April 16, 2015
What the Church Can Learn About Voice and Agency from a PopUp Chorus
by Erin S. Lane
It was a cold night, a Monday night, when we arrived at the bar. People clumped around the room like penguins in puffy jackets. There were old people and young people. Men people and women people. A few dark people but mostly pale people. Largely, we appeared a happy people with only one real purpose: to sing.
This was PopUp Chorus, a weekly gathering where strangers and neighbors came together to rehearse and perform two pop songs over the course of two hours. Its tag line “Auditions? Never!” reminded me of the church’s more staid “Come as You Are.” Both promised a space where I could offer my voice free of fear. It was how the community sing delivered on that promise that struck me that blistery night. Its leaders went beyond just accepting our voices and instead created the conditions for us to practice real agency.
The rehearsal started with Seamus, a middle school music teacher by day and PopUp ringleader by night, calling the braying room to attention; Seamus was expert at providing enough instruction for us to go on and trusting we would speak up if lost. When it was time to sing the chorus to our first song, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” he called out, “Now the ladies will sing ‘Where I am,’ and the guys start in on ‘You seem so …” He had hardly finished his instruction when out of the risers a woman’s voice cried, “Misogyny!” The room unfolded in surprised laughter. “Listen, you can sing whatever part you want,” Seamus said. “I just need the higher-pitched voices to come in first.” What could have devolved into a tense test of wills instead was quickly addressed with both reason and flexibility. I considered the brouhaha that would erupt if I yelled something similar on a Sunday morning.
When we had gone from noodling around to knowing our parts, it was time to perform our first song for the camera; later the footage would be posted online. The organizers had created a space where the performance didn’t have to be perfect, but the stakes were high. We knew that we’d look sillier on film not singing with exaggerated angst or not jiggling our bodies along than we would giving it our all. In fact, it was because everyone was giving his or her all that we wanted to do the same; there were no navel-gazing eyes here. Whether the film ever made it online or not, what we did in this room mattered outside of this room. Our pop liturgy was truly a “public work.”
We ended the night performing our second song, the delirium-inducing “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift. The whole night had been perfectly orchestrated between times of structured learning and playful improvisation. Seamus was relentless in keeping us on track, but once we had learned the notes he gave us freedom to put our own spin on it. Even the lyrics were up for grabs. “Who has an idea for this spoken word part?” he yelled, and another young woman shot her arm up in the air, her friends yelling wildly. When it was finally time to sing “Shake It Off” for the camera, Seamus offered us one last direction, “Now at the end of the song, I want you all to lose it.” The room roared. The message was clear. You know enough now to stop imitating the leader and start acting like yourself.
I left the bar that night face flushed, feet tired and voice hoarse with agency. Here my voice was more than just welcomed; it was called out. Public spaces with purpose like the PopUp Chorus, like the church, are rare gifts in a culture of do-it-yourself community. When given clear direction, high stakes and the reasoning behind it all, those of us longing to belong are able to let down our guard and find the courage to act.
Erin S. Lane is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe and coeditor of the anthology Talking Taboo. Confirmed Catholic, raised charismatic and married to a Methodist, she facilitates retreats for clergy and congregational leaders through the Center for Courage & Renewal. You can find more of her writing at www.holyhellions.com.