General Assembly 2003
A Promise in That Song
By Maggi Smith-Dalton
‘I had dropped the mail and saw the postcard lying on the path and then went screaming into the house,” fifth-grader Grace Newman, of Oak Hill, Virginia, remembers. “I was so excited.” Grace’s successful audition for the 2003 Unitarian Universalist Children’s Choir expanded an already rich musical life—she composes and plays cello and piano.
Eleven-year-old Amber Wilson-Daeschlein of Williamston, Michigan, felt “confident” on hearing the news. Ten-year-old Hannah Nyhart of Durham, Connecticut, reports that she “whooped!” Hans Richard Foster, a sixth-grader from Lansing, Michigan, was excited and a bit nervous. Elizabeth Field of Fairfield, Connecticut, “jumped around the house,” and “couldn’t wait to get the music!”
Last winter, children from congregations coast to coast submitted audition tapes and waited hopefully to see if they would be Boston-bound by summer. The prize: to perform in this year’s largest-ever General Assembly.
When their packets of music arrived, bound in a black binder and accompanied by a practice CD, it was up to each chorister to practice at home until the entire choir assembled in June for rehearsal camp at the Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. Many, like thirteen-year-old Rebecca Snelling, from Newbury, Massachusetts, are musically active. She benefits from an unusually strong youth music program at the First Religious Society of Newburyport. A church choir member since first grade, Rebecca plays piano and saxophone, and participates in school bands and choruses. Others, like Elizabeth Field, had the assistance of their church choir directors.
It’s hot at Governor Dummer Academy, powerfully hot, the mid-90s. And oppressively humid, too. The heat doesn’t seem to daunt the members of the choir, 133 singers strong, drawn from twenty-three states and provinces, as they sit in a semicircle, rehearsing music to the accompaniment of whirring fans. Sixty-two congregations are represented among the choristers, chaperones, and other participants.
Chicago-based director Emily Ellsworth propels the choir through a setting of “For the Beauty of the Earth,” blended choral sounds arising from flushed faces and toasted throats. A Nigerian folk song has the children moving, with hand motions and simple choreography; a modern gospel song encourages them to “Feel Good.” The mention of an air-conditioned afternoon rehearsal draws spontaneous applause and cheers.
At lunch, nine choristers gather around a table to speak with me, their trays piled high with the absolute staples: hamburgers, hot dogs, and other picnicky foodstuffs. “The food’s good here,” I’m told, as they hungrily dig in.
So what do they think of New England, of the choir, of the camp? “It’s so green here,” comes one response. “In Arizona, it’s brown, brown, brown!”
It’s a high-energy group. Most children seem comfortable even though they have had only a day or so to adjust to camp. Anne Jones, an open, friendly, twelve-year-old soprano from Tucson, Arizona, sits across from me. She loves to read, and likes being a Unitarian Universalist since you “don’t have to worry” about what to believe.
Effervescent Grace Newman’s take on explaining what a Unitarian Universalist is to others makes me laugh out loud: “If you don’t want a long lecture, don’t ask.”
Danielle Stein, eleven, of Nashville, Tennessee, loves soccer and Irish step dancing and works in clay. Hans Foster draws animals, makes mazes, likes to read, and tells me his favorite animal is a penguin. Amber enjoys math and science and holds a first-degree black belt in tae kwon do. She aspires to be “a singer, a scientist, an astronaut, a teacher, a lawyer, or someone who tries to find cures for various diseases.”
Vivacious alto Katrina Turner, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, invigorates the atmosphere with cheerful, running-full-throttle conversation. An anime enthusiast, she acts, dances, bikes, reads, and wants to be a band conductor when she gets older.
Hannah Nyhart gives me great hope for the future when she tells me she intends to be president some day, because “I think the world’s a big mess and someone’s got to go in and clean it up.” The Connecticut chorister displays a striking range of enthusiasms, from wishing for the Green Party’s rise to prominence to hating skirts and dresses (“Phooey!”) and has a penchant for no-brakes-fast-bike riding and reading “all the time.”
Most children at the table thought they were doing less singing at the camp than they expected—but that rehearsals were a lot of work. Extracurricular activities were declared the most fun. Asked what they didn’t like, they told me having to stay in their rooms for quiet time was boring. Camp stuff.
Interviews with the children were most notable, however, for thoughtful awareness of and lively involvement with the world at large. Asked, for instance, to name three wishes, children responded with “world peace,” “no more world hunger,” “end to global warming,” “enough money for everyone,” “having enough books,” “no racism, no sexism,” and “no diseases.” Happily, I also note some important childhood wishes: wishing that Hogwarts really existed, the ever-popular wish for magic powers “to make my brother disappear when he gets annoying,” and “a hundred more wishes, magic, and a thousand cats.”
In matching blue-and-black, the choristers rise to sing at Sunday’s Service of the Living Tradition. In the cavernous FleetCenter arena, before more than 9,000 fellow Unitarian Universalists, their joined voices float like a remembered dream, singing of “the beauty of the Earth”—these bright, wonderful children are embodiments of our ever-evolving, organic living tradition.
“Oh let us sing our song, and let our song be heard,” they
sang, fittingly, in performing “Promise of Living” by Aaron
Copland and Horace Everett, “Let’s sing our song with our
hearts, a promise in that song.”