Many people use sports analogies to help themselves understand the intricacies of life. “Be a team player,” some might say, or “I’m in your corner,” or, “What’s your game plan?” In fact, there are so many sports-inspired idioms in the English language that the Wikipedia article has them organized alphabetically.
And it’s no wonder. In many ways a game of football or basketball or volleyball can simulate certain aspects of life. Living a Christian life is compared to running a race in 1 Corinthians 9 and Hebrews 12, so sports analogies are as old as Christ. But for those of us whose sports experiences are limited to junior high and small-town high school obligatory team participation and the occasional jog (blech) for health’s sake, I propose a new analogy: the choir.
Now before I start, let me acknowledge that far fewer people in the world have spent a great amount of time in an organized choir than in organized sports. But it is also true that if you’re struggling to follow sports analogies, you’re more likely a fellow choir nerd/band geek/orchestra… dweeb? (*cough* BFF #2 *cough*). I’ve participated in choirs, bands and orchestras of all shapes and sizes from the time I could toddle onto the church platform until a couple months ago when I performed with a choir of 170+ members.** Most of my points apply across all platforms, but choir is my passion so that’s our tip-off (<- see, I sportsball).
In any case, please bear with me. And if you’re a sports guru just along for the ride, I’ll try not to get too technical – and just perhaps my enthusiasm will persuade you to give us another shot. After all, we’re all just confused souls trying to make sense of this crazy thing called life.
It takes all kinds.
Perhaps the most important life lesson I’ve learned from choir is that it takes all kinds to function. A typical mixed choir is split into four parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Occasionally each of those parts will split into two, or even three new parts. Once I sang in an all-girls choir that had two separate 4-part sections (that’s 8 different musical lines!), so variety is clearly not limited to mixed choirs. But this splitting of parts is necessary in order to obtain a full sound. A choir with too many sopranos (think your country church’s Easter service choir) will sound odd and uncomfortable. A choir with too many basses (this almost literally can’t happen) would drown out the melody. In all parts, balance is key. In choir we like to stereotype voice parts: the sopranos are divas, and can’t count, the tenors are always sharp, and altos are perfect. But despite our joking, I appreciate that within a choir it is fully apparent that all parts are absolutely necessary. So it is in life: there is no room for jealousy or prejudice regarding one another’s skills.
For example, I can make a mean cherry cheese blintz. I cannot, however, fix cars. But both skills are necessary for this world to function (don’t even try to deny it. If you’ve never had a cherry cheese blintz, my friend, you have not yet lived). I can’t look down on the car fixers just because they can’t make the perfect blintz, nor can I give up my blintz-making to jealously pursue fixing cars because I think that job is more important or fun. As 1 Corinthians 12 says, “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.'” All of our various roles are important simply because they are different. And when I need my car fixed, I deliver cherry cheese blintzes and everyone is happy. (True story).
Complementary, not equal.
A second lesson I’ve learned is that while balance is key, balance does not mean equal representation one hundred percent of the time. I would say that 75% (<- a completely unresearched, uninformed statistic) of all choral works give the melody to the sopranos, the vocal part with the highest range. Obviously the melody is extremely important and must be heard at all times, but some mistake importance for value. In fact, were a group highlighted with such prominence in the real world, all the peoples of the earth would be screaming, “Discrimination!” from the rooftops. But such a response is a failure to recognize the true goal, which is not the melody but the overall sound. A creative composer and a skilled conductor can lead each part of the choir into their moments of prominence: perhaps the altos resolve an important conflicting chord and transport us through the music into a new sound world. Maybe the basses sing a steady ostinato that energetically drives the piece forward. The sopranos might have an obbligato high above the tenor melody that sends our listening ears soaring through the heavens. Even if the moment of prominence is a traditional soprano melody line, all the voices underneath provide support and determine the success of the overall sound. If even one part drops out, the sound is no longer an accurate portrayal of the composer’s imaginations.
Again, so it is in life. Sometimes we shine in times of prominence, and other times it is our job to support, to comfort, to be the driving energy or the one holding back the train from running off the rails. Whatever situation you’re in at the moment, keep in mind that this life is a constant give and take, and the giving is as equally important as the taking.
It’s a group effort.
Another lesson: life is a group effort, and it only takes one selfish voice to ruin the sound. Singing a solo is quite different from singing in a choir. Soloists become known for the quirks and flaws in their voices: each person has his or her own tone, his own timbre, a certain way of pronouncing words or a unique vibrato. The goal in solo artistry is to create something entirely new and different. But the well-trained choir is nearly the opposite; a choir strives to match one another in pitch, in vowel shape, in tone, in vibrato (or lack thereof), in energy and consonant placement. The only individuality you retain as a choir member is your timbre – the specific color of your voice. A mixture of timbres creates one beautiful, new and unique sound. Mixing different vowel shapes and consonants creates a chaotic cacophony of confusion. That means a soloist joining a choir will need to give up a little of her slides; she may need to round out her vowels in order to blend with her neighbor. A choir member who decides his rhythmic interpretation is better than the director’s will stick out like a sore thumb (and probably be ridiculed into submission if your director was anything like mine).
In the Christian life, sometimes we need to tweak our opinions for the sake of unity. Again, the apostle Paul addressed this issue with early believers: some thought Sunday should be reserved as a special day, one in which you didn’t do work or go shopping or such things. Others in the church considered Sunday just another day. Paul essentially told them, “Both are fine! But when you come together, don’t offend your brother.” In other words, go ahead and have your own unique sound, but when you join the choir, blend with your neighbor. No two people have the same exact opinions – we’re all individuals – but that is the true beauty of unity. When a diverse group of people can live in harmony (ha. pun fully intended) despite drastic differences, the true purpose is evident. We hear the composer’s imaginations realized. We see God’s hand at work.
Conflict makes the most beautiful lives.
The last lesson I’ve learned is that the most moving and beautiful lives must necessarily include conflict. In music, conflict is sometimes portrayed in contrasting rhythms, but usually conflict is what we call dissonance, that clashing sound of two notes that are far too close together. Successful musicians learn early on to highlight dissonance, because the resolution will be that much more powerful. Let me see if I can explain this at all… If the choir sings a beautiful major chord, as a listener you might be thinking, “wow, that’s pretty,” but that’s probably all you’re thinking. BUT if the choir sang that same chord with just one note strategically displaced, you feel the tension and wonder, “what’s happening? Why does it make me feel anxious?” You’ve been pulled into the story and you have to keep listening until that magical moment when the last note slides into its proper resting place. Our hearts then cheer as if the prodigal son had returned! Just two chords and there’s a story.
The Bible has a lot to say on this subject as well:
- Proverbs 27:17 – “Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”
- Romans 5:3 – “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance.”
- James 1:2 – “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
- James 1:12 – “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life.”
Think back on your life to the hard times. Can you see God? I’ve not had many hard times, to be perfectly honest, but each difficult experience was vital in the making of me. I think back to my favorite class in college: it was about music theory (go figure), but like no music theory I’d ever studied before. We were learning set theory and chance music and all manner of post tonal patterns that broke every rule I knew about music, and so I and many of my classmates who’d had easy As with little to no studying in the years prior were frantically pouring over our textbooks beyond the required reading, listening to more excerpts and memorizing and composing and in general just ingratiating ourselves with the content. That was the most difficult class I have ever taken in my life, but the literal headache as I walked out the door of our last exam (which had taken 3 whole days to take) was a badge of honor I bear proudly to this day.
Somehow God takes the difficult things in our lives and twists them so that our lives are richer, fuller, better. Just like my favorite musical pieces are full of resolved angst and tension, so a beautiful life is one of resolved conflict.
** I highly recommend you watch the recording of that massive choir performance. You can find it here. Bonus points if you find me in the choir! (here’s a hint: I’m short) 😉