I would have never thought of having a choir retreat.  However, about five years ago, our executive director and the choir director for our Brevard programs felt that there was a need for the choirs to come together for teaching and to learn new music.  It was a great success and made a dynamic impact on the two choirs that I direct.  For the next two years, we coupled our retreat with our teacher/volunteer retreat.  We held the choir event on Thursday and Friday morning and teachers’ retreat on Friday evening and Saturday. 

As the summer approached the next year, we realized that we could no longer afford to pay the expenses of a choir retreat because of rising prices of hotels and meals.   We felt that our choir gives all year; and they should not have to pay for anything.  Sadly, we announced to the choir that we would no longer have our annual  retreat.  The members of our choir came to me and explained that they wanted to have a choir retreat and they would pay their own expenses. 

Last year, we coupled our retreat with a free Saturday excursion to one of Florida’s attractions, planned by the Brevard County Rec Department.  Our South Carolina choir has continued to attend.  This year, the South Carolina choir wanted to go to The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, which cost $35 entrance fee.   Our choirs voted to also pay to attend the park. 

The past two years, we have rehearsed our Christmas music.  Then the combined choirs have sung one of the songs they learned at a church on Sunday morning.  The schedule for the event has been wrapped around scriptural teaching regarding the importance of Praise and Worship and learning the new music.  This concentrated time of teaching has been extremely benefitial. 

The retreat choral practice schedule is deliberately planned.  Our schedule has been:

Friday

  1. Noon–Lunch at the retreat center/unpack luggage and equipment
  2.  1:30–Rehearsal
  3. 2:00–Devotions
  4. 2:10–Rehearsal
  5.  2:30–Refreshment Break
  6.  2:45–Rehearsal
  7. 3:15–Devotions
  8. 3:25–Rehearsal
  9. 3:45–Break and preparation for dinner
  10. 5:00–Dinner
  11. 6:30–Devotions
  12. 6:45–Rehearsal
  13. 7:30–Swimming and Fun time

Saturday

  1. 6:30am–Rise and shine
  2. 7:00–Load luggage
  3. 8:00–Breakfast
  4. 9:oo–Rehearsal (This became an improptu mini-concert for the college students who attend the Bible college at the Retreat Center.)
  5. 9:30–Leave for Holy Land Experience

We tried to keep our rehearsals short, interspursed with breaks and devotions.  Using an education model, with short, intense choral teaching times, people learn more quickly and easily.  By the end of these concentrated rehearsals, it is amazing how much the choirs absorb and learn. 

The choir retreat combines many educational elements which boast the choir members’ ability to learn.  This continues to be an education and inspiration event that lasts during the entire year.  Here are several of the benefits that we have seen grow from this retreat.

  1. The choirs are rewarded for their hard work during the year.  Even though the choir members have offered to pay most of the expenses of the retreat  for the past two years, this experience has given them a sense of joy knowing that the Lord is pleased with their efforts.  This positive reinforcement encourages the choir all year long.
  2. The choir is taught scriptural benefits and importance of praising God.  They begin to understand that their effort have eternal consequences.
  3. The concentrated rehearsals enhance their ability to learn.
  4. Our schedule of alternating hard work of learning words and music with a relaxing break–singing, break–makes this learning experience fun and effective.
  5. We are able to teach them that even during the times that they are not standing in front of an audience, they are worship leaders.
  6. They are impressed with the importance of the ministry God has entrusted to them.

Working with a choir is one of the most beneficial things I do within Special Gathering.  In fact, over the years, I separated my choir times and counted them as part of my personal ministry rather than my ministry for which I am paid. 

What is something that you have learned that enhances your ability to teach your choirs?

Ready or Not--Here I come

Ready or Not--Here I come

I love change and moving furniture and being involved in a dynamic organization like The Special Gathering that is constantly looking for ways to make things better and improve.  As a ministry within the developmentally disabled community, there are a myriad of things to learn and experience.  Each day must be a new beginning and adventure.  Though our mission remains focused on discipleship and evangelism, the way we do things is open to discussion and growth.  This brings me a lot of pleasure.

However, there is a down side to change.  That comes when you are asked to change at the last minute and you ain’t prepared.  That was the opportunity we had on Sunday and it turned into an exciting adventure.  First United Methodist Church of Melbourne, our gracious host church in South Brevard, was having a wonderful celebration with all the ministries of the church participating.  Because we must catch our buses to go home, it was decided that we would not have our choir sing or attend the worship service. 

Yet, during preparation for our worship service, we were approached by the pastor and he asked that our choir sing at the beginning of the joint worship service.  “Sing the song you were practicing a few minutes ago.  It sounded great,” the Senior Pastor, John Denmark, requested.  My concern was that the choir had only sung that song about five or six times.   I don’t mean that we had practiced it during six rehearsals.  I mean that we had only sung this song a total of five, maybe six, times.

Singing a new song after so few rehearsals would be a feat for any choir but our members are developmentally delayed.  It seemed impossible.  However, the choir was more than game. “They can’t sing.  They aren’t wearing their uniform,” was heard from several naysayers.  I admit that Stuart’s shorts weren’t appealing to me.  Yet, it was a celebration and this is Florida where semi-formal wear always means clean jeans. 

Leslie is a committed Christian who would be singing the solo for this song in the Christmas play where we intended to sing it for the first time.  Leslie’s smile is amazing and her willingness to cooperate is legendary.  But Leslie’s voice has such a narrow range that most people would call her a monotone.  I found that this song matched the few notes she is able to sing.  However, did I go so far as let her sing during the opening of a celebration with about 1,500 people?  My decision was yes.  And no one was disappointed, especially Leslie.  The tenderness and compassion displayed in her facial expression and especially in her eyes told the listening congregation that this young woman loves Jesus with all her heart. 

I was so proud of our choir but I was especially excited for Leslie.  Excellence is vital in a performance but love is much more important.  Leslie has a terminal disease and we could lose her any moment.  I’m so pleased that 1,500 people could see and witness her desire to please her savior. 

Ready or not–we came and we sang and I’m so happy we did.

Has there been a time that you stepped out when you didn’t feel prepared?  What were the results?

Photo by Volar

Yesterday, The Special Gathering Choir of Indian River sang at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Indialantic, Florida.  The Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  Our mission is to evangelize and disciple people who are developmentally disabled.  However, we realize there are many misconceptions about our population; therefore, our ministry to the Church is to help educate them to the spiritual needs of people who are mentally challenged.

After the choir sang their two selections, they received a resounding, standing ovation.  They exited the church, all smiles and returned across the river to Melbourne Special Gathering to catch their rides home.  I stayed for the entire service.  After the benediction, the pastor, Rev. Elmer Floyd, graciously asked me to stand at the door of the church and receive the members as they left the sanctuary.  That is an honor that is sometimes given to us by hosting churches.

The response of the congregations is always extremely emotional and overwhelming.  Almost everyone who spoke to me had tears brimming their eyelids.  Old hardened housewives, who long ago quit hoping for a better day, took my hand and were speeching, barely whispering, “Thank you.”  Tough, tall young men in their twenties, with their tattooed arms and fingers, gripped my arms tightly, looking directly into my eyes and mumbled in a gravelly, shame-faced voice, “They touched me.” 

Long ago we learned to understand but underestimate the emotional effect the choir have on audiences.  Because emotions are temporary vapors that are whisked away in the wind.  Yet, there are always several people that are deeply effected by the choir.  Not on the emotional level but in the inner recesses of their spirit, God does a miracle.   One family who spoke to me was touched deeply, beyond the emotions.  Their hearts were bent and perhaps healed a bit by seeing the choir’s ministry.

It was a grandfather and grandmother.  The husband spoke for both of them.  “Our granddaughter was born with Down’s Syndrome,”  he said, not resisting the tears that slowed worned their way down his wrinkled cheeks.  “What a comfort to see what God can do with a person who is mentally challenged and willing to be used by the Lord.  The choir gave us such hope that our granddaughter can we used by God.”  His tone softened,  “Our granddaughter is greatly loved.”

My thoughts raced back about 18 years.  The choir I was directing was singing for a women’s conference.  After the performance, I asked the choir to line up in the front of the auditorium and pray for the women there.  After a member of the choir had prayed for her, Betty came over and hugged me tightly.  Betty and I were friends.  I knew she had a young son who is mentally challenged.  In my arms, she wept deeply. 

Wiping the tears away, she explained, “My great sorry for my son was that I thought God could never use Tony in ministry.  Now, I know that God can use him even with his developmental disabilities.”  Again, she cried.  This time I wept with her. 

A couple of years later, Tony, her son, became a part of Special Gathering.  About a year ago, Tony joined the choir.  Yesterday, this was the song he sang,

Jesus, You alone are worthy,

And I lift my voice to you.

Jesus, You alone are worthy.

I will worship none but you.

 While emotions are an important part of our human make-up, they can’t always be trusted.  However, God’s economy is amazingly green.  He can be trusted to turn what some people consider unusable into life-changing treasures. 

Has God used someone that you thought was unusable in your life?  How have your members ministered to you?

The hardest part about directing a choir of mentally challenged people is teaching them to look at me.  In the twenty years that I have been a choir director for persons who are developmentally delayed for The Special Gathering, this has been a constant and consistent problem. 

In the 1960’s when the Jesus Movement was sweeping across America, my husband and I were swept into the miraculous wonder of the Holy Spirit’s healing touch.  Though I was very young, almost daily, I had the privilege of praying for people.  Occasionally, these were African-American women who were visiting our home.  With this wonderful population of women, I was always faced with the same problem.  They refused to look at me. 

No matter how bold they had been in conversation, when it came time to pray, they all took the same posture.  They would sit with their heads pressed to their chests and their hands clasped in their laps, too timid to move or speak. 

I felt that the Lord told me that part of what was needed for them was to insist that they raise their heads and look at me, eye to eye.  At times, I had to physically force their heads upward.  Amazingly, once these women began to look up, there was a visual transformation that happened every time.  They seemed to come alive with joy and acceptance.   Laughing and crying at the same time, they would say, usually in a reverent whisper, “I’m free!”

I wasn’t totally surprised to also have this problem in the mentally challenged community.  This cloistered, sub-culture is made up of individuals who are told all their lives,  “Sit down.  Be quiet and don’t draw attention to yourself.” 

Even if those words are not spoken, they are told that a million times in their lives in a multitude of different ways.  I remember a funeral that I attended.  The father of one our members had died.  At that time, Nora was in her mid-thirties.  She is a high functioning, well-spoken, sophisticated woman.  Several times before and after the funeral service, her mother, brother and two sisters gathered in a circle.  Comforting each other,  they joined in a large group hug.  Nora was never a part of the hug.  She stood on the outside grasping her arms close to her chest, weeping alone. 

I don’t care how tonally correct the members of the choir sing but I do care whether they look at me or not.  For some of the members, this is especially difficult. For it is not only part of our culture to not look people in the eye; but it is also part of their disability.  Yet, I have never had one person who has not learned to overcome his training and disability.  They have all learned to look at me. 

Each new member thinks I’m incredible horrible when I harp on them, not allowing them to look away for a second.  Usually by the time they have trained themselves to look at me, another person will join the choir. Then she sees that I have to go through the same thing with the new, fledgling performer.  Almost, without exception, she will say in a patient, mentoring voice, “You can do it.  I had to learn and you can too.”

There is an element of self-worth that is essential in maturing in the Christian faith.  Through Christ’s sacrifice, God makes us his children, not his slaves or lackeys.  Perhaps the greatest joy I have when the choir performs is not the musical quality or the correct enunciation of all the words but 12 sets of eyes that meet mine and look at me, eye to eye.  Equal partners in ministry, holding our heads and hearts high. 

It makes me want to have a large, group hug with no one left outside grasping their arms.

What have you found to be the hardest thing for your members to do?  Have you found that making eye contact is important to self-worth?  What are some other signs of a good self-worth?

Recently, while teaching a class on humility, I carefully explained the concept.  Then I asked the class of adult students who are developmentally delayed, to name someone they knew who was humble.  After they all raised their hands, I said, “Now, if you were going to say me, we need to go over the teaching again.  Because I may be many things; but I am NOT the most humble person you’ve ever met.”  The class laughed because they knew that statement was certainly true. 

I do try to show humility but I have to admit that I enjoy center stage.  The bigger the audience, the better.  I am energized by being in front and in charge.  For me, the easiest joy you can give me is to make me president or chairperson of a project. 

When I first came to be a part of Special Gathering, one of my duties was choir director.  Though I had no formal training in conducting, I took on the position with zeal.  While I had years of experience in teaching and speaking, coming to The Special Gathering meant that I became a part of a world that I hardly knew existed.  Because the church has not often known what to do with this population, being active in the life of my church all my life had provided perfect insulation for me from the mentally challenged community.  I had much to learn and working with a small group in the choir setting was good training.

Secretly, I had wanted to be a choir director since I was a child.  I had been in choirs most of my life and I relished the magical tones produced by the blending of voices.  I carefully studied the various choral directors’ techniques as I sat under their direction.  I evaluated their conducting methods, noting which of their techniques helped the choir become one voice and which ones didn’t work.

As teenagers, we were given formal choral conducting classes in my church and at denominational music retreats.  As instructed by the class teacher, I would stand in front of the mirror and practice my conducting technique.  However, I never imagined that I would have the chance to use the grand gestures.

There is so much about what I do that has been the fulfillment of a lifetime of dreams.  However, I think the most exciting thing about being a choral director is that I am able to see other people taking center stage.  Watching the glow of excitment while others use their musical skills to share the Gospel message has been a great joy in my life. 

Terri can hardly speak.  When she does talk, only a few of her closest friends can understand her.  But she sings with amazing clarity.  During her solo work, Terri shines.  Her strong voice speaks clearly and passionately about her relationship with her Lord.  When Steve joined the choir, he was not physically able to look at me.  It was part of his disability.  Together we struggled to help him be able to overcome this part of his frailty.  Now he can look at me without even thinking twice.  Larry had been an introvert all of his life.  He also has severe sleep apnea.  He struggles successfully to keep awake during our choral work because he wants people to see the Lord working through him.

While humility is not part of my make-up, I never mind giving up center stage for a group of people who work frantically hard to be able to communicate the love of Jesus through song.

Have you seen changes with people as they have learned to express themselves though music?  What part of being in a choir do you enjoy the most?  What are some spiritual truths that you have learned from seeing mentally challenged people taking center stage and expressing their devotion to Jesus?

One of my first responsibilities when I went on staff at The Special Gathering  almost 20 years ago was to direct a choir.  We had no money.  Therefore, there was no way to buy music or equipment.  While I’ve had extensive music background, I am a terrible pianist and there was no one to play any instruments.  (I have taught people to direct choirs who have only a little musical background.)

Therefore, I began to improvise.  First, I had a pianist friend tape some songs.  I remember trying to get my extremely bad tape recorder to record a decent sound track.  I ended up recording from the bottom of the piano.  I sat under the piano and held the microphone close but not touching the bottom of the piano.  It worked.

Later, I discovered Maranatha Double Praise CD’s.  Most of the songs have two tracks.  First, there was a track with singer.  Then the same sound track with the melody played by a lead instrument.  These were wonderful and gave me a great deal of flexibility. 

Several things I learned quickly.  1)  The choir must be a discipled effort on the part of the choir members and the director.  Be sure that you know the music back and front.  Know when to come in and when to stop.  2)  Choral directions are vital for a mentally challenged choir.  Don’t stand with your hands to the side.  Use your hand, your mouth, anything you can to get the choir members to understand your directions.  Several directors have devised signs for each word.  They sign the words for their choir.  I have so little eye-hand-coordination that I have never been able to pull that off.

However, I do mouth the words to my choir and beat out rythym of the music like most directors do.  I improvised simple signs that work to help me clearly tell each choir member if he/she is  singing too loud and when to come in and stop singing.  My sign for the choir not the sing is a closed fist.  If one person is to stop singing or comes in incorrectly, I put my closed fist in front of him, signaling that he is to not sing.

 In mouthing the words, I try to pick songs that have rests between each musical phrase.  In this way, I can mouth the words before they sing.   I try to choose songs that have simple lyrics that are repeated several times.  For example, the first song we did in this manner was “Lord, You are So Precious to Me.”  The words are “Lord, You are so precious to me and I love You.  Yes, I love You because You first loved me.” 

The choir learned the song in the first practice.  They were excited.  There was orchastration and they choir sounded great. 

 Are there some tricks that you have learned in directing persons with developmental disabilities in a choir?  How important do you think first impressions are?