By Darryl Tippens
One might suppose that a Christmas concert in Abilene, Texas, would be a very different thing from what one experiences in London; but for me, the experiences are similar. Last Christmas my wife Anne and I traveled to London to attend a Christmas concert in Royal Albert Hall. But it was more than a concert; it was also a rousing carol sing-along with thousands of voices joined together.
Royal Albert Hall is one of the great performance venues of the world. At Christmas each year it becomes this astonishing location for some of the greatest Christmas music imaginable—with full orchestra and renown vocalists. Yet the performance is punctuated with moments when the conductor turns to the audience and invites everyone to join in the singing. The English dearly love their Christmas carols. There’s nothing quite like joining in with all these 5,000 hearty souls to sing “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World.”
Anne and I love the experience of singing carols in Royal Albert Hall. We have done this twice, and I hope we’ll manage to do it again sometime. Yet we’ve found a similar experience right here in Abilene. Every advent season, the ACU Music Department conducts its Christmas musical vespers at First Baptist Church. As in Royal Albert Hall, attendees are treated to extraordinary vocal and instrumental renditions of great Christmas music; and as at Royal Albert Hall, the house lights come up at certain intervals, and the conductor turns and leads the audience in rousing renditions of glorious songs.
What I love most about the Royal Albert Hall experience is how participatory it is. It’s not just about listening. It’s about joining in. Everyone sings. Oddly, in many churches today congregational singing is fading away. It’s dying in part because churches have chosen complex melodies people don’t know or can’t easily sing; in part because musical notation is no longer taught nor made available; and in part because the decision has been made to amplify and spotlight the voices of a few over the congregation. But singing at Royal Albert Hall and at ACU’s vespers service is different in that the people are not relegated to darkness and silence. These are concerts of the people, not just of the practiced professionals.
Last year at Royal Albert Hall the conductor did something simple at the beginning of the program. He asked everyone present, all 5,000 of us, to turn to others sitting nearby—perfect, ordinary strangers—and to tell them what wonderful voices they had. Stranger turned to stranger and complimented their beautiful singing voices! It was an odd exercise, but effective. Strangers, Brits and foreigners alike, melded into a choir of harmonious, vibrant voices. No one cared about my average, unprofessional voice. Everyone’s voice was an important part of this instant mass choir. As the shared singing washed over us all, we were transformed. Royal Albert Hall, though normally a “secular” space, became that night a sanctuary.
I wish everyone could experience Christmas carols in Royal Albert Hall, or a midnight mass at Westminster Abbey, or a Christmas day service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. But the truth is you don’t have to travel 5,000 miles to enjoy such experiences. At this time of year, they happen all over Abilene—at First Baptist, at Church of the Heavenly Rest, at First Central Presbyterian, at Highland Church of Christ and countless other places throughout the city—as churches, university choirs, orchestras, and their directors invite the people—all the people—to sing. You don’t have to go to London to experience this seasonal transformation. All you have to do is show up. And sing.
Darryl Tippens is University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University.