Since so many of you are just dying to know what it’s like to sing in my lovely li’l choir (and by “so many of you”, I mean precisely one little cousin), I thought I might give you a bit of a rundown of what it’s like behind the scenes at the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. I like to think of myself as the Amish representation in this extremely diverse choir. Sometimes I think of my Amish grandmother, and how agog and aghast she would have been at my veldtlich singing on this earth, but how I bet she’s kind of proud of me now, looking down from Heaven with an untainted perspective. The thought makes me smile.
Disclaimer: these views are not intended to represent the choir’s views and opinions as a whole, only my one little redneck perspective.
So, what does your average Sunday look like?
I get to church anywhere from 8:30-8:45 AM, clock in and stow my items in a locker behind the stage, and choose a seat. The seats are not assigned aside from the first few rows, but since humans are like cows which like the same stall day after day, I usually find myself on the same row, beside the same people. We hug each other and chat about our weeks as the seats slowly fill up, both on the stage and in the auditorium. At 9-ish we stand to our feet and begin a few rousing praise and worship songs, usually led by our talented band leader. (side note: when I grow up, I want to play keyboard like Bradley. The pastor will sometimes start a song out of the blue in any random key, and within a few seconds, the band has picked up the key and is playing along as if they planned it all along. Having played keyboard in church myself a number of years, I am exceedingly impressed at this skill.)
The singing is usually done in several parts. First we have the praise and worship time, in which we sing some crowd-friendly songs from the darkened risers. The crowd stands and claps and sings heartily along, which I love. Brooklyn Tab worship music is very focused on being easy to sing along with, which is one of the most important things in church music for me. What’s the point of only a show which the crowd can’t engage with at a church service? After the praise and worship time there’s a little break where everyone greets each other, and then come the choir songs. We usually sing 3 or so of our more difficult pieces, such as the songs you may have heard on the albums. If the crowd knows them, they sing along, and sometimes they can’t stay seated if there’s a particularly rousing one, such as Now I’m On My Way. (Wait till about 3:43 minutes in. Such a fun song to sing.)
After our choir songs, we are seated in the risers for the remainder of the 9:00 service, and listen to the sermon from that angle. The 11:00 service is much the same, except we exit after the choir songs and head upstairs where we are fed a veritable feast every Sunday. My favorite meal in the rotation is the one with huge pans of plantains and fish- all we can eat… drool. After eating, we head back downstairs, sing one more time at the 1:00 service, and then we are done for the day.
It’s a long day of singing, but I seldom feel totally done when it’s time to leave. It’s just that much fun.
Do you sing every single week?
Whenever I’m present, yes. You can travel if you need to, or take a sick day, but you gotta ask off like you would from your job. Besides, why would I want to miss any?!
The choir does take a Sunday or two off over April when the stage is rearranged for the big Easter show, and is off the month of December as well. On those Sundays the singers (a smaller group, made up of the more skilled ones/soloists, who also do most of the traveling) do the music.
Do you have rehearsals every week?
We are required to be free every Wednesday evening except for a summer and Christmas break. Sometimes we have rehearsal, sometimes not. I’d say probably about 3 weeks per month we do. This is actually my favorite part of the whole process. We gather in the auditorium and have a chance to chat with each other without the eyes of the crowds on us. There are so many lovely people to get to know, and such a variety of countries and walks of life are represented!
We often have a little worship session, and maybe a short devotional. Then a few singers stand on the stage and sing the new songs to us. They’ll sing a part, we’ll sing it back, and so we learn it through rote memorization. We have the lyrics given to us, but never any music. Once we more or less know the songs, we’ll file up to our seats in the risers and sing them once more, where they record them so we can listen to them and drill them into our heads before Sunday.
We don’t necessarily sing the rehearsed songs the next Sunday though, so you never know quite what’s coming. Part of the fun, yeah?
Are all three services the same?
Nope! Usually we sing most of the same songs, but sometimes we do quite different ones at the different services. I can only recall perhaps a couple of Sundays where we did exactly the same music at all three.
The 11:00 service is my favorite to sing at, because we’re warmed up from the previous one, we’re awake, and lunch is coming. haha. But if you’re visiting, here’s what you should consider: you won’t have to stand in line if you come for the 9:00 AM service, but there will likely be more seats available at the 1:00 PM service. Also, if there’s a guest speaker, they usually speak at the last service, so if you particularly want to hear Pastor Cymbala, maybe come earlier.
Do you still have to pinch yourself to believe you get to do this?
I totally still have trouble believing my good fortune. I mean, I really, honest to goodness, never thought I’d actually get to do this, and yet, here we are. And God is just like, “Well, you sure underestimate me. Maybe next time you’ll estimate me.”
Sometimes when we sing a particularly glorious song, I get chills, and I can’t imagine Heaven to be much better. And I have a good imagination! When I became a member at the church, I had to stand right in the front facing the stage and the choir sang a song right into my face. My goodness, I hope you get to experience the force of that sometime too.
What is your favorite BT song?
Obviously I can’t pick just one! But lately I’ve been playing Pleasing on repeat; it just hits all the right spots. And for a particularly celestial feeling, I lovelovelove Revelation 19:1. The choir has been singing that one for years, and expects to sing it till we go home to sing it in Heaven. There’s also a peppy one I love about “When the Bottom Falls Out”, but I couldn’t locate a recording of it yet, so you’ll just have to come hear it live.
Do you feel nervous in front of such a large crowd?
Oddly, not really anymore. I’m not sure why this is, unless it’s that I feel fairly invisible tucked into the fifth row in the dark. I felt more intimidated on my little stage in NC, where there was only the keyboard between me and the congregation, and everyone could certainly hear all my mistakes.
And Aunt Iva, if you’re wondering, my hansamony (my German spelling is very bad) totally loves watching the congregation from such a good vantage point. There are certain ones I usually spot every week, and some of them even stay for multiple services. Dedication!
Do you ever have “off” Sundays?
Does any church worship team in the world not have some Sundays where things just don’t quite go right? Yes, sometimes we stumble over parts, sometimes the sound glitches, and sometimes we miss cues. I find it rather comforting, to be quite honest. It’s nice to have joined this kind-of-famous choir and find it full of regular people with imperfect voices, just like anyone else. We at the Cleveland church in North Carolina aren’t the only ones who mess up our music; isn’t that nice?
That being said, I’ve really enjoyed being part of such an established group with 40+ years of experience, where I’m just a nobody who shows up and sings, and I don’t have to lead anything. I’ve learned so much from their expertise already.
Do you pretend Carol Cymbala is your grandma?
Shhh, don’t tell her. But yes, I totally do. I didn’t really know any of my grandparents that well and they’ve all been gone for years now. Besides, Carol is one of the loveliest and warmest people you’ve ever met; who wouldn’t want her for a grandma?
What’s been the hardest part for you?
When I first started, I had such trouble keeping up with the swaying, clapping off beat, and singing songs I barely knew. I was like, I can maaaybe do two out of the three, but I can’t keep up with everything at once! Pretty sure I was born without the least bit of rhythm (thank you, stolid German background), at least compared to what I see here, and singing choral music may have stretched my voice but it didn’t teach me much about swaying and clapping. But it’s slowly coming to me and now I can usually keep up, although there’s still the occasional song that throws me for a loop. Just this Sunday we sang one I had never done yet, and had never rehearsed. That’s when you just fervently mouth the words and hope you don’t squeak in the wrong places.
I think it was my very first Sunday on stage that we sang The Man, which has this great staccato part at the end, where if you make a mistake, you can’t hide it at all. I don’t think I had ever even heard the song before, and there I was on stage, trying with all my might to keep up and not make a sound at the wrong place. My nice seatmate tapped me on the back each time we were supposed to sing, and so I managed to at least move my mouth at most of the right spots. Still, I recently watched the webcast of my earliest Sunday, and boy, I sure can tell I feel more comfortable now.
Not going to lie, I was kind of happy when the latest group who just joined the choir also got The Man on one of their first Sundays. Chuckle. Everyone who joins gets to go through that awkward part, and at least now we have a confidence monitor with the lyrics, which I hear is a fairly new luxury.
What’s been the best part?
Being in a place with such a freedom to worship has been amazing for me. I’ve never felt more uninhibited praising God in my life. That really must be what Heaven feels like, right?
Also, the community has been lovely, and such a nice break from my solitary life after first moving here. I now have good local friends whom I can drag along to events with me and who tell me their stories and listen to my drama and pray for me, and it’s the best.
Do I have to come to New York City to hear you?
The whole choir generally does about one trip per year, such as our Kentucky trip in 2019. The singers travel more often, and they’re totally worth hearing if they come to your area. I went to hear them in Charlotte a couple years ago and absolutely loved it, never dreaming of what the near future would hold for me.
If you really want to splurge, the whole choir is doing a cruise to Bermuda over Labor Day, 2020; come if you like! Just click the link for more details- Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir Cruise.
So that’s a wrap. Tell me if have any questions, and if you ever come to a service, I’d love to say hi, okay?