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Singing in harmony: on earth as it is in heaven

May 31, 2013

(Continued from yesterday’s blog post.)

Imagine two hundred 8 to 11-year-olds at 9 a.m. on a lazy summer morning. You’d expect them to be doing anything but learning difficult classical choral music.

Helen Kemp, a composer and world class conductor was teaching her composition, Prayer Litany, a lengthy and challenging piece based on St. Francis of Assisi’s classic, “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace” to these children. Earlier Kemp wrote the piece dedicated to “The singing children of Montreat.”

All of my daughters were fortunate to have the opportunity to learn notes with her; in 1996, I got to watch Kemp conduct my youngest child, Doreen. As a writer, I took notes.

Kemp pulled a Slinky toy out to illustrate how if they let their bodies sag down, they would look like a Slinky being held at each end and drooping in the middle. Their notes would drag to the bottom and not come out open and clear.

Then she pushed the timeless toy together so its middle rounded to a nice arch. “If you pull your head up, your notes will come up and won’t be pinched,” she explained.P1030216

Helen Kemp, in background, left, conducts 200 children, including Doreen, blonde at far right, sitting up tall.

The children pulled themselves up straighter even while yawning, wiggling, swinging legs, jiggling, stretching, messing with their hair and jumping their legs up and down on the floor. They were kids, after all.

I marveled at Ms. Kemp having enough energy to manage and hold the attention of 200 children two hours a day, five days at a time, while perfecting exquisite music.

After one attempt, Kemp scolded, “Oh come on! That’s a little puny. You can’t sing it with your teeth closed.” She flung her arms wide open to illustrate how their mouths should fall wide to let out the word, “Joy.” For a few minutes, she had the kids sing while she paced around, bending her head to hear which words they were getting, which words they were mumbling. She began slapping her own leg to keep rhythm, gently poking the backs of children to get them to sit up straight, and motioned for heads to be lifted up.

“We don’t quite have the ending yet,” she noted, but it was an observation, not a critique.

Ms. Kemp told the youngsters, “If you can hit the high G on the ending, go ahead and sing it. But not all of you can hit the G, so sing the lower note. Now let’s try the whole thing.” Then she added with a happy look, “I’ve very pleased with you this morning. I know some of you are sleepy, but you’re doing ok.” She knew just how to talk to the children—admonishing and advising without condemning.

“Now this will be a test,” she proposes. “I want you to start the song without me.” A choir of 200 children getting started without their conductor?  She goes to a chair and sits with her head bowed, just waiting. So they start, gingerly at first, and without her they sound like Captain Von Trapp’s children singing without him in “The Sound of Music.” They sing dutifully, but without spark.

Towards the middle of the piece, she can’t contain herself. She begins keeping rhythm on her thigh, then throwing her hand wide open again to a pretend audience so the children will be sure to hit “joy” with a full sound.

By the end of the song she is standing, swaying gently, directing with her body but not her hands. When they reach the tricky part where the tempo changes, she is now directing the children openly, waiving aside her proposal for them to sing without her.

The children finish. She takes her glasses off in satisfaction. The kids applaud, swept up in Kemp’s own spirit. She notes they still have “some cleaning up to do” but Kemp is clearly satisfied, knowing the children will be able to nail the number.


Anderson Auditorium on the campus of Montreat College, N.C.

At the song’s debut in Anderson Auditorium on the campus of Montreat College, it is a warm and muggy June morning. The children are children—acting causal, but they sing their little hearts out, hitting the high G on “joy” with enough power that I notice a woman in the seat in front of me shiver involuntarily. It is a goosebump moment, and others around me huskily clear throats and dab noses.

Later, in her after-performance talk with the children, Kemp told them, “This song was written for you. It took me a long time to think about how I wanted the song to sound, and you made it come out like I wanted. That was a gift to me. You made it come out right and helped people worship God today.”


Helen Kemp poses with my daughter, Doreen, right, and a friend from our church, Chris.

As a mom, I was so grateful: not only for this grand experience for my daughters, but for all the people who took the time to nurture our children through the years at camp, the congregation, small groups, their friends and the parents of friends.


Beverly Silver, longtime member at our church, helps comb my oldest daughter, Michelle, when she accompanied the children to Montreat as a chaperone.

And I’m grateful for experiences in the larger church, like at Montreat, and eventually also at Mennonite Youth Conventions which they attended with me because of my long employment working for the Mennonite church. In these larger venues they had experiences impossible to duplicate at the local level and had the thrill of working under masterful teachers like Helen Kemp, Ken Medema and many other lesser known but great musicians.

And worshiping with thousands of other like-minded souls. Like heaven on earth.


Parts of this post appeared originally in my Another Way newspaper column, published by MennoMedia for over 26 years.


From → Faith, Family Life

  1. Melodie, I opened the hyperlink on the Mennonite church–written on the way home from the convention in 1993–and my mind rested on the words: if Jesus were here he might do conventions. Networking is especially important with small start-up churches.

  2. Ann, thanks for your comment — often it is the smaller churches who can’t afford the big price of conventions and such. I see that Glen Guyton is talking about how to make conventions more affordable in the future. We could go back to staying on college campuses maybe?? Not as comfortable, but if it makes networking more affordable–that would be good.

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