There’s something about choirs, processions, and habit that summons the Imp of the Perverse faster than any incantation ever used. I’ve sung in groups large and small, secular and sacred, in the US and elsewhere, and nothing but nothing will cause chaos faster than trying to get said group of singers into position while singing. Doesn’t matter if it is a hymn, anthem, introit, art song, or choral response. Combine singing, motion, and relocation and a tangle of tenors, a basket-case of basses and a surprise of sopranos ensues. (The altos usually leave early and go out for beer.) When I was a Flat State, the choir director at the church I sang for loooooved to rearrange the choir in order to get a better vocal balance depending on the setting of the anthem and the number of us present that day. So we’d be in our usual and customary places in the choir room, happy and organized. Then we’d troop up to the sanctuary and get in a huddle in the back. And then the dreaded words, like, “OK, today I need the basses and sopranos on the outside, three rows.” Right. So we shift from four rows to three, the sopranos get where the altos are supposed to be, the altos move in, the tenors shift in and up a row, or is that down this time? Meanwhile the parishioners are trying to get past us, and talking to choir members, and the organist is doing the prelude thing. The choir gets kinda sorted out, maybe, the first hymn starts and oops, we’ve got an enormous gap in the middle of the procession because the senior choir members (the slowest) are now in the middle and the folks at the head of the line did not slow down and here we go . . .
Or someone rearranges the pews/seats/furnishings for some reason, such as a wedding or a visit from the bishop. Now the usual route is blocked by a large chair, or the choir has to use a different path to get to the choir loft/holding pen. “Which side do I go in on?” “Wait, I’m not supposed to be in this line.” “I can’t be first! I don’t know where to go!” “Did he say south side or piano side? I’m confused.” It does not matter that most of the choristers have sung in the same choir, in the same loft, for thirty years. Change one thing and everything else falls apart.
For added excitement, have someone pick a processional hymn that cannot be walked to. It is possible. Several protestant denominations have added hymns over the past 10-15 years that are in unusual times (9/4) or that have very unfamiliar melodies with quirky rhythms, many from Asia or Africa. Take thirty people who are doing pretty well to sing, walk, and not trip in a march or 4/4 time, and toss in something syncopated. Or that has rests in strange places. Or set new words to waltz (3/4) time. The dignity of the introit dissolves faster than sugar in the rain.
My most recent adventure featured trying to get the choir out of the loft, out the doors, down outdoor stairs, and into a new formation near the corner of the bell tower to sing at the dedication of a monument. The good news was the hymn, “Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah” is one everyone knows. Or so I thought. Apparently not. And of course you cannot hear the organ from outside the church, and no one thought to tell us if we were to keep singing or not. I know this hymn backwards and forwards, but it sounded as if I was the only one, or one of few. So I keep singing, navigating some steep steps, meandering down around the corner of the building, and finally get to the designated spot, maybe, I hope. As it turns out I guessed correctly, and we got ourselves sorted out, so that by the time we got to the last phrase, everyone had reformed and rejoined the melody.
But Easter is coming, and I am afraid. Very afraid.