A Hymn and a Bumper Crop of a Choir
The title of the well-known hymn “How Can I Keep From Singing” is such a beautiful sentiment — that one’s emotions are stirred so much that singing is the only way to express them. Written (or at least collected) by Robert Lowry, a Baptist minister, and published in a number of hymnals in the last half of the 19th century, it was nearly forgotten from hymnody in the early part of the 20th century. But for its inclusion in a couple of Adventist hymnals, we might not know it today. Revived by Quakers and Pete Seeger in the 1950s and 1960s, it began to re-enter the hymnals of many churches through the rest of the 20th century, and continues to hold a distinctive space in multiple singing traditions.
I first encountered it from a choral arrangement by one of my mentors, Ron Staheli. I liked the hymn and his arrangement, but I became immensely endeared to it after observing a dance performance to a recording of his arrangement sometime in the early 2000s. The inspired interpretation completely overwhelmed me. The choreography culminated in a solo dancer’s daring climb up a mountain created by numerous bodies, and then a blind, backwards fall into the arms of someone who seemed to appear at the last possible moment, tenderly cradling the trusting dancer as the recording sang, “All things are mine since truth I found.”
From that point forward, those images — musical and visual — have been imprinted on my mind. Nearly two decades later, I could probably still get within 10 seats of where I was sitting, watching the performance from the back corner of a 20,000-seat arena.
A few years after that, following a loss in my family, it was the only hymn that seemed to give expression to the moment. I wrote a piano arrangement, and performed it at my nephew’s funeral.
Then some years later, I decided to make my own choral arrangement that didn’t require as many voices as Ron’s, and with a piano accompaniment to support. Those who know his arrangement will hear a number of homages (if you can’t improve something, borrow it!). The piano arrangement I wrote for my nephew’s funeral has only two very subtle “quotes” in this choral setting, and you wouldn’t likely notice them if you heard the two arrangements one after the other. I took inspiration from an expression in the first verse, “I hear that music ringing,” using some bell-like effects throughout, mostly in the piano part, but also using the bright sound of the word “singing” to project a bell-like pulse in the voices as well.
If there is any choir that embodies the sentiment of “How Can I Keep From Singing,” it’s the Deer Creek Chorale organization (DCC). This is a remarkable organization of choirs with a remarkable group of music directors: Martha Banghart, Wayne Perry, and Julie Culotta. The DCC has a way of taking a straw of an idea and spinning it into gold. A multi-generational, non-auditioned community choir, their concerts (always packed) feature an adult choir with singers ranging from 18 to 80, a chamber choir, and a formidable youth choir that is expanding year after year. The organization began after Marty, its founding director, had retired from teaching, and within its first 10 years it grew from a handful of singers to being a core ensemble at a performance at Carnegie Hall, with Marty at the podium.
I’ve had the privilege to collaborate with the DCC many times. Their choirs and my choir have performed together numerous times, including co-hosting an annual choral festival, and giving an unforgettable performance of Robert S. Cohen’s profound, dynamic work, “Alzheimer’s Stories” in 2017. I’ve been a guest conductor at their rehearsals, and they have commissioned and premiered a number of pieces from me.
They are the best kind of community organization because they know how to GET. THINGS. DONE. Their secret, in my observation, is that they are truly a service-oriented organization, and they are led by a pure motive: How can we bring as many people together as possible through music? They believe music is magical, and that partnership is not merely a strategy but essential to survival. If you bring those things together, and your motives are pure…well, it really is kind of magical.
And I’ve had the chance to observe this magic happen with the DCC over and over. They constantly put themselves on the line, always ready to try something new, and willing to work together with anyone if it seems like it’s going to do some good. Organizations like this, who operate with such a clear and generous ethos, seem to attract others. And I don’t just mean singers and audiences. (Though I would recommend them to any person out there in the Maryland area who has a thought to join a new community post-pandemic!)
But there is this magnetism that leads the DCC to attract world-renowned artists from all over the country to come to a beautiful church — simple, but dignified — in northern Maryland, surrounded on every side by farmland, to work with this choir that seems to produce like a bumper crop every year. Even in the midst of a pandemic, when music organizations all over are on hiatus, or are operating with a fraction of their normal membership, the DCC has found a way to grow and thrive while adapting to virtual rehearsals and working around canceled concert dates.
And so what began as an idea to do one more virtual choir using my arrangement of “How Can I Keep From Singing” to celebrate the arrival of spring, and with a hope that we’d get, at most, a few dozen singers to join us, it should come as no surprise that the DCC has performed its magic again. More and more singers came on board, quickly surpassing the number we had hoped for, and before long it became 40, 50, 60 and beyond. That’s the DCC. They are like a bumper crop: they seem always to yield an unusually large harvest.
And I’m also thrilled that there are more collaborations ahead next year. I’ll be guest conducting the pandemic-delayed premiere of “From Mountain to Forest to River,” a four-movement work for choir, youth choir, and orchestra commissioned by the DCC. With texts by John Muir, Glen Nelson, and Christina Rossetti, the piece celebrates the beauty, enjoyment, connection, and wonder of nature. We’ll re-mount our co-hosted choral festival at Goucher College, and then cap the year joining forces yet again to perform Mozart’s Requiem.
And so, I present to you a the third of three virtual choirs we’ve done during the pandemic, performed by the Deer Creek Chorale, Deer Creek Youth Choir, and some singers from my choir at Goucher College. (And speaking of magic, my gratitude to Mark Van Nostrand for his masterful audio and video editing, and to Andrew Stewart, a gifted pianist I’ve worked with for nine years now, who possesses — to invoke Ron Staheli again — an “accompanying heart.”)
-Daniel McDavitt, Associate Professor of Music; Director, Goucher College Choirs and Orchestra