive such great memories!

    • Wow, your memories were great as well. I knew at least one person who went to Livingston college. And in White Plains, I think that hotel was called the White Plains Hotel. Creative, huh? Haha. Maybe it was something else, but I don’t remember it being so. Thanks for reading!

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