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From bulletin: St. John Passion service, Bethany Lutheran Church, March 29, 2015

From bulletin: St. John Passion service, Bethany Lutheran Church,
March 29, 2015

Sunday’s experience singing Bach’s St. John Passion felt more than a little surreal. Other than on the songs when I myself had to join in on the hard work of singing, I often felt as if I were somehow inside a recording of the music I’ve been listening to over the past several months. The 40 songs on my phone that are now so familiar provide so much more music than the choruses and chorales our choir has been rehearsing. For one thing they come accompanied by an orchestra, not just our choir accompanist playing on the piano a small portion of the completeness provided by the various instrumental parts. And for another, we practiced our own songs but had little or no exposure to the arias in ordinary rehearsals.

In fact, because what we were doing was only part of the complete work, that is why I decided to start listening to those 40 songs in order—no shuffling allowed. This winter whenever I plugged my ear buds into my phone, I selected Bach to accompany me as I pushed my snow blower or ran. My purpose wasn’t to focus on the music but to let the songs—mine and those of others, transitions, and accompaniment seep into me. Last week, before the dress rehearsal with the other musicians, I would have told you I wasn’t ready to sing my parts—despite seven months of group rehearsals and practice on my own.

But with those musicians? Wow—just wow. Oh certainly, I didn’t have everything down just perfectly, but it helped so much to have the support of such high level instrumentalists as well as the professional soloists who also sang with us. At Saturday’s dress rehearsal there were moments when I would hear the other sections of the choir sing and think, “Is that sound really coming from us?” It was so much easier to sing up to a new standard surrounded by all that excellence as I sat and stood immersed in something that sounded a whole lot like what had been coming into my ears all winter long.

For the few hours of Sunday’s service I was transported into an almost ethereal space where I even forgot sometimes how hard I was working.

Because of that I could really hear the message and sense just how passionate this passion was—our God was put to trial and forsaken. The heavenly music told a tale of oh-so-earthly human failures. No wonder so many of the faces I faced as I sang that the final number—including not just those of those in attendance, but also of our director—were either close to tears or had tears escaping—as is also likely true of my face and of those standing with me in the choir. How could we not “get” the story when told as Bach intended?

Indeed—what a way to put the holy into Holy Week.

(Note: in order to listen, access the link embedded above and go to the worship archives for March and click on March 29, St. John Passion.)

(c) 2014 Trina Lambert

(c) 2014 Trina Lambert

Music is one of my first languages—and I know it had a big role in how my brain first developed. Music is also one of the best ways for all people to keep our brains healthy as we get older. But when I joined the church choir after my kids left home, I didn’t do it for my brain. I did it because I missed practicing music within a group. Yet I am sure my brain appreciated the regular exposure to learning and singing demanding music, just as my heart appreciated the words we sang.

I had only sung in the choir for two years when our long-time and excellent director retired. Everything old seemed new again under the direction of Dr. James Kim—for many reasons, but especially because he is a passionate scholar of J. S. Bach. Thanks to Dr. Kim’s focus on Bach and the messages in his work, all our brains have stepped up the mental workouts while also growing in understanding the whys behind the sacred music Bach left behind.

This second year with Dr. Kim, our brains should be even healthier. He has challenged—and guided—us to sing J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion—and in German, too. Together (and on our own) we have been learning words in a new language and delving into complex musical patterns since late last summer. Oh, sure, some of our members are accomplished singers who have extensive musical training and who have sung in or do sing in performance choirs. But in the end, we are a church choir and as such anyone is welcome to join us. There are no auditions or requirements—except maybe for the desire to sing for the glory of God.

Bach was a church musician—not your average church musician, neither then nor now—who was most concerned with how his works glorified God. No doubt he strove to strengthen the health of souls through his words and notes, but I am also grateful for how they have also benefitted my brain health at the same time the words have been written into my heart.

Tomorrow on Palm Sunday afternoon at 4:00, under the direction of Dr. James Kim and accompanied by guest instrumentalists, the Bethany Lutheran Church Chancel Choir, along with accomplished soloists, will present the St. John Passion as an extended church service.

The complex and beautiful music by Bach that has challenged and developed me simplifies the difficult task of opening hearts. After so many months immersed in such exceptional words and musical notes, the spirit is willing in each of us participating in this offering to the congregation and community—may our flesh (and brains) also be strong enough so that all who listen—young, old, and in-between—hear the glory to God that Bach intended.

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

When I took the Strong Interest Inventory about 20 years ago, some of the results indicated I might like to work in a church. Since I didn’t feel any calling in that direction and since I also like my weekends free from job-related tasks, I eventually put the suggestion down to a cultural bias. Just because I answered as a person of faith doesn’t mean faith-based work was my vocation. Perhaps I am just called to think and act as a person of faith in other professions/work settings. Nonetheless, I’m betting it was my “I like singing hymns” response that most directed that particular result.

But, hey, I do like singing hymns. In past centuries much of the best music was written for the Church and I’m into singing good music. Beyond that, though, part of why I am musical is because I was raised in a strong German-American family. The German-Americans where I’m from had traditions such as playing instruments together in family bands and meeting up often to sing—which included singing many of the hymns that came from the German chorales.

Even as teens and young adults in the 70s and 80s, my cousins and I had great fun doing this. It never occurred to us just how nerdy our singing hymns might appear to the general population. However, we didn’t sing just hymns—I remember singing songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” or pieces from musicals such as Pippin—but we always sang in at least 4-part harmony. The youngest cousins started as page-turners for my mom’s piano playing, learning from the bench before they were old enough to join in. When we reunited in song at Mom’s and an uncle’s services, it was as if we were doing what we had always done but with cousins moving into the places of director and accompanist.

My own music lessons began with piano and clarinet, but picked up vocally when we moved to a new town when I turned 10. With our family back in a Lutheran church again, Mom began to teach my brother and me—Sunday service after Sunday service—how to read and sing harmony from the liturgy and the hymns. So much of what I know about choral singing comes from first honing my sight-reading skills while singing hymns. Hymns have also helped me practice singing almost weekly since 1972, even during years when I do not participate in a choir.

Thanks to Mom, I always had an opportunity to sing while growing up, whether at home, in church, or through some group she was directing for my brother and me and our friends. Of course I also sang at school, but only through my freshman year in college. The hymn-singing is what has remained most constant for me.

And when I can, I sing the harmony in those hymns, week after week. Over time I’ve noticed the patterns of particular organists. For example, the organist playing for the church I attended in college always changed up the harmonies on the third verse while my church’s current organist usually varies the final verse. Until I joined the choir at church again in 2011, hymn-singing has been one of my only opportunities in adult life to sing harmony besides the three years in the 80s in another church choir and an earlier year (1990) with my current church choir. Singing harmony with hymns is to singing in choir as doing warm-up jogs are to running races or as writing in a journal is to formal writing—it is a very good way to practice skills even when you aren’t performing, so to speak.

As our society has transitioned to a post-Christian one—a society where a person who likes to sing hymns might not just be considered an average churchgoer but instead someone who should work in a church—so has the Church’s desire to be welcoming—as it should if it wants to remain relevant to all who hunger for God. We need to remove barriers that make others feel unwelcome. Yet at the same time we are also losing traditions, some strongly tied to eras when our ethnic traditions carried into how we “did” church services. Nonetheless, what feels inclusive to me most likely feels exclusive to someone raised outside my tradition.

I get it, but that doesn’t mean I like musical changes in the church service such as (only) the words of hymns being displayed on walls for us to sing or our hymnals showing just the melodies for many songs. For me so much joy has come from communal singing—in harmony.

Which means I better keep singing in a church choir. Trust me, though, when I say no one is going to pay me to do so as a profession. As Bach wrote at the bottom of each of his works, “S. D. G.”“Soli Deo Gloria” or glory to God alone. To get to sing to God—in harmony with others—is enough.

(c) 2014 Trina Lambert

(c) 2014 Trina Lambert

Memory is usually one of my strong points—or at least it was until I was really deep in the sandwich of raising my kids and watching over my mother. And even if my memory is nothing like it was in my youth, it’s still pretty good if I am listening and/or participating in something. So why can’t I remember much about one particular activity from my freshman year in college? Usually the phrase isn’t “What happens in Bach Chorale stays in Bach Chorale.” As far as I know what happened is that I practiced with the group every Monday night until we performed a good part of Bach’s St. John’s Passion during Holy Week.

I now realize this experience should have been a big deal. The St. John’s Passion is very difficult. And while I come from a very musical background—having played piano, clarinet, oboe, and violin, as well as having sung in parts since I was 10—I am a generalist who has never taken musical theory—or practiced much individually—I’m rather a musical bum. Or as my music teacher mother finally said of me and my brother, “I don’t know why I wasted so much money and energy on your music lessons if you were just going to turn out to be jocks.”

That is, musical “jocks” who didn’t take musical preparations as seriously as we took our physical workouts. My brother has almost perfect pitch and we both picked up reading music easily with our first piano lessons back in kindergarten. In some ways music was so much of our early childhood that we don’t even know how we know what we know and too often we get by on that easily developed knowledge.

From time to time I discover I “know” many parts of the St. John’s Passion my choir is practicing even if I can’t tell for certain what all I have sung of this music. For certain, my choir did not sing the words in German, but I have had particular English phrases from the songs stuck in my head ever since that one “lost” year—and I sing them, too—just ask my dogs who have been called malefactors many a time.

So it seems very strange to me that I can’t access exactly what I did in those practices. Did I find the music hard or not? Shouldn’t it stand out if it seemed that way? Maybe my malleable 18-year-old brain was just in the middle of constant learning and it found the music neither harder nor easier than anything else I was learning in my first year of higher education. I do know that while the choir itself was geared toward generalists, music majors who did not have time to be in the traveling choir were required to participate in this choir instead. Perhaps we amateurs were paired with these people deliberately as I do remember one person who I would say was my mentor during rehearsals.

Fall trimester Monday rehearsals seemed hard because by Monday night I would realize just how little I and my poor time management skills had accomplished over the too-short weekend. But by the second and third trimesters, I also had added track practices—that jock thing—and sorority meetings. It’s possible I was just in a daze at choir practices due to panic over what all I had to accomplish after my longest day of the week ended and before I could go to sleep.

Whatever the reasons, I don’t really know what I did or did not do in that choir. I did decide I didn’t enjoy being in the choir enough to do it and track together for several months. Ever the generalist, I didn’t really care about all the music theory and jokes bandied about between the director and the music students. However, what I most learned from the experience was that I liked Bach.

Bach still appeals to me, even as my brain feels so much less malleable than it did when Bach and I first met, well, first met in choral singing anyway. The genius of what to me is a call and response between the various vocal sections of the choir is just a marvel and adds so much to the meaning of the pieces. I love all the counting—even when I get lost. Learning German is a bigger stretch and though I loved learning foreign languages in my early days, I am glad that I learned these songs first in English—the emotions of the words I don’t yet understand are stuck to the notes in my mind already.

Each time I practice this particular music I re-discover a little bit more of what I learned so long ago. So glad to get back to these specific works of Bach that somehow are a part of me—despite my not giving them the attention they deserved the first time around.

And, thus, I’m mostly leaving you with pictures. Well, other than of relaxing activities such as my delicious nap today and my soak in the tub—I will spare you those images. Thank goodness for small favors, right?

Christiana petting giraffes on our trip to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

Christiana petting giraffes on our trip to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

Running.

Running.

Road trips.

Road trips.

Reading.

Reading.

Singing in church.  (c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

Singing in church.
(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

Walking dogs.

Walking dogs.

Now, off to grab 40 winks–or more.

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