Part 4 of 5

Stories of Encountering Eternal Beauty

When we travel with student choirs in 2024, we keep in mind that these are the very teenagers who, four years ago (and some, as mere children), were sequestered and locked down in their homes during the dark days of the pandemic. Separated from friends, school activities, sports teams, collaborative artistic pursuits, and youth groups, these students are still, in some ways, reeling from the lingering effects of that difficult period … and aren’t we all? So today, when we gather up these particular students and travel with them out of town, out of state, or out of the country for a choir tour and/or mission trip, it very likely means more to them than we – or even they – might imagine.

At the writing of this post, the San Antonio Youth Chorale (SAYC) is in the final days leading up to our long-anticipated New York City Tour. We fly out in 48 hours and will spend five exciting days and nights just off Times Square in the City. This particular adventure to the Big Apple is very different from previous student choir tours we have done there. Here’s some of why.

First, there’s the full reality of what was described in the first paragraph above; today’s students, because of what they have been through, have an opportunity to gain and recover much and from such a tour as this.

Second, SAYC has come roaring back following the pandemic, starting over (we’re talking from scratch) with all new students. The Chorale has built back from square one and has risen phoenix-like from the ashes. The students’ dedication and musical achievements since late 2021 have been, and continue to be, legendary. After two plus years of hard work, recruiting, growing, meeting multiple challenges, experiencing some setbacks and netting substantial progress, SAYC is fully prepared to take on the challenges and joys of the upcoming travel.

Third, the motivation of the tour before us is substantively different from anything we have put together in previous years. That would make good sense, considering the two paragraphs above.

In all my years of directing youth choirs, I have depended upon the big end-of-year event – choir tour – to bring forth the students’ best efforts and musical progress. The annual Home Concert following tour is when the choir typically sounded its very best and was by far the most impressive.

The way 2023-2024 has played out, SAYC has experienced a number of musical mountaintops and has participated in some glorious service projects which brought out their best efforts much earlier than in past years. One result of this season is that we are no longer depending upon the tour to bring out our best choral sounds. This unusual circumstance has allowed me to relax the tour a bit and make it more a reward and celebration than an extended drive towards an excellence which has already been realized.

Since we have sung so much this year and have enjoyed a high level of excellence throughout the year, we are singing only three times while in New York. I was able to arrange “Choir Sings” in three of the finest acoustical environments in Manhattan: Riverside Church, the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (on Mulberry Avenue, not the “new” St. Patrick’s on 5th Avenue), and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In each of these glorious venues, SAYC will have an hour to put forth our best musical efforts with God as our only Audience. Yes, there are likely to be some tourists strolling through as we sing and, if so, our hope is to provide them a taste of holy beauty.

What could possibly be the motivation for singing full concerts in empty cathedrals? What is the purpose of singing just for ourselves?

As mentioned before, we have sung for many audiences and in many worship services over the past year: a city-wide Thanksgiving service, an InterFaith conference, and a choral Palm Sunday Pilgrimage across the San Antonio Mission Trail. We’ve sung two performances of Taylor Davis’s MAGNIFICAT with professional orchestra and a half dozen Sunday morning worship services at Woodland Church. We participated with six other YouthCUE choirs in a glorious Winter Choral Celebration in Austin accompanied by a professional chamber orchestra. We sang high-level, madrigal-style Christmas Carols for various groupings across the City. It has been SAYC’s strongest year in its 12-year history, and we are very grateful for the blessings which seemed to come upon the group rather suddenly after much hard work, dedication, and commitment. I have a friend who refers to similar processes as “hard work miracles.” A miracle it certainly is, and one which came about as a combination of diligent work and the grace of God.

When we sing in New York next week, we will not be “performing” in empty cathedrals. We will be singing to God. We will be creating and offering to our Ultimate Audience our finest expressions of beauty, praying that these experiences will help all of us better understand our places in God’s beautiful and often complex world. Just as we ask that God would hear our prayers and answer them, we also believe that God will hear our choral offerings and bless them for purposes far greater than the mere sound and nuances we experience in the here and now.

After all, Martin Luther did seem to think that “He who sings prays twice.”

All of us directors have within our God-given creativity the ability to craft musical experiences for our students which will stay with them for the rest of their lives … and yes, even longer than that! When we encounter and participate in eternal beauty, the soundtrack lasts forever.

Happy singing!

Randy Edwards
[email protected]

Please stay tuned for more information on SAYC concerts livestreamed from NYC on June 18 and June 20.