The church in Brooklyn where my choir meets was dedicated in 1891.
We’re not a church choir, but we’ve gathered here for years. It’s vibrant, cozy, a community space: a purposeful home where we sing together for a few hours every Wednesday. Early arrivers arrange more than a hundred chairs in five long rows. We wear name tags on lanyards color-coded by voice part. Someone always brings clementines; someone else always brings fresh cookies.
I feel most at home when I’m singing in a space like this one, often a church or other place of worship where the rental fee is reasonable and the acoustics are dreamy. I’m a good enough singer, but nothing special. I thrive in singing groups because I’m a fastidious rule-follower: The notes on the page go up, and I move my voice up. The hairpin crescendo marking tells me to get louder, so I do. Discipline is key to successful choral singing, and I am the alto section’s Hermione Granger.
More importantly, choir is a welcome distraction when my brain wears thin like the threadbare elbow of an old sweater. Learning tough music can be frustrating, but it’s a thousand times gentler on my heart than the anxious rituals and unmoored sadness that often make up my daily life. I have been a musician for as long as I have been depressed: most of my life, with varying degrees of gravity. I took my first piano lessons in kindergarten; I joined the school chorus when I was 8; I saw my first therapist when I was 9; I considered suicide for the first time when I was 10; you get it.
Choral singing can do wonders for your health, according to a trove of research from the last 20 years. The physical mechanics of singing and the social connectedness of participating in a choir are apparently very good for you. The small army of devoted singers I spend Wednesdays with can confirm this, at least anecdotally. I feel in my core that there’s power in what we create when we come together every week.
But despite the comfort and joy I feel here, the stories we raise up through music don’t always feel like mine to tell. I’m queer and an atheist, two things that on their face might preclude me from something like choral singing, a practice with its roots in piety and prayer. The most storied choral works are masses, requiems, and other tributes to God, largely written by old white guys. Ave Maria and the Hallelujah chorus are so deeply ingrained in our culture, they’re the backgrounds to Black Friday commercials.
To be sure, the puritanical church choirs I’m calling to mind are not the only force in choral music. Choirs created by and for LGBTQ singers flourish around the world. Secular, pop, and world music have had profound influences on the genre. But all of these remain minorities; at choir, God reigns in more ways than one.
I sat in on an LGBTQ choir’s rehearsal before finding the group I sing with now. Everyone was warm and kind, but something about it didn’t feel like the right fit. My current group, unaffiliated but still welcoming, felt like home right away. In my choir, we talk — and argue — about what it means for everyone to feel like they belong here, from diversifying our repertoire to choosing not to divide singers by gender. The church where we rehearse is vocally pro-queer.
Still, I grapple with my participation on a regular basis: Am I upholding something archaic by giving so much of myself to a tradition that grew from faith? Would this composer have wanted someone like me singing his piece? Am I doing someone, something, a disservice?
Selfishly, I’m worried about what will happen if I say out loud that I’m uncomfortable with all this God, if I let my brain run its anxious course. If my atheist, queer, bipolar self comes to choir with me in all its unkempt glory, will I lose my safest place?
Because more than anything, I love to sing: the community of it, the music-making, even the minutiae of music theory that can turn people off from large, organized choirs. Music nourishes me; it’s why I spend three hours a week at choir rehearsal, even though my school days are far behind me. You’d think I would have learned to love around the God stuff — to focus on the soul-sustaining richness of music itself, rather than the implied deference to a belief system that’s not mine. For whatever reason, I love that too.
I came into atheism first as a convenience. The short version of the story: My dad is Jewish, my mom is Catholic, neither is particularly religious, and so they let my brother and me figure out faith ourselves. For many years, I celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah, both Easter and Passover, but never understood what either really meant.
Growing up, I accepted that most people were religious. My closest friends in middle school — the first time I had close friends — were devout Christians. One bought me a Teen Study Bible, a shiny violet book that told me my parents’ interfaith marriage was a bad idea. I started wondering if I might be queer soon after, and my Bible took a hard stance on that, too. It didn’t take long to shift from not believing in anything in particular to affirming that I didn’t believe in God at all.
At my early, middle-school choir concerts, the repertoire was formulaic: an upbeat gloria to open the show, a praiseful laudate after that, perhaps a psalm in the middle, and a crowd-pleasing gospel tune before the final bow. I loved to quiz my parents in the car on the way home from those concerts, eagerly asking about their favorite songs, their favorite moments, whether this chord or that one gave them chills like it did for me.
Both my parents noticed, lightheartedly, the overly religious makeup of the program. “Lotta Jesus in that one,” my dad would joke, and I felt bad for subjecting him to two hours of proselytizing.
My middle school choir director would ask our permission to pray together before every concert. If nobody protested — and nobody ever did — we’d bow our heads as he thanked God for bringing us together and asked for us to sing as best we could. My high school director didn’t ask permission. He would simply say, “Let’s pray.”
I knew all of it made me feel weird — this was public school, after all. But I loved singing too much to make a fuss, and I didn’t want to call attention to myself by dissenting.
So we prayed. And instead of ignoring the omnipresence of God in the choir room, I fell in love with it.
It started song by song. My school choir, or one of the extracurricular choirs I begged my parents to pay for, would learn some classical, praiseful piece, and I’d listen to nothing else for weeks on end. Despite my strict godlessness, I heard my own stories — and my own anxieties — echoed in the sacred texts.
When my best friend and I had an irreconcilable falling out, for example, I repeated the text of the Prayer of St. Francis in my head like a mantra: “Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace / where there is hatred, let me sow love.” I auditioned to sing that opening phrase as a solo, knowing his mother would be sitting in the audience. I made eye contact with her as I sang, begging forgiveness.
I’ve sung a dozen versions of Psalm 23 (though my favorite is a treble arrangement by Z. Randall Stroope): “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Maybe I didn’t see myself at the table prepared so carefully by the Lord, but I clung to the refrain like a cry for help, a plea with the universe that everything would work out in the end: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” When I sang it, I added a question mark.
High school also invited my first real mental health breakdowns — the kind where my classmates reported me to the guidance counselor, worried for my safety. Pre-internet and without any mental health education, I had no vocabulary for the terrible feelings I couldn’t shake. When I was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the words choked in my throat, too big to speak into reality. I looked for language in choral music, but still something seemed wrong — like overstepping, like taking something that’s not mine.
The song that’s stayed with me the longest is “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” an 18-century Christian hymn popularized by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and arranged by its longtime director, Mack Wilberg. (This performance of the piece, with its swelling string accompaniment and palatial acoustics, is one of my favorite musical moments ever recorded.)
I heard a high school choir perform the piece at a state festival when I was in the ninth grade. That same night, I downloaded it on iTunes and got a copy of the sheet music, which I played over and over again on my piano at home.
Of course the music affected me; the melody catches in my ears for days at a time even some 15 years later. But more than that, the lyrics glued themselves to my heart, especially the resounding chorus: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it / Prone to leave the God I love.”
“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is canonically Christian: a retelling of 1 Samuel 7:12, in which the prophet Samuel gives thanks for God’s divine grace. (To be clear, I Googled this.)
The text is dripping with God: precious blood, streams of mercy, a promise of judgement by courts on high. Still, I hear it as something more fundamental even than faith: a gut-wrenching pleading with the self, a distraught inner monologue that mimics the anxiety I have every day. What if I’m not worthy? What if I ruin everything I have, everything I love?
In overanalyzing this song for this essay, I realized how much the text reminds me of something entirely but maybe not unrelated: iconic lesbian pop song “Back In Your Head,” and the moment when Tegan and Sara sing, “I’m not unfaithful, but I’ll stray / when I get a little scared.” They’re singing about a relationship, about glancing toward the door when things get hard, but what if they’re not talking about a relationship at all?
What if we’re all saying the same thing?
Two years in a row, the first weeks of my Brooklyn choir rehearsal coincided with the unexpected death of a young queer person in my life. By the second year, the weight of the losses sent me into a depression so intense, I became a phantom of myself. I hovered through the motions of my life detached and blank; for months I tiptoed around suicidality.
When I was in middle school, a local family was involved in a horrific car crash that killed three people: a student from a nearby school’s choir, her sister, and their father. The student’s choir director, Dr. Jeffery Ames, composed a piece titled “In Remembrance” mourning the lost family members.
In the score notes, Dr. Ames wrote: “This piece reflects my sadness, for I know I will never see their smiling faces again on this earth. However, this piece also reflects my joy, for I know they are at rest and I will one day see them again in Heaven.”
I listened to “In Remembrance” a lot after my friends’ deaths. Again and again, the emotional power of the song pummeled me: “Turn to me and be gracious, for my heart is in distress.” “Oh God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In the final line, Dr. Ames makes a humble request of God: “Lord, in your infinite mercy, grant them rest / rest forevermore.”
I am the type of atheist who recognizes, with great dissonance, that believing in God could smooth out a lot for me — big, weighty questions whose answers I can’t find in the science I know and trust. What if I believed there was a purpose behind the heartsick I feel almost every day? What if I knew, with Dr. Ames’ admirable certainty, that Peter and Casey are at rest? Why, with all my self-sabotaging disquiet and doubt, am I here?
I long for that kind of clarity, but I cannot bring myself to find it in God. Singing this text is a sort of comfort — an acknowledgement that someone believes this — but it’s a compromise nonetheless.
The thing is that I can’t let myself get too comfortable; not even here. It’s too easy to feel like I’m intruding or co-opting in this space, like at any minute someone will find me out and expose me as a fraud.
After all, it was a former choir director’s spouse who picked a fight with me on Facebook recently about some social issue — abortion or marriage equality or fair pay, I can’t remember — making it clear I wasn’t ever really welcome where I thought I once had been.
After all, the songs I cherish most are performed at churches where my marriage couldn’t have taken place, heralded at services where pastors warn their congregants about people like me, played on car radios of the voters who think I’m a danger to their children.
After all, when I came out late in high school, the few friends who disappeared were Christian friends. Choir friends.
But I love singing for what it is. God or no God, music supports my well-being, so I make it a priority, even if I second-guess myself with every breath. (I realized recently that I’m exactly 100 years younger than the walls that contain our voices every Wednesday night. Who am I to tell them what it means?)
Sometimes when anxiety overtakes my day, my wife nudges, “Why don’t you go sing in the shower for a little bit?” This has always been the case. Singing is one of the few coping mechanisms that can uplift my mood or snap me out of a panic attack. And so I drag myself to rehearsal through my depression and my anxiety and my doubts, even on the days I can barely leave my bed for work. There are songs to sing, downbeats to follow, measures to mark. Distractions. There’s no time for self-loathing at rehearsal.
A few months ago I felt so unworthy of my own life I could barely move. I went to choir anyway. We were polishing Stroope’s “Caritas et Amor,” a haunting setting of a classic text about God’s charity and love. I adore this song; it’s my top Spotify track of 2019. For weeks, it played in the back of my head as I wondered quietly how long I could keep this up.
More than once I waded through a thick black cloud of depression to rehearsal just to sing this piece, whose forceful magic transported me someplace else, someplace far away from the church and my body and my broken brain. More than once I shook with tears at the song’s booming crux: “Gaudium quod immensum est.” A joy which is immense.
At the end of this particular rehearsal and the walk to the subway afterward, I wept and wept and couldn’t stop and knew it was time for something to change. I could not make sense of the sharp split down the middle of my heart — the rapid-cycling effects of bipolar made tangible, audible. I loved this piece so much I wanted to die in it. I felt so sad all the time, all the time, all the time.
I hadn’t made up my mind yet as I veered off course, away from the train station, toward a narrow turn I know Brooklyn drivers take too fast. I stepped toward the glow of approaching headlights — and then back to the sidewalk.
I got home fine, like it had never happened.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.
At rehearsal a couple of weeks ago, I stood up to practice a solo and botched it — really, utterly made a fool of myself in front of a lot of people I respect. On my way out, I kept apologizing to my peers for how messy I’d sounded. I had a panic attack when I got home and cried in the shower until it passed.
It’s not that I take mistakes too seriously — I do, but that’s not the problem here. The problem is what happens if I let my guard down too much. One slip might betray all the truths about myself that I work so hard to leave at the church door. And then what?
I know I won’t find the answer in songs about God. What I’ve realized is that I never have, not really. The library of text I hold so dear is a container for questions I’m already asking, something I mold like soft clay in my hands until it’s familiar to me. It’s not mine to redefine, but it doesn’t need redefinition. Maybe it’s enough; maybe I am too.
The singing itself is the real answer: this ritual I’ve cherished since I was too young to know myself, this constant that’s outlasted any lover and stayed by my side for 20 years as others have come and gone. It’s okay to let myself love something. It’s okay to let it love me back. A joy which is immense.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d call it sacred.