Since the NCAA Men’s Final started so late, I had time to participate in something I love that I have not been able to do for the past three years, which is to go to choir practice with the Shoreline Soul Gospel Choir. Angela Clemmons, the founder and director of the choir, is someone who has become a friend in our time here in Connecticut. She is a brilliant musician in her own right, having sung with Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Justin Timberlake, and Elton John, to name a few.
To say she directs the choir is an understatement. She creates a miracle. There are no auditions; anyone can sign up. We have no sheet music. She gives us lyric sheets and sends us mp3 files with our parts emphasized so we can learn them by ear. Then we gather for four or five Monday nights to practice and in that time she transforms a roomful of (mostly) white people in suburban Connecticut into a pretty good gospel choir. We even clap on two and four. Well, most of us.
I was invited to join the choir soon after we moved to Guilford by one of our church members and have sung with them five or six times over the years. Tonight was the first rehearsal in over three years because of the pandemic. Over one hundred and fifty people signed up to sing–twice as much as past choirs. When Angela sent the dates out, I realized that I will be out of town for the concert in June, but I signed up anyway because I wanted to practice, even if I wasn’t going to perform for an audience.
Whether it’s a choir in a concert hall or college athletes running from end to end of a basketball court, practice is crucial. We all know that. The amazing passing and shooting we have seen throughout both the men’s and women’s tournaments are testament to many hours spent practicing when no one was in the stands. But we also use the word in a way that has nothing to do with performance–spiritual practice, for instance. It, too, requires repetition and commitment, but it does not necessarily involve performance in the traditional sense.
My first restaurant job was in a small place that served breakfast (he said, telling a story he has told many times). I asked the chef to teach me how to flip the eggs in the pan. He showed me, but then he got a stack of pans and pulled out a flat of thirty eggs and said, “The only way you will learn how to do this is to practice. By the time you get to the end of the flat, you’ll figure it out.”
He was right. Somewhere in the low twenties, I had practiced enough that the flip of my wrist did the trick, over and over.
I had nothing at stake at choir practice tonight. I don’t mean it didn’t matter to me, but I can’t remember another time that I went to a rehearsal knowing I would not be a part of the performance. The choir matters a great deal to me. I love singing gospel music. I just love singing. And over the years I have noticed being a part of Shoreline Soul has given me a healthier voice. The tenor parts in gospel songs are high. I have to pay attention to my throat and work on using my falsetto and my head voice, rather than straining to reach the notes. I leave rehearsal feeling centered and relaxed, as well as invigorated by the harmony we make together.
I went to practice for the sake of practicing, for the sake of learning my part so I could share in the spiritual connectedness of singing together. The concerts are really fun, but practice is the real gift, even when I know that’s all there is to it.
It’s not always about results or performance. Practice is where we learn and grow, where we make mistakes and try again, where we look beyond ourselves and connect to something larger. For me, tonight, that was singing for the sake of singing.
It was perfect.