In December 2019, through a series of wonderful and unexpected circumstances, I was hired by the National Symphony Orchestra to play the organ for its annual performances of Handel’s Messiah. It was truly the dream gig, the kind I dreamed of doing but never imagined I actually would.
On the night of the first performance, walking through the backstage orchestra locker rooms, I looked at the black-and-white photographs lining the walls; signed pictures of some of the world-renowned soloists and conductors who had made music on that stage.
Members of the orchestra were engaged in their own preconcert ritual. Well-practiced instruments lovingly removed from their cases, bowstring tension checked, horn valves oiled, oboe reeds selected and wetted. I wound my way past the double bassists filing toward the stage doors and sat in a chair in a dark corner near the right stage door.
My own preperformance ritual is considerably more pedestrian than checking the string tension on a Stradivarius. Unzipping my backpack, I pulled out a pair of well-worn, black leather shoes. If I was a character in Downton Abbey, my valet would definitely not recommend these shoes, given the pinnacle of formal wear my white tie and tails represented. But then, I’m no lord of the manor; I’m an organist, and these are organ shoes, built for toe-heel gliding across the wooden pedal keys, not for striding into elegant dining halls.
My shoes tied securely, I stepped through the stage door and out under the full lights and view of the capacity audience of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage. Sliding across the polished mahogany bench I tried to put on a facade of coolness, as if this were something I did all the time. But inside I could barely contain my excitement. Reaching under the console, I turned the key that switched on power to the instrument and gave me full control over the 5,000 pipes speaking from chambers over the orchestra. I checked my preset combinations, refined over the rehearsals I’d played the week before. Everything was as it should be.
A few minutes before the concert, the choir began to file into place. Looking up into the choir loft, I recognized the expression on many of their faces. They were as thrilled to be there as I was. We were ready for the downbeat.
Being a small part of these performances was truly the thrill of a lifetime, something I will never forget. Sitting there at the console of this amazing organ in this incredible concert hall, I was in awe of all the players, the conductor, and the singers who made it happen.
As incredible as all the instrumental players were, one instrument eclipsed them all: the humble, yet extraordinary, human voice. From the soaring lyric lines of the soprano singing “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” to the homophonic pulses of the choir belting the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the voices carried that music into the hearts of the audiences at those performances. The rest of us, playing instruments of wood, string, and metal, could only dimly imitate the glory of the voice.
Singing as a combined single voice can, when done with experience and exuberance, produce a sound that is much greater than its individual parts.
We all have them, two small bands of smooth muscle tissue, little more than the size of a dime, that vibrate as exhaling air passes from our lungs and into the air. This rushing air creates a wave motion in the vocal cords as they slam into one another and then are blown apart again, which happens between 55 and 1,047 times per second, for the low A of a basso to the high C of a soprano, respectively.
If you were to hear this buzz directly at its source, it would not be a very flattering sound, but more of a fleshy, annoying, squeaky buzz, like a full balloon leaking air through a semi-squeezed opening. But from their origins in the larynx, these thin little sound waves undergo a remarkable transformation, resonating through the throat, mouth, and nasal cavities and over the tongue before emerging as a sound with pitch, articulation, and shape. Singing comes naturally to humans, but like all natural skills, with practice the human voice can be refined into an instrument of staggering beauty, one that reaches into the soul and communicates in ways that every other human-made instrument can only attempt to emulate.
As if this weren’t miraculous enough, each of our individual voices can, singing as a combined single voice, when done with experience and exuberance, produce a sound that is much greater than its individual parts. In the best of ensemble singing, our shortcomings are made up for by the strengths of others, and vice versa.
To do it well means reaching out with our ears to truly listen to the singers around us, all as we make minute and subconscious adjustments to the musculature of our diaphragm, tongue, nose, and throat, all while those around us are doing the same thing. It is extraordinary collaboration on practically a metaphysical level, the results of which lift our minds and hearts to the heavens. When it comes together, voices sync up and “ping,” finding power and depth much greater than the sum of their parts. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in “The Singers”:
“God sent His singers upon earth
With songs of sadness and of mirth,
That they might touch the hearts of men,
And bring them back to heaven again.”
When I first arrived in Maryland in the early 1990s and began attending the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, I marveled at the power and exuberance of the congregation’s singing. They had recently installed a new organ and renovated the sanctuary to create a better acoustic space for hymn singing. The congregation, still taking joy in their new space, would send their voices to the absolute pinnacle of the roof, at times burying the 4,600 pipes of the organ with the dynamic power of their combined voices.
As glorious as much of the solo organ repertoire is to play, particularly on a great instrument in a large, resonant room, nothing is more soul-satisfying for an organist than to accompany an enthusiastic congregation singing one of Christianity’s great hymns. At its best, accompanying a congregation from the organ is a perfect symbiosis of leading and accompanying; following, while pointing the way. It is a subtle craft. Lift a little here at a comma and 500 people will breathe together, prompted by the small silence you created, ready for the next phrase. Make a wrong note, create an unexpected dissonance, and those same 500 people will falter and lose their confidence for the rest of the hymn. It’s an awesome privilege and a sacred responsibility.
In 1994 I started to accompany the Spencerville church congregation, first as assistant during the first worship service, then as organist and director of music in 1996. During the course of those 25 or so years, I accompanied more than 5,000 hymns, every one of them an amazing privilege.
On festival days (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter [branded “Resurrection Sabbath” for some of our Adventist brothers and sisters]) we hired some of the best brass players in the world, working in the District of Columbia with our nation’s military ensembles, and the sanctuary would absolutely resonate with the sounds of singing, brass, and organ. Those experiences live on in my mind as the ultimate expression of humans striving to respond to the mystery and wonder of the divine, giving everything they can to make sound lift in worship.
During the past decade or so, I had begun to sense a kind of complacency, even at times boredom, in the congregational singing I accompanied. Even in some of the festival services, I often felt a disconnectedness from the act of corporate worship and singing. Perhaps some of it was my fault, jaded from acco
mpanying so many worship services, so many hymns. For many people, congregational singing seems old fashioned, a relic of the past.
True, it can be earthy, sometimes faltering and unrefined. We can become used to consuming music and increasingly less accustomed to making it. In our modern world, with highly edited and processed audio and video recordings at our fingertips, maybe we’d become bored with the sounds we made together, taking for granted the miracle of connectedness that singing together represents.
Such was the scene in January and February of this year as we began to hear of a mysterious virus that was ravaging distant parts of the globe. As it drew closer to our shores, we could not know what was coming for us, or what changes it would bring to our lives.
In March the rapidly spreading pandemic forced the closing of practically every church across the globe. Synagogues, temples, mosques, cathedrals, parish churches—all emptied and became silent. Some, like Spencerville Adventist Church, blessed with technology and resources, continued their worship through the marvels of livestream. But no matter how refined the video picture or how well put together, the musical offerings of those virtual services, the congregations, once standing shoulder to shoulder and raising their voices together in song, now sat silent, watching screens large and small as worship services were conducted without them. An eternal optimist, I thought it would last a couple months perhaps. Yet as I write, the quarantine continues.
Last month, for a wedding that featured just the couple, a pastor, and me in the organ loft, I played the hymn “How Great Thou Art” that the couple had envisioned, prepandemic, would be sung by a full congregation of their friends and family. Nobody sang as I played. There was no collaboration, no phrasing to point out the punctuation, no shades of stop selection to bring out nuances in the text. It was empty and strange. I missed the congregation, longed for the sound of their voices with which to blend the notes and chords of the organ I played.
On a late summer afternoon mountain bike ride with a friend of mine, we stopped to revel in a particularly beautiful stretch of trail we’d just experienced. As my friend talked, I was mesmerized by a little light show of tiny droplets that floated over his shoulder, revealed by the setting sun at his back. They seemed weightless, sparkling as they rose on the breeze. It was the first time I’d ever seen with my own eyes this phenomenon of respiratory droplets that is suspected as the primary transmission vehicle for COVID-19. I realized I was probably seeing only the largest of them, that there were in fact many more I couldn’t see.
Remember that bit about singing together requiring the mutual extending of our ears and the synchronization of our vocal folds to create unified, blended sound? Well, it turns out that we’re sharing a lot more than just a shared sense of pitch and tone. While some may find it gross to imagine a mist of tiny droplets floating around, generated by the synchronized breathing of a choir full of singers, I find it beautiful; more evidence that we are all connected, our lives threaded together in a physical, viral manifestation of the blending of our sound waves.
This interaction, on the sonic and the viral level, has been a part of singing from the first notes humans sang together. That we are discovering it only now is the only surprise. Singing is risky. Do it right, and we create something of such beauty as to move another’s soul. At the same time, as our respiratory droplets sparkle and drift, we might spread or contract a deadly virus. We are connected in strange and frightening ways, our sound waves and viral fates woven inextricably together.
We stand on the verge of a most unusual Christmas, the first for more than 1,000 years when, around the world churches will not be full of people singing carols together and choirs will not be preparing and singing concerts of festive music. Organists around the world will miss accompanying their congregations in the singing of the great carols of Advent and Christmas. I never imagined I would not play that three half-diminished seventh chord that punctuates the start of the line “Word of the Father” in the David Willcocks arrangement of the final verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” but this year I doubt I will.
Every church I know wants desperately to gather together once again. Some are ready to do it now, their need for corporate worship outweighing their fear of the virus, while others are more cautious. Yet there is value in this time when we can’t worship the way we once did, and value even in not being able to sing together.
In the silence of the empty churches where we once sang and worshipped, the walls now wait quietly for our return and for our voices to sound together again. We will eventually return. What that return sounds like is up to us. My hope is that in this vacuum of silence, when singing together is dangerous, when we feel the pangs of longing for something we once took for granted, we will rediscover the exuberant joy we once felt when singing together. That we will always remember when we couldn’t sing, and always treasure the connection to one another that comes through the coordination of sound waves from those wonderful little folds of muscle vibrating in the larynx as the breath of life emerges in a universe of sound and tiny twinkling stars.
Mark Willey has served as an organist, choir director, and minister of music at Spencerville Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, since 1996.