- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

“Blessed are they,” sing out some 200 motley men and women gathered on a Tuesday evening in April in the choir stalls at Washington National Cathedral. “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted…”

Their song: Brahms’ monumental “Ein Deutsches Requiem,” in English “German Requiem.”

Their leader: J. Reilly Lewis, Washington choral legend and music director of the Cathedral Choral Society since 1985.

Their training, experience, professionalism, sound: Who cares?

This is “Cathedral Sings,” the Choral Society’s come-one-come-all songfest that, twice a year, gives even the tone-deaf the chance to sit in the cathedral’s Great Choir section, take cues from a master choir director, back up world-renowned soloists (in this case soprano Harolyn Blackwell, baritone Gordon Hawkins and organist Eric Plutz) and sing their hearts out — all for a charge of $7 plus $1 to rent a score.

It’s one of dozens of organized opportunities for amateurs in the Washington area to sing informally, without pay and often without an audience. And each day hundreds of people who love to sing take advantage of these chances — in styles ranging from gospel or blues to classics and show tunes, to country and western, pop and karaoke; in places ranging from back yards to church basements, pubs and singing schools — and even cathedrals.

Below the cathedral’s leaded rose windows and soaring stone columns, the vast Gothic space that President Theodore Roosevelt helped dedicate when construction began in 1907 is nearly empty of visitors. Few have come to hear the voices of lawyers, computer programmers, teachers, students, stay-at-home spouses and retirees. There has been no rehearsal, no auditioning, no artistic temper tantrums or histrionics over money or top billing — none of the tension associated with elite professionals.

Instead, there simply comes sound — and yes, it’s sometimes muddy, but that’s not the point.

“We must sing,” Mr. Lewis had told the group as its members warmed up, trilling la-la-la-las and humming hmmn-hmmn-hmmns up and down the musical scale.

“It’s important, and to be here singing in this great building, with the cathedral’s glorious organ accompaniment, is something I hope you can treasure.”

Never would singing in the shower be the same for these lucky 200.

Wendy Boyd is one of the group. The U.S. Forest Service employee from Corvallis, Ore., first visited Washington in 1976 and dreamed of coming back to see what she missed at the museums the first time.

“I was chatting at the Smithsonian Castle,” she says, “and one of the docents told us about the Brahms singalong and I decided to try it. I used to sing at my church choir, and know the music.”

Describing the power that singing holds over her, she recalls that just before packing for her trip to Washington she rode her bicycle to work though a neighborhood park where a homeless man lives. “I saw him and I just started crying, knowing that he doesn’t have that kind of beauty in his life, knowing that there is no way to reach his soul as we can with singing. It is so sad, it so touches my soul, and how I wish he could sing with us.”

Singing alto beside Ms. Boyd is Anne Casey Bryant of Adams-Morgan, a Boston University graduate with a doctorate in organizational development who runs her own consulting firm in the District. The two sing together and chat, and after the performance Mrs. Bryant gives Ms. Boyd a lift toward her hotel.

“I sang all my life, in school and my church, and look for every opportunity to sing today,” says the District native, saying that she even drops in unannounced to sing at rehearsals with groups and churches to which she doesn’t belong.

“It’s a gift,” she says simply, recalling that a few years ago, when her aged father, Reginald H. Casey, lay dying, she would visit him after church on Sunday and bring along a tenor from the choir.

“We would sing spirituals to him,” she says, amazed at the power such songs as “Every Time,” and “Wade In The Water” had on her father’s outlook and spirits. “It gave him such comfort,” says Mrs. Bryant. “Me, too.”

• • •

There’s really nothing unusual about Ms. Boyd or Mrs. Bryant. According to “America’s Performing Art: A Study of Choruses, Choral Singers and Their Impact” a study of musical participation by ordinary people — released in February by Chorus America — an estimated 28.5 million Americans regularly sing in an organized setting, more than any other art form. There are some 12,000 professional and volunteer community choruses, it reports, more than 38,000 school choruses, and 200,000 church choirs nationally.

“Singing is so simple,” says Stephen Paulus of Minneapolis, composer of “Mass for a Sacred Place,” a commissioned work for the Choral Society that had its world premiere at the National Cathedral in March. “But if you think about it, it almost defies understanding.”

Joined in song, strangers create a community, he says, “through which something takes over, a spirit of music. It’s between someone you’ve never met and who has never met you — in my case, as a composer of songs; but it could just as easily be an anonymous work song — and together these things become united, transferring effortlessly through time and over space, letting you create with just your voice something bigger than you ever knew before.”

“A song can be vast and unknowable and intimate at the same time,” says Mr. Paulus, “and just about strangle you with joy.”

• • •

Janice Fain Dean of Silver Spring, a former member of the Singing Sergeants in the U.S. Air Force who today runs MentorCoach, a national training organization for therapists, knows all about that. Her father was a Baptist minister, and for all of her life, traditional choral music described a way of beholding spirituality and faith, she says.

“I don’t think we know the extent of the power of singing,” Ms. Dean says.

A few years ago she founded SQWPOFF, Singing Quaker Women Plus Other Faithful Friends, eight women who meet twice a month to sing mostly faith-based songs, things like Virgil Thompson’s setting of “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” and Ralph Vaughn-Williams’ “Come My Way, My Truth, My Life.”

They sing in Hyattsville at the home of Martha Woods, artistic director of Wentworth Associates of Mount Vernon, N.Y., an organizer of tours for classical music performers. She also directs the National Academy of Sciences musical programs, filling the hall with music at the academy’s auditorium on Constitution Avenue in the District.

Anna Rain of Hyattsville is a yoga teacher. Amy Thomas is a social worker from Silver Spring. Isabella Bates is a counselor. Cindy Lapp is associate pastor of the Hyattsville Mennonite church, and Judy Walsh of Mount Rainier is a stay-at-home mother.

“We sing from silence,” explains Ms. Dean, meaning that in the Quaker tradition people sit silently until they feel what might be an authentic spiritual prompting to break the silence. “This lets us center down before we sing, and believe it or not, lends a most precious mystical feeling to the music.”

There is always a potluck meal after two hours or so of singing, when the all-women group discusses work, husbands and children, often talking through personal difficulties or crises.

“Singing like that, feeling it so deeply, it’s a kind of experience for worship, for healing,” says Ms. Dean. “We know we have something special, even if we don’t know how to describe it to others,” she says, laughing.

• • •

“Music takes you to the other side of experience,” says Robert Aubry Davis, longtime WETA radio and television personality and creator of the nationally syndicated “Millennium of Music” radio series. Today he is a classical music programmer for XM satellite radio, based in the District, and is the host of “Around Town,” a cultural program on Channel 26.

“You can read all the sci-fi you want, watch the souped-up special effects movies ‘til your eyeballs fall out of your head,” says the Silver Spring native, who played banjo in high school and as a youth sang in folk groups the names of which he says he can no longer remember.

“But through singing we humans seem to be capable of understanding, even though we can’t articulate why, experiences that place us on ‘the other side’ of life, a place within you that you had no idea existed,” he says.

“Whether you lip-sync rock ‘n’ roll while driving to work, or try your hand at ‘great music,’” says Mr. Davis, “songs are poems that speak to your deepest self. It’s a place worth knowing better, if you ask me.”

Indeed, Marc Welling of Beverly Beach, Md., finds that a very special strain of music speaks to him.

“It’s that green-beer music I like,” he says.

Mr. Welling is the founder of an Annapolis singalong club called TIPSC, or Traditional Irish Pub Song Club. He put an ad in the Annapolis newspaper a year ago announcing the formation of the club, inviting anyone — “no talent necessary” — to meet and sing songs from the Irish and Scottish traditions.

Eight or nine men and women regularly show up for twice-a-month sessions at the farm of Art Sands in Davidsonville, Md. Over beer or soft drinks and grilled chicken around a bonfire at night, they belt out old songs from Clancy Brothers records of 30 years ago. Someone copies lyrics from the record jackets or off the Internet, and they’re passed around both at the farm and at the club’s “open sing” at the nearby Killarney House pub in Davidsonville.

A career federal linguist and analyst who spends months at a time stationed overseas, Mr. Welling says drinking songs and the joy of being together spans traditions and nationalities. He modeled the club, he says, after the custom of family singalongs popular in Puerto Rico at Christmas, “that usually end up at 3 a.m. with a big meal and drinks.”

“It’s a real sweet time, kind of raucous like St. Patrick’s Day,” he says, “but flavored with a different kind of music.”

• • •

Ballads, country songs, songs of the sort Americans used to learn in grammar school, are among those that draw the strongest following.

“Traditional music, folk music, country music, songs that tell a story, that’s what I like,” says Darcy Narr of Annandale. She is a member of Ships Company, a group of singers who hold forth the first Tuesday of the month at the Royal Mile pub in Wheaton, Md., where hundreds of mostly younger men and women roll in to sing sea chanteys.

“It’s all fun,” she says, describing how a Ships Company member will stand up at a table and point to a person to start a song. “It could be ‘Drunken Sailor,’ ‘Donkey Riding,’ or ‘South Australia,’ rousing stuff created years ago by people who could not read or write music.”

Sometimes the sentiment can be “really sappy,” she says. “Workers’ songs, traditional music for humble folks like sailors and farmers and workers are often that way, sappy and sad, heartbreaking things about a sailor who loves a girl and she keeps faith with him and won’t give up, and how his family mourns when he dies.”

“I get the chills and goose bumps sometimes when the harmonies pull all of that together,” she says. “It moves me to tears sometimes, and makes me believe in love again.”

• • •

“Singing clearly is good for you,” says Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University Medical Center. The author of “The Creative Age,” (Harper-Collins, $15, paperback) is conducting a study in three cities for the National Endowment for the Arts of how the arts benefit the elderly.

Working through the Levine School of Music here in Washington, he tracks the mental and physical health and social functioning of elderly people who regularly sing or participate in other arts programs.

“Every indication is that singing is a positive,” says the psychiatrist, who played a little piano and sang in college. “Singing seems particularly beneficial. It’s an art anyone can participate in, and in a sense become a practitioner of, and it’s ongoing and sustaining, something you can do throughout your life.”

“And somehow,” says Dr. Cohen, “it speaks to the soul and sustains us — explaining no doubt how important the role of music is in churches and synagogues, and religion everywhere.”

“That’s kind of what we think, too,” says Brian Jones, director of public relations at the Levine School and a former Air Force clarinet player who later received a doctorate in music. The school, which started in a church basement in 1975, today has four campuses in Maryland, Virginia and the District, with musical training and singing lessons for some 3,500 adults and children.

“We have a slogan that goes, ‘We Have A Part For You,’” says Mr. Jones, laughing, “meaning that our school’s mission is to support your musical aspirations no matter how informed or ill-informed you are when you come to us. And the funny thing is, it’s incredible to me that so many people are so talented musically and never know it, or are incapable of understanding their talents.”

He recommends the school’s “community sing,” an opportunity for anyone to walk in and join Ysaye Marie Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock to explore “Music 101,” he laughs. “Every year the place is jammed with parents and kids, youngsters and rank beginners, and before the evening is through Ysaye has them singing in 12-part harmony, learning more about their voice then they ever knew they had.”

“That’s the deal,” he says. “Our voices give such pleasure.”

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