I can recall many an organ lesson where my instructor would say, in an effort to help resolve the phrasing of a particular passage, "Well, how would you sing it?" It always worked. The original instrument, the human voice, provides the most natural interpretation of musical expression which other instruments can only attempt to emulate. A sensitive musician can do so very effectively though. Listen to an expressive cellist like Yo-Yo Ma, a solo by a brilliant guitarist such as Pat Metheny or Brian May, or the phrasing of a virtuoso pianist such as Angelin Chang. What do all these players have in common? They impose a sense of breath onto their respective instruments. This is especially vital for us organists who play an instrument that, as long as we have electrical power, never needs to breathe! Igor Stravinsky famously called the organ, "the monster that never breathes." Perhaps he had some bad experiences or was just very biased. Either way, the listener will be naturally inclined to expect an organic (no pun intended) approach to music-making. It is all about the human voice, an instrument we're all intimately familiar with.
It is no secret that Christianity has had a long association with singing in worship. The psalms are song texts after all and often encourage singing. Examples include Psalm 95:1 "Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation" and Psalm 101:1 "I will sing of your love and justice; to you, LORD, I will sing praise."
There are many more examples in scriptures of course. Ephesians 5.19 states "Speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord." And Hebrews 2.12 offers “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.”
The relevance of the human voice in worship and in our experience with the divine was further reinforced at a few workshops I attended this summer. In June, I participated in a nearly week-long session with the Church Music Institute in Fort Worth, Texas The time there included lectures on the history of hymnody, daily morning and evening prayer services, church music seminars, and a hymn festival. Recently I returned from a choral conducting workshop in San Diego with the Proarte Voices. The nuanced emphasis on embodying the breath and vocal mechanism in gesture was profound. Coupled with the appreciation of the history of vocal culture in the church at large, I am feeling quite good about the upcoming program year, beginning this Jubilee Sunday.
The good news is we all have the opportunity to participate vocally in worship via congregational songs and hymns. We are blessed at Plymouth to also have other musical outlets for those who wish. We just completed another season of Summer Choir, a "pickup choir" singing necessarily simple anthems to enrich summer worship. The Chancel Choir begins on August 21 providing accessible quality anthems for the program year normally at the 11:00 a.m. "choral" service. The Chamber Choir is an auditioned ensemble of 12-16 singers who offer high quality choral works ranging from the Renaissance to contemporary eras. The Plymouth Ringers resume rehearsals on September 4. While an instrumental group, we strive to not just ring but make our Schulmerich Bells sing!
Vox humana: It is an organ reed stop meant to imitate the human voice and found on French classic organs as early as the 17th century. It is Latin for "human voice," you have no doubt surmised by now. The desire to speak to God and make music with our voices, even while playing an instrument, is such an innate and interesting impulse. Why resist?
Mark Heiskanen has been Plymouth's Director of Music since September 2017. Originally from Northeast Ohio, Mark has experience and great interest in a diverse range of musical styles including jazz, rock, musical theatre, and gospel. He is thrilled to serve a congregation and staff that values diversity and inclusion in all facets of life. Read his mostly-weekly Music Minute here.