After a rich time of midday prayers and a lunch of rice & beans, bread, Boursin, and applesauce, my aunt and I decided to try out the singing practice at 2:00. She was not a singer any more than I was, but we were eager learners and I thought I might learn a bit more about the songs in other languages. We entered the workshop space and found a luminous Nordic girl— 20 or so, with braided pigtails— standing in front of the room calling out, “Altos here, sopranos over here.” I froze. The blurb in the welcome sheet had made this sound like it was a come-one-come-all affair. Now I suspected it was going to be more along the lines of a professional choir rehearsal.
“Well, I have a very deep voice and I really can’t sing at all,” I joked. “Where would you like me?”
She did not seem to share my humor, nor did she have any sense of where she might put me. A lady nearby said, “Try the altos.” My aunt scooted across the room nervously whispering, “I think I might be a soprano.”
Soon we were doing vocal exercises that seemed to imitate sounds in nature: crows, whooping cranes, wildebeest. Everyone around me looked to be very much in their element. My voice was already tired. I had never been trained to sing and was always certain I used my voice incorrectly somehow, even in speaking, which I did a lot. At least twice a year I tended to lose my voice altogether. I looked over at my aunt who seemed to be holding her own while the Leader— the sterner cousin of the Swiss Miss chocolate girl—began assigning us parts to one of the Taize songs. Well this would be good I thought. “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” the words began. Come Creator Spirit, come! and we layered our parts one upon the other. It is this moment, I imagine, of feeling a part of the whole—of your voice melding into that one great sound—that fills choral singers with delight. Not me. I couldn’t even hit the full range of notes assigned us, and didn’t enjoy trying— too much pressure. Slipping out the back door, I left my aunt looking jubilant with her soprano group, and went to find a moment’s peace before the small group sessions.
It was not until later when I found out that my aunt was not jubilant at all. She quickly realized that she could only hit half the soprano notes, and shortly after I left, a woman beside her, a German woman (it would always be a German woman who would correct you, we would soon discover), told her sharply, “You are not a soprano. Go over there with the altos.”
My aunt moved over sheepishly, taking a place in the back. She made it through a song or two before another woman, a German woman, told her, “You are not an alto. Go try the sopranos.” My aunt knew that wasn’t going to fly so she scooted in with the baritones, who quickly informed her that there are no female baritones, at which point she just kept her mouth shut and listened until the practice was over.
So here’s one thing I know about church singing: the people who do it well aren’t much interested in the people who don’t. But it didn’t matter. Taize chanting was not about the perfection of any given voice, but the joining of all voices in prayer. And when those voices rose up from kneeling souls, they were the most beautiful sound on earth. And the blessing of singing with them was why I had come, not to learn to sing them better. I smiled and thought of the author John Updike. He claimed that the reason he went to church every Sunday was that it was the only place on earth where no one would stop him from singing. If you’re like me and John, we welcome you into the pews.