In the video above, watch musicians from the Marsh Chapel Choir perform.
It’s the semester’s first rehearsal for the Marsh Chapel Choir, and members amble into the chapel’s chancel on a late January night and gather beneath the carved wooden figures of Jesus and the four Gospel writers behind the great pipe organ. Hellos, hugs, and squeals of reunion ricochet under Marsh’s lofty ceiling.
“Good evening everyone,” says conductor Scott Allen Jarrett (CFA’99,’08), Marsh Chapel music director. “We’re beginning.” Immediately, he pounds the organ keyboard as the choir members stand and sing scales to warm up. Then Jarrett plants himself before the singers, positioned in a crescent by vocal section, and they practice, he in a natty blazer, V-neck sweater, and tie, they mostly in casual dress. Rehearsing the Latin imploration “Agnus Dei” (“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”), Jarrett occasionally stops them to correct and fine-tune: “The duet should sound a little more contemplative.” “Basses—don’t force the sound until later.”
To an untrained ear, the choir’s sound is a lush vocal mosaic. But for the singers, the weekly two-and-a-half-hour (with break) rehearsal is a repetitive and painstaking drive for perfection, steered by Jarrett’s perpetually flailing conductor’s arms. (There are also rehearsals for an hour before each Sunday service and for the occasional concerts throughout the year.)
What possesses seemingly rational people to come out on a cold winter’s work night week after week? For many choir members, it’s more than just a rehearsal. The choir is a church all by itself, their gateway to God.
“The choir is my form of worship,” says Candace Brooks (CAS’85), who has sung with the choir on and off for 10 years of the last two-plus decades, drifting in and out when she lived elsewhere or had scheduling conflicts. (She’s not the member with the longest continuous service; that distinction goes to Steve Pinner, with 24 years under his belt.) Brooks’ absences from the choir were “dark times,” she says, “because I wasn’t faithfully in a church community.” Surely, she could worship if she weren’t in the choir? “No, I couldn’t. It would kill me to be in the congregation and not singing. The choir is so amazingly good. It feels like part of my ministry. We all have some sort of role, and the times I’ve gone to church without being in the choir, it feels weird.”
Even her job, as a product design consultant and teacher, comes second. “I’m serious,” she says. “I was asked to teach an additional class this semester, and I said I can’t do it if it’s on Thursday,” rehearsal night.
The 47-year-old Brooks began singing in the choir before its youngest members were even born, during her undergraduate days in the Reagan era. At the other end of the spectrum are Charlotte and Bethany Saul, British-born twins who entered the College of Arts & Sciences last fall and have been members for all of five months. In that brief time, choir has become as crucial to them as to Brooks.
“I’m not one who can just sit and enjoy the service,” Charlotte says. “I don’t engage in scripture that way. I like the stories, I like the parables, that kind of stuff, but I like to get more engaged. The choir, for me and for the other people who are there, really brings a sense of peace. I like helping provide that for other people.”
The Sauls grew up in New York state and attended an Episcopal church. They sang in their church choir and other venues, but nothing prepared them for the size and quality of Marsh’s choir, whose 44 members include 8 “choral scholars”—professional singers, many of them BU alumni or grad students, who lead each voice section, mentor younger members, and are the only singers who receive a stipend. At first intimidated by this lineup of talent, Charlotte and Bethany, encouraged by Jarrett and Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Hill, swallowed their jitters and auditioned. Of 28 people who tried out, they were among the 17 who made the cut. The choir is now the largest that it’s been in Jarrett’s 15 years at Marsh. “We’ve had to order new robes twice” to accommodate this year’s increased membership, he says.
Church membership means somehow being of service to others, a role that the choir fills. “There’s so much work that goes into every Sunday service,” Brooks says, “from the dean down to this wonderful woman who’s cleaning on Sundays. Part of my service is being in the choir.”
Bethany Saul, who sings soprano to her sister’s alto, says that “as opposed to praying or listening to a sermon, I think music is just such a wonderful way to worship God,” in part because the choir is a community that “is there for you.”
That communal sense binds a diverse group separated by more than just age. Not every member hails from BU; in recent years, says Jarrett, Harvard students and Boston-area residents have joined, having heard of the choir’s reputation or heard the choir directly or on WBUR, BU’s National Public Radio station, which broadcasts the chapel’s 11 a.m. service live each Sunday on 90.9 FM. Even religious affiliation doesn’t necessarily provide the glue. “There are agnostics, atheists, Christians, Jews, some Roman Catholic students,” and others who join for the musical experience, Jarrett says.
“Singing is the equalizer,” says Brooks.
There’s also the global community that listens to Marsh services on WBUR and on the internet. “It’s nice to know that my parents are listening,” Bethany Saul says.
Different singers favor different hymns, either for melody or words or both. The favorite of both Brooks and Bethany Saul is an old English prayer that concludes Sunday service, and in Brooks’ words, “says it all”:
God be in my head and in my understanding.
God be in mine eyes and in my looking.
God be in my mouth and in my speaking.
God be in my heart and in my thinking.
God be at mine end and at my departing.
Charlotte Saul favors a certain 19th-century hymn for both its lustrous melody and a title that encapsulates her drive to sing such music. The hymn? “How Can I Keep from Singing?”