The church which I grew up within was probably better known for musical enthusiasm and encouragement than musical excellence. Two beautiful distinctives.
Not that I would have known as much at the time. It was the fishbowl that I was in, and they were not only gracious enough to encourage me to sing and lead often, they also seemed to have some highly skilled musicians – other than the time when they gave a little 10-year old in a cardigan and desert boots a berth in the string ensemble!
Years later, all grown up and leading worship in a much larger church, I’d find myself rehearsing for a combined church event at the Perth Concert Hall. The previous year I’d been privileged to lead the event, this year I’d be singing vocals.
As we gathered at a rented studio to begin our rehearsals, musicians were hived off into one rehearsal room and the vocalists to another. The years of pub band hard labour in those rooms spoke and smelled volumes and was a stark contrast to the mixed bag of talent that we represented. Hopefully quite different to how we smelled as well.
Having established what we’d be singing on the night, we got started.
I was singing melody. No news flash there. It’s what I put my hand up for, and I knew nothing else. Years of leading and a few years out the front of a band meant I was strong a melody and little else.
Not far into the first song of the night, someone thought we were too ‘melody heavy.’
One of the other vocalists, her tone more acerbic than merciful, shot at me:
“Just sing the tenor line.”
Having never knowingly harmonised with a tenor line in my life, I returned: “I’m not sure what it is.”
She gracefully countered with the hint of an eye-roll: “Pfft. Of course, you do. Just sing it.”
This fella in his early thirties had just got schooled and felt like an incompetent eight-year-old who’d just dropped the ball. That I can even recall that conversation nearly twenty years later probably speaks volumes. I’m glad to say; it’s not the highlight of this story.
I said sorry and sheepishly sang along with the melody for the rest of the evening.
The rehearsal ended closer to 11 pm than 10 pm, and I drove home pretty despondent, feeling more than a little useless. Countering those thoughts with others like ‘hey, I led this thing last year…and you’re mean!’ only took me down unhealthier paths.
The following morning I had to leave early to drive to Bunbury for some work meetings. As I reached my car in the driveway, I noticed something tucked under the windscreen – a cassette tape with a note wrapped around it (yep, back in the days of tape decks in cars!).
The note read: “Sorry if the singing is a bit rough, hope this helps.”
As I drove south and put the tape in the player, I realised what I’d been given. The worship pastor (now Senior Pastor of the church) and his wife, had gone home and – somewhere around midnight – had made a recording of every song we’d be singing. One of them sang the tenor line loudly with the other holding the melody in the background.
If recalling the gesture is anything to go by, I probably shed a little tear at the kindness and compassion that led to two people going home, making a recording, driving to my home in the early hours of the morning, and slipping it under my windscreen wiper.
I played that tape for two hours solid on the way to the meeting. The notes were completely foreign to me; I may as well have been learning different songs altogether. Little by little, though, with a whole lot of rewinding and relistening, I started to both sing the right notes and, very occasionally, hear them as well.
I finished my series of meetings, and drove back to Perth, now excited at the prospect of unleashing this budding tenor!
Note by note, line by line, song by song, I learned my part. It wasn’t getting harder; it was getting easier.
A strange thing happened. A couple of days later, I was driving along listening to a song on the radio, and I started to sing the tenor line of the song. I even knew that I was singing the tenor line to the song after the fact!
I turned up to the next rehearsal and, while still rusty, held my tenor part (giving all credit to Nick and Margie, the creators of the tape).
I learned some things in the tenor incident.
First, it’s easy to crush another person. Be careful.
Second, you cannot underestimate the power you have to encourage another. It not only drags them to their feet again, but it also gives them the energy to keep walking.
Third, you also have the power to demonstrate care but don’t assume that won’t require a little effort as well.
And finally, once you or someone else unlocks an area of skill for you, no matter how basic, they open the door to a passage that you can keep walking along for as far as you choose.
These days, if I’m not leading, tenor is my default. I may not get every note right; I may even give the harsh critic the cause to roll their eyes from time to time, but it’s where I find I’m most comfortable singing. It wasn’t always the way. It may never have been had not two kind souls decided very late at night seventeen years back that they could do something to help this ‘melody-locked’ vocalist.
It may not be tenor lines, but each of us has the power to help ‘unlock’ someone just like that. Today or some day soon.