Tag Archive | sing-along

An Odd Favorite

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Doris giving her best friend Abbey a hug. (Abbey was our canine caregiver prior to Floey.)

I thought about Doris last week. Doris lived with us for almost four years. She came for assisted living in 2005, shortly after her husband Ernie died. Doris, a nurse, had been caring for Ernie for many years, and now it was time for someone to care for Doris. She was in her late eighties.

What brought Doris to mind was one of the hymns we sang in church last Sunday – Holy, Holy, Holy. It was Trinity Sunday, and Holy, Holy, Holy is the classic hymn to sing to celebrate our understanding of our three-in-one God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Doris loved this hymn. During the years that she lived with us, Mim, Doris, and Mary (our other resident at the time) often joined me at the piano in the evening to sing. We sang golden oldies like Let Me Call You Sweetheart and lots of hymns. Almost every night Doris requested Holy, Holy, Holy. 

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Her request surprised me. I grew up in a Methodist church where we did lots of singing. On Sunday mornings, we sang about half a dozen hymns and responses from THE METHODIST HYMNAL, a thick black book that was kept in the racks on the back of the pews. The hymns in the hymnal were the classical hymns of faith, dating mostly from the 16th through the early 19th centuries. I learned to like many of these stately old hymns, and that is how I would describe them – as stately hymns that we sang to formally and respectfully worship God.

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Willerup United Methodist Church, Cambridge, Wisconsin – my family church for generations

On Sunday evenings we sang out of a different songbook, either SONGS OF THE SANCTUARY (the blue book), or MELODIES OF PRAISE (the white book). These hardcover songbooks were handed out to each person as we entered church. The first 15 minutes of the service were spent singing from these songbooks. The pastor usually announced the first song for us to sing, and then it was up to the congregation to call out their requests. The blue book was filled with gospel songs from the 19th and 20th centuries – songs like Just a Closer Walk with Thee, When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, He Leadeth Me, and Just As I Am. The white book was newer and included songs like How Great Thou Art, Wonderful Words of Life, and Blessed Assurance.

These Sunday evening songbooks were the source of everyone’s favorite gospel songs. THE METHODIST HYMNAL had all the nice stately hymns that were appropriate for the more formal Sunday morning service. The smaller songbooks had the more emotional songs that we would sing to express our feelings. These are the songs that became our favorites.

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When I was in high school I bought my own copy of Melodies of Praise to use at home. I chose a green cover rather than white.

Doris’ favorite hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, was from the formal HYMNAL, not from the collection of gospel songs in the songbooks. That’s what surprised me. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had requested What a Friend We Have in Jesus or Jesus Loves Me (although she liked those songs, too). I was surprised at Holy, Holy, Holy being her choice almost every time we sang. 

Today I have very fond memories of the four of us singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Whenever we sing that hymn in church, I think about Doris and our evening sing-alongs in our living room at Country Comforts Assisted Living, our home.

When Doris died, her daughter asked me to play the piano in their Presbyterian church and to have a hymn sing for her funeral. I gave her daughter a list of every hymn I could remember that Doris had asked to sing in our sing-alongs, and I think we sang all of them at the funeral. In my mind I could still see Doris singing along, especially on Holy, Holy, Holy.

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Mary and Abbey were friends, too.

Mary had a favorite hymn for our evening sing-alongs, too. It was The Family of God. Her choice also surprised me. I’ve known Mary most of my life. She was my fifth and sixth grade teacher, and then my history teacher when I was in junior high. She was 84 when she came to us for assisted living. Like me, she had grown up Methodist, and then turned Lutheran as an adult. What surprised me by her choice of a favorite hymn was that she chose a more contemporary gospel song. I expected her to choose something that had roots in her childhood years, a more traditional gospel song from an earlier era.

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I’ve always been interested in what people choose as their favorite hymns. Over the years, I’ve found it very revealing to learn what someone’s favorite hymns are. When I know your favorite hymns, I feel I’m beginning to really know you.

When I was an organist at the Presbyterian church in Cambridge, we had bulletin inserts for almost every funeral because invariably the favorite hymn of the deceased person was not included in the current edition of the hymnal.

At the request of the pastor, I coordinated the compilation of a songbook of congregational favorites. We asked the congregation to submit a list of their favorite hymns, whether they were in the current hymnal, or not. For all the hymns that were no longer in the hymnal, I found the hymns in my collection of old hymnals from a wide variety of denominations, added some of my own favorites, and arranged them into a songbook.

(I think we adequately addressed copyright issues by obtaining a Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) license and acknowledging that most of the older hymns were currently in the public domain.)

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This “Favorites” songbook has become my go-to book for finding an old gospel song that I want to use in a prelude or as a meditative response, regardless of whether I’m playing in a Presbyterian Church, a Lutheran Church, or even at the women’s worship service of the county jail.

When I played the piano regularly for the women’s worship service in the Dane County Jail, we usually sang two hymns, selected by the chaplain. The inmates, whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s, seemed to enjoy singing, regardless of the hymns selected. After the service was over, I kept playing whatever hymns and spirituals popped into my mind while we waited for deputies to come to escort the women out of the chapel and back to their cell blocks. Sometimes, the inmates sang along as I played, and often they requested their favorites to sing. As I recall, the most frequent requests were Amazing Grace, Jesus Loves Me, and How Great Thou Art.

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Dane County Jail – on the upper floors of the City-County Building

It seems that favorite hymns are surprisingly universal. Regardless of our ages and circumstances, many of the same songs speak to our hearts.

So what’s my most favorite hymn of all? That’s too hard a question. Some days, I think my answer would be Great Is Thy Faithfulness. Other days, I’d probably say Just a Closer Walk with Thee, or To God Be the Glory, or We Gather Together, or How Great Thou Art, or Near to the Heart of God. Last Sunday, I think I would have claimed Holy, Holy, Holy as my favorite. Really!

Thanks, Doris! You taught me that even a stately old hymn that’s two and a half centuries old can become one of my favorites. And thanks to you, too, Mary. You have proven that even octogenarians can learn to love brand new hymns!

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Mary and Doris sharing good times.

(Extra picture… Mim asked me why I didn’t use the picture below instead of the picture above to end this post. Picking favorite pictures to illustrate a story is just as hard as choosing favorite hymns! Sometimes, it’s just too hard to choose. So today you get two ending pictures.)

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Doris, Mary, and Abbey talking and laughing while waiting for our sing-along to begin.

Living inside a Broadway Musical

Last weekend was like living inside a Broadway musical – like “The Sound of Music.” Life wasn’t an opera – our conversations were spoken, not sung – but the whole weekend seemed to flow from one musical moment to the next. It’s almost like we were taking the message of the Psalms – to sing to the Lord – very literally.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
[Psalm 98:4-6 NRSV]

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Sam Hutchison at the Overture Center organ.

Saturday started with a magnificent Christmas Carol Sing at the Overture Center in Madison. By the time we arrived for the free sing-along (about 15 minutes early for the 11:00 a.m. event), the main floor was already filled and we were directed to the circle (lowest balcony), which was already filling up quickly. About a thousand people had gathered to sing Christmas carols under the direction of organist Sam Hutchison and the powerful Overture Center organ. What a sound we made – from the mighty organ leading us in “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to the gentle “Away in a Manger.” Hutchison introduced each carol with a brief explanation of its origin, and then directed us to sing with all our heart and soul.  Hutchison also played two organ solos. For the first one, “Chorale-Improvisation on In Dulci Jubilo,” he promised he would sound every one of the 4,000-plus pipes of the organ so that we could hear all the sounds possible from this amazing instrument. The Carol Sing ended with “The First Nowell.” Dozens of sopranos (including Mim standing next to me) sang the beautiful soaring descant on the refrain. What an inspiring way to end the morning!

After singing our hearts out, we went to a neighborhood bakery for lunch, and then home to rest up a little to be ready for more music. While at home, I practiced the music I would be playing for the Saturday evening worship service at Messiah. Then we turned around and went back to Madison for church.

Marian at organ-MessiahI played my favorite Advent prelude, an organ arrangement of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Mim sang “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah” as the Advent candles were lit. As usual, Jeff delivered an inspiring homily, one that included the song, “I thank you, Lord, for each new day.” The service ended with a new favorite piano postlude, an arrangement of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This is the time of year for great church music!

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Caroling with the Madison Symphony Chorus in the Lobby of Overture Hall.

After church we ate a quick supper at Culver’s and drove to the Overture Center again for the Madison Symphony Orchestra Christmas concert. But the real highlight of the whole weekend came before this concert began. The three-level Overture Hall Lobby served as an incredible space for another Christmas Carol Sing-along. The Madison Symphony Chorus lined the second-level railing to sing carols a capella with their director Beverly Taylor on the lower level, where concert-goers gathered to join in the singing. Our voices filled the three-level space with the most beautiful sound imaginable. I think it was a preview of the sounds we’ll hear in heaven when we sing with the angels.

For the concert, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Symphony Chorus were joined by the Madison Youth Choirs, the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, and two soloists – a soprano and a tenor. The music was as varied as could be – classical, black gospel, traditional Christmas, and contemporary holiday music. It was a fun concert. My favorite piece came just before the intermission – the “Hallelujah Chorus” with the symphony, all the choirs, and the audience making wonderful music together.

Madison Symphony Christmas Concert in Overture Hall

My view Saturday night from the top balcony in Overture Hall. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Symphony Choir, guest choirs, and a few extra heads in my line of vision.

But the music of the weekend wasn’t over yet. On Sunday afternoon, the Monona Senior Choir – a group of about 50 singers – performed a delightful Christmas concert in the community room of our church in Madison. This was one of those concerts where my mouth just froze into a smile because I was having so much fun listening to the music. The concert opened with an arrangement that blended “Joy to the World” with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” A few songs later, a good friend of mine, dressed in a red union suit, sang “Winter Underwear” to the tune of “Winter Wonderland.” The concert ended with two little girls, granddaughters of the director, signing “Silent Night” while the violinist played the melody. What a wonderful ending to my weekend of living inside a Christmas musical.

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Some of the members of the Monona Senior Choir, with director Jan Piddington – taking a break during their concert.

Music truly is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Advent and Christmas are special times to be reminded of this gift.

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
[Isaiah 12:5-6 NRSV]