Craig Symons’ choral/vocal side

Welcome to another edition of Music on Mondays.

Last week, I shared the organist side of my life, and this week you get to hear a bit (actually a LONG bit!) about the choral/vocal side of my life.

The “big picture” of my musical education started when I was 6 and my parents bought me a little tabletop organ for Christmas. Evidently, my mother said whenever they couldn’t find me in a store, they always headed to the music area and there I was, so the organ was something to whet that appetite. It wasn’t long before they realized lessons were in order, so at 7, they got me a little spinet organ with 13 foot pedals and that came with 8 free lessons, and that’s all it took. Within a year or so, my organ teacher was upgrading her home organ and we bought her old instrument.

When I was 13, my parents were urged to get me an audition for Interlochen Arts Academy, in northern Michigan. By God’s grace, I was offered a full scholarship and spent 4 years there, and graduated from high school. During the first weekend of each year, there is a convocation of students and parents, and the band, orchestra, and choir would perform. My first real experience in choir was in 1976. At my childhood church, there was a small youth choir of 6-7 kids, led by a not-so-great conductor, and I only attended choir because it was music and my friends were there. But in that first choir rehearsal for convocation, I felt the connection – that moment when your life changes, as our new Associate Pastor, Cydney Van Dyke, described in her message this past Sunday. To be in a room with 60-70 other kids just like me, who may or may not have ever sung in a choir before, was something I’ll never forget. From the downbeat, the sound we created, having never been together as an ensemble before, I was hooked. The piece we worked on for 90 minutes was by Randall Thompson, from a set of pieces he entitled “Frostiana”, called “Choose something like a star” with words by Robert Frost. That piece, in September of 1976, was the piece that launched my journey as a choral singer and conductor.

When I returned home in the summer of 1977, I asked the pastor at my home church if I could put together a group of singers and lead all the music on a Sunday morning. Fortunately he was a singer and very supportive of my music studies, so he agreed. I chose an anthem by Cesar Franck, a French composer of some amazing organ music. Psalm 150 was a piece we sang during my first year at Interlochen and I knew the people at my church could handle it. And that little choir of 12-13 people did a really lovely job and gave me my start as a conductor at the age of 14.

From that point on, there was a shift in my focus from organ to choral music. They always rode side by side, one taking the lead over the other for any given reason or moment in time. But it’s really choral/vocal music that gives me that energy and excitement. As organists, we sit at the console day in, day out, practicing by ourselves, filling rooms with gorgeous sounds from new or very old instruments, creating a variety of expressions. But, when a group of humans gather and open their mouths to create music, it becomes so much more personal. Our voices, our breath, the hearts that begin to synchronize, the ensemble truly takes shape.

In 2013, researchers in Sweden measured the heart rates of singers and they found that, when they sing together, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same rate. The researchers believed that the synchrony occurs because the singers coordinate their breathing. Read more on this study here –

Last week I shared about my involvement with the American Guild of Organists. This week, the other organization that means a great deal to me is the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), a group I’ve been a member of since 1990. Each even year, there is a regional conference, and on odd years, there are national conferences, held in cities around the country. My first experience with ACDA was in 1991 and the national conference in Phoenix. There was a student chapter at my university in Detroit and we all decided we wanted to get out of Detroit in February and spend 5 days in warm weather. Oh, and we wanted to hear some choral music too! LOL We boarded a plane and headed to Phoenix and spent 4 days immersed in all things choral. Each day typically starts early, often with breakfast/coffee roundtables at 7 or 7:30 a.m. Around 8 a.m., there are some reading sessions of the latest/greatest pieces being published. The first concert session is 9:30-ish and lasts about 2 hours, with 3-4 choirs singing. Each day, there are 3 concert sessions, sometimes 4. There’s minimal time to grab a meal, often just a sandwich from a food cart on your way to the next session. Evenings are concerts with famous groups like King’s Singers, the host city’s symphony/chorus presenting a major work. That year, the highlight for me was Helmut Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus and Orchestra performing Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Being the eager college students, we planted ourselves in the front row, scores in hand, to watch this genius do his thing with this nearly 2 hour masterpiece. Rilling walked out, gave the downbeat, I watched my score, but soon realized I couldn’t be the student. I had to put it away, watch his magical gestures for the singers and instrumentalists, and just absorb what was happening. It was another one of those connections that forever changed my career.

Throughout my 40-plus year career, there have been a number of mountain-top experiences that confirmed I made the correct choice to be a church musician. Watching singers discover their personal connection points is so satisfying and rewarding, infinitely more so than I have experienced as an organist. Why? Because music is being made together, with one purpose, one direction, one vision, one heart. Each time I sit at the organ, or the piano, to lead a hymn, a song, an anthem, I remember why being a church musician is so important … the words. Our faith stories being sung through the music we are sharing together, lighting the paths of our journeys, guiding us in the right direction.

To wrap up this very long column, I’ll share with you the closing portion of Robert Frost’s poem “Choose something like a star” that made such an impact on my life so long ago (and I urge you to look up the complete poem for your reading pleasure).

And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

When we are challenged in our daily lives, and when all feels lost, like probably most of us have felt over the last 4.5 months, remember that star, out in the distant sky, glimmering, shining, guiding us. And quoting the first verse of a favorite hymn “I want to walk as a child of the light” – “God set the stars to give light to the world; The star of my life is Jesus.”

Craig Symons
Minister of Music