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The Choir

By Kellie D. Brown

A few years before I left for college, my church’s music minister offered me this sage advice—“Don’t major in music just because you love it. That won’t be enough to sustain you through the rigors.” As a twenty-year-old music major and newlywed, I am finding this out the hard way.

I have to put an enormous amount of time and energy into becoming a great violinist and into my other coursework, but there are also the practical demands of married life. Digging in the couch cushions for loose change doesn’t get you very far toward paying the rent or putting gas in the car. I’m tired of relying on my parents for money, which is not how I want to start my marriage. That is why I stand for a full ten minutes one day in September gaping at a job announcement that has just been pinned to the bulletin board in my university’s music building—“Small Church Seeks Choir Director.”

My church music experience has mostly been as a violinist playing in the orchestra and providing special music for worship services. I loved singing in the children’s choir at church and later in the youth choir, but I don’t have choir directing experience. Nevertheless, I need the money and the flexibility that this kind of job would give me, so I call the phone number.

Jean, the choir member in charge of the search, seems pleased with my interest and schedules an interview. I get lost on those country back roads and arrive fifteen minutes late. Offering an effusive apology for my tardiness, I hope for grace. The stress of the trip has compounded the usual jitters of trying to sell yourself as I meet with Jean, and Kathy who plays the piano, and Kathy’s mother Ethel, an older woman with white hair who has been a stalwart member of that church’s flock for many decades. I share my church and musical background with them. My commitment to God and my earnest desire for faithful worship is important to me, and I want to communicate that in addition to emphasizing my talents as a musician, which I believe are considerable. The committee must agree because they offer me the job, which will begin the following week.

When Jean hands me a choir score with the title Home Sweet Christmas and proudly says, “I’ve already picked our Christmas cantata,” I realize that she expects to be in charge (i.e. the chief decision maker), but from her seat in the choir, as she has little musical training to lead an ensemble. The first rehearsal confirms that I am there to do Jean’s bidding while making the choir sound as good as possible. It also reveals that this cantata is as corny as I feared and that the pianist isn’t skilled enough to play it, meaning we will need a tacky pre-recorded track accompaniment for the performances. Nevertheless, the choir seems happy enough to be led by a student majoring in music, and so I continue to make the trek twice a week to that United Methodist Church—Wednesday nights for choir practice and then Sunday mornings for the worship service.

The church, with its beautiful white wood siding, was built in 1908 on a site that once housed a log cabin Quaker Church. The interior features a typical layout for a rural church of that era—a center aisle with wooden pews to the left and right. It can seat one hundred souls comfortably. Choir rehearsals take place in the sanctuary. An upright piano rests on the floor to the left of the altar steps. In the chancel area, the choir loft, which consists of three short wooden pews, faces the altar from the left, and the pulpit stands to the right.

The demographics of the small group that assembles each week in the choir loft is not surprising— mostly older, with never enough men. Of the two basses, one is certainly tone deaf, and the other doesn’t make enough sound for me to assess. One choir member has a two-year-old grandson that she babysits. He is a handful and causes numerous disruptions during the rehearsal. As predicted, Jean proves vocal with her opinions. Ethel never hides what’s on her mind either, especially when she disagrees with Jean, but delivers her observations sotto voce and with less edge. Most choir members seem to go with the flow, enjoying a chance to sing, unconcerned about musical decisions or missed rehearsals.  

During weekly services, the choir sings their anthem from the loft, but for the Christmas cantata, they stand on the steps leading to the altar so that they face front and center. I convinced the church to hire a university classmate of mine named Judy to play the piano and that, along with the Christmas candles and greenery, lends warmth and class to the presentation despite its musical deficiencies. A large audience assembles and seems appreciative. As I accept affirming words at the reception that follows, I feel relieved for surviving this first program and also proud of myself for what I accomplished while meeting all the expectations of a university student.

Planning starts early for the Easter season, which can be as busy a time on the church calendar as Christmas. I feel more comfortable with the folks under my charge, though dealing with Jean remains the most difficult part of the job. On Easter morning, I need to be up before dawn for the sunrise service. It is meaningful to join with fellow witnesses in celebrating the resurrection as the sun eases over the horizon, but it’s so cold that I can see my breath as we sing. Afterwards, I’m invited to Kathy and her husband Mark’s house along with other choir members for breakfast before the main Easter service. It feels nice to be included.

The university spring semester finally ends, and I feel less immediate urgency as my 1986 beige Oldsmobile Ciera makes its way down the now familiar curvy back road. That Sunday morning in May dawns warm, with above average temperatures in the upper 80s expected by midday. My career aspirations lie beyond this ragtag choir that I’m about to lead, but still, this job proves easier and more rewarding than waiting tables, especially now that I unexpectedly find myself several weeks pregnant. I have a friend who believes that God is a woman with a sense of humor. Yeah, probably so.

I sit in the passenger seat, a bit queasy as is my new normal, while my husband of seven months drives. I may not have the stress of homework at the current moment, but I do have the implications of motherhood on my mind. I’m excited about the thought of a baby, although I have no idea yet how I will continue to juggle school, work, and life. As my husband is also a full-time college student and working, the baby will make me even more reliant on my parents, which I hate.   

We park in the back gravel lot, and I hurry inside to prepare for the morning’s service. The choir members don’t wear their robes except for special occasions, but I like to put one on as a way of setting myself apart as the choir director, especially given the age gap. The robe is made of a golden polyester with a matching satin V-neck stole. Both have seen better days. The singers straggle into a back room where we have our warm-up. This church, like many rural congregations, is yoked with another church, an old-fashioned term meaning they share a pastor. It stems from the days when a circuit rider Methodist minister would cover a large area, and congregants might only see the minister once a month. At this church, the worship service happens first, followed by the Sunday School hour. Our sister church just down the road operates with the opposite schedule to allow time for the minister to drive and preach the same sermon again.

This particular Sunday is part of the 1991 Memorial Day weekend. As would be expected in a rural community, the congregation contains many veterans who view American patriotism as a natural partner with Christian doctrine. My childhood church adhered to a similar theology, and I have yet to realize the troubling side of that conflation. Still, when selecting a choir anthem for that Sunday, the medley of U.S. Armed Forces songs gives me pause, a tightening in my shoulders that accompanies the familiar anxiety about making a wrong choice. Would it be appropriate to sing a secular anthem that speaks to the national holiday? Unsure, I ask the choir, who enthusiastically embrace it and enjoy the Wednesday rehearsals with the U.S. Air Force song’s jaunty rhythms of “off we go into the wild blue yonder.”

The choir files into the loft at the appropriate time, and I take my seat on the front pew near the piano. When the moment arrives, the little choir does their best. What they lack in musicality, they make up for in zeal. I sit down and look toward the pulpit for the sermon, trying to push from my mind all the things I need to do when I get home.

That’s when it happens. The unexpected words that will imprint deeply into my psyche and forever change me.

“That was the most disgusting anthem I have ever heard.”

Those are the minister’s first words. I’m stunned. Barely missing a beat, he segues into his sermon, and I try to remain stoic, defiantly looking toward the pulpit as my hands knead my robe. My stomach roils, and my mind races. I refuse to let any of the tears that sting my eyes escape down my cheeks. When the final Amen comes, I run out the side door to where the choir robes are stored, my tears no longer restrained. Right away, my husband is by my side, and the choir members cluster around me. They are good people who felt the affront as strongly as I. Ethel puts her arm protectively around me as the minister heads in our direction.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ve been having some problems. I’m taking medication. I didn’t know what I was saying.” All these words tumble out of the minister’s mouth. But Ethel is having none of it and shouts, “Don’t you know she’s in the family way?” Bless her for those old-timey words and for her grandmotherly instincts. Another volley of apologies erupts, and then looking toward my husband, the preacher finishes with, “I better get out of here before he punches me.”

Later that afternoon, Kathy and Mark ring the buzzer at our apartment, but I pretend not to be home. I’m not ready to talk about what happened. I’ve never been one who could easily brush off critical words. The Sunday that my sincere efforts to serve that church garnered such public ridicule rang that job’s death knell. I resigned soon after and took on violin students to replace the income. But the experience planted a vital seed in me that would impact my future ministry and teaching.

On the occasion of a setback, the 18th century American theologian and revivalist Jonathan Edwards spoke of a “failure blessed by God.” This is how I now describe that experience, which taught me not only about how words spoken can never be recalled, but also about how church and state should remain separate, even at the musical level. The Bible speaks of a God that is greater than whatever territorial boundaries a politician or cartographer might draw on a map. All are loved equally. Allowing allegiance to a particular nation to enmesh in the worship of such a magnificent God not only contradicts Scripture’s teaching but cheapens Christ’s work on the cross. Music is the most vital conduit of worship. Through voices and instruments, we lift our praises and petitions. Raising our voices in a sacred space to declare national victories or exclusive blessings of one people over another enters the realm of idolatry. 

In the end, I did figure out how to juggle it all. I graduated summa cum laude the week before my son turned two years old. It took my husband a little longer, but he also finished his undergraduate degree. I earned two more degrees, a master’s and doctorate. My husband also finished a graduate degree. I taught violin lessons in a Suzuki program before accepting a job in a university music program where I still teach violin, music history, and worship methods as well as conduct the orchestra. My husband teaches graphic design at the same university. 

The stress of precarious finances and impossible schedules in our early marriage did not cause the relationship to break but made it strong with bonds of loyalty. We are best friends, and we make each other laugh. The year we celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary, our son graduated with a master’s degree. He is one of the kindest people I know. I couldn’t be prouder of the person he has become.

My faith continues to be an important part of my life. After exploring various church denominations, I settled permanently in a large United Methodist Church where I serve in music ministry and also as a lay minister. I still insist that the difficult Memorial Day experience with my first choir planted a vital seed. I use that terminology because, like a seed, it took a while for anything to sprout from it. Over time, through experiences, through reading, through the wisdom of other people, I began to understand that the God I served recognized no national boundaries. I learned that to limit God by a flag stripped away the true essence of the divine. I also realized how blending God and nationalism almost always yields hate and intolerance. I try to gently plant this and other seeds in the hearts of my students, hoping that ideas about faith, love, and tolerance will take root and grow into lives that spread kindness and peace. I also try to remember that the words I speak to them, especially those that come from disappointment or frustration, need to be filtered through my knowledge of how even one sentence can wound us in such a way that we always carry a scar where it landed.

And words, both hopeful and hurtful, can be passed on to the next generation like genes in a family tree. Recently, a talented young man joined the university orchestra I conduct. With such a distinctive last name, I wondered about a connection with that minister from three decades ago. One evening, the musician lingered after rehearsal and shyly confirmed my suspicion, adding that his father “still feels so badly about that day.” As surely as that Sunday morning has remained with me, it has also haunted the one who spoke the words.

“I want to apologize to you on behalf of my father.”

This is the circle of life, and words, and relationships—they hurt us, challenge us, change us, heal us.  

Dr. Kellie Brown serves as Chair of the Music Department and Professor of Music at Milligan University. She is a violinist, conductor, and award-winning writer whose book, The Sound of Hope: Music as Solace, Resistance and Salvation during the Holocaust and World War II (McFarland Publishing, 2020), received one of the Choice Outstanding Academic Titles award. Her words have appeared in Earth & Altar, Ekstasis, Psaltery & Lyre, Calla Press, Agape Review, among others. In addition to over 30 years of music ministry, she is a certified lay minister in the United Methodist Church and currently serves at First Broad Street United Methodist Church in Kingsport, TN. More information about her and her writing can be found at


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