God Is In The Music
by Sanford Dole
I have spent my life as a church musician. It's startling to consider, but as I look back,
I realize that, aside from vacations and the occasional concert tour, I have attended church virtually every Sunday
for over forty years.
Until very recently, my parents continued to sing together in their church choir, as
they have throughout the 59 years of their marriage. As an infant I was brought to church daycare on Sunday mornings,
graduating to Sunday school, and later, after-school youth choir practice. One of my earliest memories is as a
three-year-old, dressed in a white robe (more like a little dress) with a big red bow at the neck, and singing
with four or five other similarly dressed members of the "cherub" choir on the steps at the front of
As I went through boyhood, I continued to sing in choirs at school as well as at church.
Along the way, I picked up a trick from my parents that proved to be very useful. Being an alto and a tenor, they
enjoyed singing in harmony. Always the oddballs, on those rare occasions when we visited other churches, they would
boldly sing harmony parts during the hymns when all around them were meekly intoning the melody. Sometimes they
would change parts from verse to verse! I quickly caught on that this was fun, and as my voice began to change,
I made a habit of attempting each of the four parts during every four-verse hymn. Three or four hymns each week
provided a lot of practice. I attribute this Sunday morning ritual as the reason why I became an adept sight-singer
by the time I was in the eighth grade.
"Music is what drew me back into a relationship with God after a long dark period in
my life. I was in such extreme emotional distress that ordinary prayer was impossible, but the simple structure
of the music of our Taize service just carried me. It is like a train going to God and I just hop on."
During my childhood I had many exciting musical experiences. The first extended
work I ever performed was when I was in the fifth grade. Having sung soprano up to that point, it was the first
time I sang the alto part, (with the support of my mother, who stood next to me in the alto section), and was my
introduction to the music of Leonard Bernstein. We presented a concert that included Bernstein's Chichester Psalms.
This would have been in 1964, only a couple of years after the piece was premiered. We performed the version for
organ, harp and percussion. I remember it very clearly, as this was the first time I had been near real timpani
and a real harp. And, not only that, but the jazzy music was so exciting, and we were singing in Hebrew no less!
(Pretty cool stuff, for a 10-year-old!) I think I was hooked on the performing thing right then.
While living in New Jersey, during my junior high years, I had the opportunity to perform
with Duke Ellington, in an ecumenical event at a local Jewish temple, featuring one of his jazz Sacred Services.
He and his band played with the combined choirs of the temple, our Presbyterian church, and a Catholic congregation.
Marvelous fun! I still remember one of the tunes from that work.
In my adult life I've had a series of church jobs in many denominations, offering the
opportunity to participate in different styles of worship. Some have been spiritually less than fulfilling, and
the pay is notoriously low. The music, however, has always been the great incentive. Where else would I have had
the chance to perform music from the sacred repertoire, the world's greatest source of choral music. Biblical texts
and liturgical needs have been the primary inspiration for many of the most revered composers in all of history.
This was the case for Palestrina, Byrd, and Bach, all the way up to Arvo Paert and Michael Barger, one of St. Gregory's
own. I don't think of myself as especially religious, but the truth is, I've been singing the praises of, and praying
to God for my entire life, through the music I sing and compose. Maybe that's why my life has been blessed in so
The story of how I came to St. Gregory's is a delightful one and an example of the
marvelous ways in which God works. I was a member of the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys for 12 years. During
that time I became fully steeped in the Anglican tradition and its musical heritage. Singing such inspired music
in the great acoustical expanses of the cathedral are memories that I will always cherish. After a dozen cycles
of the church year, however, I began to feel the need to move on. This became very clear to me one November Sunday
morning, when I found myself gazing at the stained glass windows, not listening to the sermon. I realized that
as wonderful as it had been singing in the choir, I longed for a different church experience, preferably as the
choir director. I vowed to myself that I would begin looking for such a position.
Here comes the 'God works in mysterious ways' part. The very next morning at 8:00 AM,
I was jolted into consciousness by the phone ringing. I jumped out of bed and was greeted by a man on the line
who introduced himself as Rick Fabian, the rector of a small Episcopal church in search of a new music director.
(This was two years prior to the ground-breaking for our new building.) Over the next half hour, Rick explained
to me what the job entailed, and with each passing sentence I became more and more excited. This position suited
me exactly! This was most amazing, as keyboard skills (an area in which I am not especially proficient) were not
required. However singing was, as well as conducting an a cappella choir and composing new music, all of which
are skills I revel in! Rick had only expected me to give him referrals. Needless to say, I referred myself, auditioned,
and began my tenure at St. Gregory's on the first Sunday of the new year, 1993.
I feel I was sent to St. Gregory's to share my musical talents with the congregation
and the choir. Performing these duties has not only been very gratifying but has also fed my soul in a profound
way. In my experience, music is a healing art. I have seen the power of music physically heal and otherwise transform
the lives of others. It concentrates emotions. From my position at the front of the congregation, I have seen and
heard God soothing peoples bodies and souls as we sing through the service. The sight of peoples eyes welling up
with tears in cathartic cleansing is not uncommon. In my own life, making music on a regular basis has played a
major role in maintaining my health, both physically and emotionally.
What excites me about St. Gregory's approach to liturgy is that we have taken the musical
element and made it completely participatory for the congregation. Simply observing a musical event can be very
moving. However, physically experiencing music in ones body is truly life-affirming. Singing is physical exercise;
a kinetic act of muscles that produce sound in combination with mental processes that produce words, images and
feelings. It begins with breathing. Singing requires deep, relaxed breaths, beneficial to the blood supply and
proper functioning of the heart. At the same time, engaging in the mental actions required to produce a melodic
succession of notes as well as words and expression (dynamics and accentuations, etc.) takes the mind off one's
cares, which is, in turn, stress reducing. What a gift it is to make music! To be mentally AND physically engaged
ignites in me a wonderful glow that is a sense of well-being.
"When I hear music,
I listen to God.
When I sing,
I speak to God."
Scientists would say that this activity releases healthy endorphins into the bloodstream
causing mild euphoria. Well...great! I like to think of this as God taking care of us; God's love. The exultation
I feel after a good performance is perhaps the moment when I feel closest to God. That rush of excitement is God
pulsing through me. Music has the power to change lives, both for the performer and the listener. After 'lifting
your voice in song', the singer is doubly blessed. Not only has he or she reaped the physical benefits of singing,
but the listener has been stimulated as well. At St. Gregory's, because we all sing, each of us experiences this
double benefit. Wow!
As a musician, I am deeply conscious of the power of God working through me. By encouraging
you to sing I am hearing God speak through you. I know that God is in the people, in the laughter and tears, in
the readings, and in the sermon and response. She is also in the food (both at the Eucharistic table and at coffee
hour), and in the architecture of our beautiful church home. But, most especially for me, God is in the music.
Sanford Dole is St. Gregory's Music Director.