I stopped by the Unitarian Universalist Church one Thursday night to visit with Susan Swaney, who’s been the director there for 16 years.
I heard them sing music by Bach… and they also rehearsed a South African freedom song and Hindu piece all in one night.
It’s this sort of musical diversity that makes the Sue and UU choir stand out from other church choirs in the area. But there’s so much more to this group just below the surface.
The most striking aspect of this choir is the sheer number of voices.
There were upwards of 60 people at this Thursday evening rehearsal, equal parts women AND men. Swaney admits that she has been very lucky with the participation of her male singers as some choirs struggle mightily finding lower voices.
There was also diversity of ages, from high school students to singers in their 80s.
However, Swaney’s favorite aspect of the choir is the familial connection. Her son and husband sing in the choir.
Colleagues from her college years sing in the choir.
She works with some of her dearest friends in this choir.
Like many church music groups, it truly is a family.
With so many singers, it is understandable that the musical ability levels range from people with advanced college degrees to those who cannot read music.
Swaney uses a variety of educational techniques to teach the music to her choir. Upon my arrival, the members were wandering around the sanctuary chanting their text in rhythm.
This was to solidify a very complicated fugal section in a piece by Bach. She also had them sit in small groups so that stronger singers could provide a foundation for those struggling with the notes.
But for Swaney, it’s not about the notes. “Notes are gone in an instant,” she said, but the musical line is what lasts.
Since the Unitarian Church service is not bound to any specific Christian ritual, Swaney has the freedom to program music that is not necessarily always heard in a worship service.
Again, it’s the diversity makes this choir stand out from other church choirs.
And the laughter! Amidst a serious working rehearsal, Swaney and her singers found ample opportunity to laugh and enjoy each other’s company.
This, perhaps above anything else, is truly what matters in church choirs.
Listen to Church Musicians Part II: Children’s Choir Director James Guyer
Listen to Church Musicians Part III: Church Organist Edwin Penhorwood
Listen to Church Musicians Part IV: Handbell Director Elaine Sonnenberg