Archive for July, 2012

The anthem I sang at the July service was this song that I wrote just two days before.  I have decided this is my reason for being.  “Heart, Soul, Voice” is also the name of my Celtic ensemble (but in Irish), “Chroi Anam Guth”.

Heart, Soul, Voice

Heart is a deepest feeling
That I cannot deny.
Heart is a driving passion
That I cannot defy.

Soul is a quelling empathy
When others can’t say why.
Soul is a soothing sympathy
When others need to cry.

Voice is the joyful sound
My heart needs to not break.
Voice is the willful path
My soul needs most to take.

I have seen your beauty
my heart must sing its song.
I have felt your anguish
my soul must then be strong.

Let my voice encircle you
and hold you all around.
Let my voice so strengthen you
to stay the road you’ve found.


My heart, my soul, my voice
Bear you on a wing.
My heart, my soul, my voice
Lift you while I sing.

My Heart, my Soul, my Voice
Are my feet upon the ground.
My Heart, my Soul, my Voice
Break chains with just a sound.

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I have not written in a while. I have been busy taking pre-requisite classes in Human Development and psychology before entering graduate school for Music Therapy/Mental Health Counseling this fall, and in between classes, trying to get to the beach, and…I have been busy writing a lot of songs, compositions, and poetry.  I recently led the service (doing all the music, singing, harping, and keyboarding, and reading the sermon) for my UU Church’s summer service on July 1st.  My daughter helped me by doing some of the readings and singing harmony with me.  Here is the sermon I presented.  I’ve been writing and re-writing this essay for almost twenty years.  And it’s still a work-in-progress.

The Church Soloist

Call me The Ringer.  Call me The Singer who Keeps the Sopranos on Key.  Call me the one who reminds the choir director that medieval pieces notated in 3 are really in 1.  But none of these are my job title at my UU church.  I am “Soloist”.  And almost every Sunday you can hear me sing.

If you had told me as a child that I would some day sing professionally in church, I would not have believed you.  As the offspring of a lapsed-Jew cum humanist-atheist mother and an ex-Catholic father, I attended church only sporadically while growing up.  I had always thought I’d debut at Carnegie Hall singing an aria or playing a Mozart piano sonata.  Or that I’d write celebrated pop songs or be the next Joan Baez.  During junior year in college, when I discovered I enjoyed accompanying others, I decided I’d become a professional at it, but the stress of playing for all the vocal exams as my exam that spring turned me away from that plan for further study.  I stopped playing piano for a whole year and several years later I earned a degree in medieval and renaissance music, concentrating in voice and taking up small harps.  Today, while I do write songs and instrumental pieces, I am not a classical diva like my college idol Elly Ameling, nor (yet) a famous singer-songwriter like Joni Mitchell.  Nor am I a concert pianist like Russell Sherman, who has recorded all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, although I hope at some time to give a concert in which I play all my favorite childhood piano pieces and some newly learned pieces.  And while I’d love the celebrity or even notoriety of singing the “Star Spangled Banner” at a New England Revolution soccer game, I am, in reality, an anti-diva, for I am “The Church Soloist”.

A good church singer must be able to tolerate the whims and idiosyncrasies of the choir director.  As a penny-poor graduate student, I honed my church-singing skills in the paid choir of an Episcopal church in upstate New York, under the direction of the crotchety organist who’d been directing there for 40 years.    While apprenticing, I learned that great organists, all too commonly, make only mediocre choir directors, for they almost always conduct the tempos of medieval or renaissance music as lugubriously as a funeral dirge and consequently the singers must sing each phrase on two breaths instead of one and run out of breath by the end of the first page of music and nearly hyperventilate by the end of the piece.

While I may not yet have given my Carnegie Hall debut, I have performed in about 1100 Sunday services since 1984 as the soloist for my church, where I am lucky to choose freely the style, repertoire, and genre of music I sing.  My job title is simply Soloist, but I, along with the organist and the choir, musically minister to an appreciative congregation.  Such musical work has not made me rich, even though I receive a salary for it, but I have received a wealth of thanks from congregants who tell me that “the song today was just what I needed to hear.”   I do not take such rewards lightly, for they nourish my own spirit.

When I choose a solo, I try to match the music to the sermon topic or to the season of the church year.  The right piece of music for the time or the topic helps make the service a whole.  Another part of the whole includes a prescribed litany, a “call and response” between the minister and me; I sing this every week to begin the prayer section of the service.  Many congregants over the years have stated that this litany helps their minds quiet worries and their spirits to offer prayers.  To close the prayer, I chant a “Sanctus” (“Holy, holy, holy”), a short piece that wakes us up enough both to respond in kind to the minister’s “Good Morning!” and to pay attention during the ho-hum of announcements.  To complete the ritual at the close of the service, I used to sing the final Amen, although in the last few years we have moved to the closing sung by all.  But, I will add a harmony to that piece as my little “extra” spice.

* * *

“O fire of the helping spirit, life of the life of all creatures,
You are holy in giving life to all forms.
You are holy in anointing those dangerously shattered;
You are holy in wiping the fetid wound…”

–from O ignis spiritus, St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

At the beginning of February, the holiday of Candlemas celebrates the light of the church’s candles as a symbol of Christ’s teachings, even as it harkens back to pagan rites of mid-winter and reminds us that we have only six more weeks until spring.  Candlemas 2004, I chose to sing St. Hildegard von Bingen’s O ignis spiritus, a chant written about the fiery yet comforting spirit of God that gives light and life to all.

Unlike most Gregorian chants, which often have simpler melodies and a narrow vocal range, Hildegard’s solo chant melodies are often virtuosic and complicated in melody.  Throughout her body of musical works, her poetic texts contain a spiritual vocabulary that is visionary, luminous, and rich in multi-layered connotations.  The music for this particular piece does begin within a narrow range of notes, but soon expands with the text to melodic heights and depths that punctuate the meaning of the words:  in verse four, altissimus (“the highest”) climbs to a high a, in the highest part of my soprano register; then, just after, on abyssis (“the abyss”) the melody falls into the lowest notes of the piece.  Like much solo chant, one word or part of a word may be spread over several notes (in musical terms, a melisma), particularly towards the climax of a textual phrase.  Melismas allow the performer to give nuance to important words, and thus Hildegard’s wordpainting makes it easy for the singer to interpret the poetry to an audience, even if one is singing in Latin.  I sang this with the organ playing a simple flute-like drone accompaniment.  I found that Hildegard’s hypnotic musical text setting allowed my psyche to dissolve into the words.  I was no longer “Janna singing a solo”—I was a being who had merged with the spirit that “…always lead[s] forth the comprehending made joyful by the inspiration of Wisdom…the sound of praise and bliss of life, hope, and the richest gift which gives the rewards of light.”1

During coffee hour after the service, several people commented that this particular incantation mesmerized them, or drew them in to a meditative state, or transported them elsewhere.  “Likewise!” I replied.

* * *

“Deep River, my home is over Jordan.

Oh, Lord, I want to cross over into Campground.
Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace?”

–traditional African-American spiritual

One March several years ago a longtime church member who now lives in Iowa, visited to give a sermon about his experiences growing up black in the South and the Midwest during the forties and fifties.  I had been told that Deep River was his favorite song, which his grandmother used to sing.  I had never done this spiritual and thought it was a good choice for the service.

Deep River is about crossing over the river Jordan into the Promised Land, or into the peace and bounty of the hereafter.  As I sang the piece that Sunday, the words seemed to be telling us to do what we can, here and now, to create peace, to share our bounty with others.  The wide leaps in the melody and the soulful chords underneath complemented the simple text.  This is one of those songs—the tones fit just right in your throat; the words flow easily out from your mouth.

The song foreshadowed the aboutness of the sermon, for the speaker talked about his efforts to educate inner-city youth in 1950’s Chicago and the successes that resulted.  I believe the piece had also let him feel again the comforts of childhood since, after the service, he told me my singing brought tears to his eyes.  “I couldn’t have asked for better thanks!” I said.

* * *

“A sight in camp in the day-break grey and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there, untended lying….
Then to the third—a face nor child, nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man, I think I know you—I think this face of yours is the face of the Christ himself;
Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.”

by Walt Whitman (1819–1892)

Mid-week before Palm Sunday in 2004, the news had reported over 600 American military had died and 3,500 had been wounded thus far in Iraq; many times more that number Iraqi men, women, and children had similarly suffered.   For the Palm Sunday service, I had already chosen a selection from Pergolesi’s 18th-century setting of Stabat Mater, in which Mary laments her son’s suffering on the cross.  But as I was leafing through a newly purchased songbook of modern English composers to find something for Easter, I found what seemed a more appropriate choice for Palm Sunday:  Dom Thomas Symons’ 1928 setting of Walt Whitman’s “A sight in Camp”.  In this poem, the dead bodies of three Union soldiers are a metaphor for Christ and the two thieves on Calvary.  The words struck me immediately.  I rarely request dedications for my songs, but that week I asked the secretary to put in the Order of Service:  “Janna dedicates this song to the memory of all those who have died in the Iraqi war.”  On a usual Sunday after the service, perhaps one or two individuals might make comments to me about the anthem.  That Sunday, churchgoers constantly approached me throughout the coffee hour to tell me how they had been moved by the words and meaning of the song.  “This was something I had to do,” I told them.

* * *

If a song I sing comforts others, because it helps them transcend the everyday, find solace from pain, grieve losses, voice worries and fears, feel compassion, or understand the spiritual truths that exist in the wider world, a certain joy is given me.  When I am told that a church anthem has moved a listener, I feel a kind of glory—a spiritual bliss—that is hard to duplicate in the secular venues of music-making.

This kind of transcendence is not easy to achieve when listening to or performing sacred music in a concert setting because the experience is out of context.  In context, church music is not a performance, but an integral part of a sacred ritual.  In my church, except for the times I perform with the piano by the altar, unless the congregants turn around in the pews, they will only hear me singing, for I am in the organ loft, high above and behind them—neither my performance presence nor my general appearance affects the auditory experience of the listeners.

Several years ago, I attended a concert of St. Hildegard’s music given by an internationally renowned quartet who specialized in medieval repertoire.  Their voices were perfectly in tune, pleasant in tone, polished in delivery.  Their outfits were understated, yet stylish.  Their stage presence was professional and stately.  To make clear the meanings of the texts, the performers, in turn, would also read English translations of Hildegard’s miracle stories.  But as the concert wore on, I found the stories and songs continually unmoving, each delivery both unbelieving and unbelievable—I kept trying to not fall asleep.

These performers sounded beautiful, but they had ignored what for me is the cardinal rule of vocal performance:  The vocalist must not just sing the words, the vocalist must be the words.  If the vocalist includes a spoken story in the performance, the same must be true—to tell a story, you must believe it, even if only for the time you are telling it.  This is something akin to the “willing suspension of disbelief”.  The singer or storyteller must lose the sense of self to truly express the sensibility of the meaning of the words.  Instead, the quartet performed these songs and stories as if they wanted the audience to appreciate only the beautiful singing, merely noting as historically quaint the miracles naively faithful medieval minds had believed to be true.  I would much rather have heard them invite us to transcend our modern mundane ways of thinking, to slip into the medieval mind, to find for ourselves in the experience where the truth of these tales may lie.

A song, then, is not merely pretty melodies—a song is words with music.  My belief is that I cannot express or interpret a song well without being, or trying the best I can to be, one with the words.  Music is merely a mechanism to help express the meaning of the words.  I had certainly heard this explained to me many times by my voice teachers and coaches, but my own personal conviction about vocal expression grew out of two experiential lessons I learned in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College.  One was revelatory, the other didactic.

The first lesson was in a medieval poetry class in which our eccentric professor would have us read out loud from the great classics:  Beowulf, El Cid, The Song of Roland, the Romance of the Rose, and the like.  One day, it was my turn to read from El Cid.  I’m not much for war stories, but as I read aloud the lines of this poem, I found myself becoming completely absorbed in the words, in the heroic deeds of the story.  For that short while, I fought with the Cid from the high parapets in Valencia.  When I had finished reading, I suddenly realized the whole point of such poetry—these words, these stories were meant for ears in candlelit castle courts, heard by those who probably never had a book in their hands, whose culture was to hear such works recited in the tradition of troubadours.

I was absolutely excited by this revelation—that my persona could actually disappear into a song or a story—and thought, “This is the way to interpret a song to an audience!”  A few weeks later, at a reunion concert with a Boston singing group I had been in before graduate school, I revived my rendition of a medieval lai by the great French composer Guillaume de Machaut.  The poetry was flowery, rhyming, and repetitious, the music beautiful in melody; it did not tell a story, but was a lengthy paean to the love of the poet’s life.  I had always enjoyed singing the piece, but had found it hard to make believable to my audience.  This time, I let my consciousness sink into the words as I sang the laiI was not singing the song, the song was coming through me!  My choir mates said this performance of the lai was more captivating, that I had “never sung it better”.  I told myself that, just as I was, they were captured by the wonder of the words.

The second lesson was merely the momentary musing of my usually hypercritical musicology professor, the late Paul Echols, at the time the genius director of early music theatre at Manhattan School of Music.  After attending my first-year recital, which consisted of many medieval German ballads and love songs, he said, in reference to the ballads, “You do your best when the song tells a story.”  I have never forgotten that precise smidgen of criticism.  For then I learned that while it is easy to interpret a ballad for one’s listeners, if the song does not seem to tell a story, I must try to reveal where the tale is hiding or, more importantly, simply remember to let go and let the story tell itself.

* * *

Be not afraid. I go before you always.  Come follow me, and I will give you rest.” (Joshua 1:9)

Several years ago, I was asked to sing at the funeral of my husband’s younger sister, Eileen, who had died at age 40 from complications of lupus.  It was a simple service in a funeral home with no piano or organ.  During the priest’s words, my tears were flowing uncontrollably.  When it was time to sing, I somehow calmed myself and walked up by the podium.  I let myself feel that this was my last gift to Eileen.  I hoped the song would help those who loved her to celebrate her and her journey to a new home elsewhere.  Unaccompanied, I let the words and music of “Be Not Afraid” come through me.  When the song was over, I sat down next to my husband who was dabbing at his eyes.  Kevin turned to me and said, “Thank you—I couldn’t cry until your song let me.”  I have never received a greater gift.

1.  Translation from Abbess Hildegard of Bingen:  Sequences and Hymns, edited by Christopher Page (Antico Church Music, Devon, England, 1982).

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