I have always been a singer, and my earliest memories of singing are connected with the church. When I was a preschooler, my mother taught me to belt out popular 1950s songs such as “A: You’re Adorable,” which I would unabashedly perform for everyone at church suppers.
Growing up as a member of “old” Westminster Presbyterian Church on Delevan Street and later the “new” Westminster at its present location, I graduated from children’s choir to junior choir and eventually to “senior” choir (which, ironically, was open for anyone who was at least in the seventh grade). I have had more choral directors than I can easily name, but each and every one has contributed to my understanding and appreciation of the choral experience, as well as to my faith development.
Choral singing provides many benefits to the individual, both physically and psychologically. Various medical studies have shown that choral singing can strengthen feelings of togetherness, regulate heart rate, reduce stress levels and depression, improve symptoms of Parkinson’s and lung disease, enhance feelings of social well-being and even increase life expectancy. Stacy Horn, author of the singer’s memoir “Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others,” stated: “As long as I’m singing, it’s as if I’m inhabiting another reality. I become temporarily suspended in a world where everything bad is bearable, and everything good feels possible."
Many experts acknowledge the existence of an even more spiritual element. Robert Shaw, a renowned choral conductor, wrote: “The basic premise of music-making is unity — and unanimity — and, in its nonliturgical sense, communion.” Most of the music I perform (or, in church-speak, we prefer the phrase “offer to the glory of God” rather than “perform”) is of the sacred, as opposed to the secular, variety. This genre includes hymns, anthems, gospel tunes, choral introits and responses, and Latin Masses (including requiems).
Sacred music is an important part of every church service, and members of the choir are worship leaders as they proclaim the gospel of Christ through song. At Westminster Church, our very talented organist/music director, Lori Rhodes-Pettit, chooses every choral selection with great care in accordance with the lectionary readings of the day. Therefore, singing music related to the theme of the day helps one to internalize it, often with profound feeling, and to share God’s message of hope and salvation.
Through my membership in the MasterWorks Chorale of Central New York, I am afforded the opportunity to sing great choral masterpieces such as Handel’s "Messiah," Mozart’s "Requiem" or Mendelssohn’s "Elijah." There is great satisfaction in singing these often challenging works, as well as a feeling of awe for the sheer power of the music to inspire both singers and listeners. Although I enjoy singing secular music, such as Broadway tunes or movie soundtrack hits, it is the sacred music that touches my heart and feeds my soul. Ephesians 5:18-19 tells us to “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts."
Regardless of your religion or belief system, singing with others can elevate your spirit, boost your confidence and widen your circle of friends. If you are considering joining a choral group, the new year is an opportune time to take on a new, self-enhancing activity. Westminster Church (and most churches) welcomes new choir members almost anytime, and MasterWorks Chorale holds two “open rehearsals” for prospective singers in January (this year on Jan. 2 and 9). For more information regarding these choral groups, visit westminsterauburn.org or masterworkscny.org.
Audrey McNally is a lifelong member and current ruling elder of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, where she moderates the worship committee. She sings in the Westminster Choir and MasterWorks Chorale.