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How Can We Keep From Singing?

In the season finale concert of the 2021-2022 season, the last concert of my first season with Atlanta Master Chorale, we sang an arrangement of the well-loved hymn “How Can I Keep From Singing?”. This piece was beautiful and moving, but for me it kind of got overshadowed by some of the bigger, louder, and more challenging pieces on the program.

So I was really glad when the AMC YouTube channel chose “How Can I Keep From Singing?” as its recording to post a few weeks ago. Without the rest of the concert program to distract me, I was free to hear what this simple yet powerful song had to say to me. Here’s what came up.

I was raised in a small, sheltered Christian denomination, and like many who grow up in such a strict environment, I spent many years first escaping my religion and then resenting it.

So when I was first offered a job as a paid staff singer in a Presbyterian church choir, shortly after I decided to leave religion completely behind me, I was torn. I was just out of college and needed the money, but a big part of me never wanted to set foot in a church—any church—ever again.

What I ultimately realized was this: no matter how much I struggled with the religion I’d grown up in, I’d always loved its music. Even though it had no official choral tradition, singing its hymns always brought me comfort and had been a major part of my falling in love with singing in the first place.

If there was any element of religion I didn’t hate, it was the music—and no matter what, I still wanted to sing.

So I decided to take the staff singer job. And I’ll be honest, it was really uncomfortable at first. But over the next few years, something remarkable happened: the constant exposure to beautiful music written for the glory of God began to wear away at my bitterness around religion.

Gradually, I stopped feeling pressure and anxiety every time I entered a church, recited a prayer in a service, or sang a piece about Jesus. I found moments of joy and peace in singing familiar hymn tunes and learning new anthems. And I eventually gained an appreciation for the way my fellow church choir members lived their religious lives, to the point where I was able to accept kindness and support from several of them during difficult times.

I’ve now been a church staff singer for fifteen years, and I’m very comfortable in that setting. I’ve never felt the need or desire to rejoin a religion myself. But I’ve learned I don’t have to do that to be moved and healed by the music I get to sing every week—and by pieces like “How Can I Keep From Singing?” that we perform in AMC.

That music is an anchor for me the way God is an anchor for many of the church members I sing with. The line in the hymn said it best: “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging.”

Knowing that, there’s something about the title and message of this piece that holds an ironclad truth for me, and I believe for my fellow AMC members as well. We can’t not sing this music.

If you think about it, there are a dozen reasons none of us should be in AMC. We’re all incredibly busy, for one. We all work—some of us work multiple jobs. Others are in grad school or medical school. Many are parents on top of that. And some of us have hour-plus commutes just to get to rehearsal. We don’t have time for a group like this.

Plus, many of us work in music, as choir directors or music ministers or voice teachers or accompanists or paid singers, so you’d think that doing one more music thing would be too much to take. And unlike these other musical jobs, we aren’t paid to sing in AMC. So you could argue it doesn’t make financial sense, either.

But while all of those potential arguments against joining a group like this are true…none of them matter.

We’re not here because it makes logical sense to be. We’re here because we can’t not be here.

We’re here because every one of us has at least one story like the one I shared above, where singing the kind of music we sing in AMC, both sacred and secular, has inspired or healed or changed us to the point where we can’t not do it.

And we’re here because AMC is the place that allows us to sing “above the tumult and the strife” of everything else in our lives.

Since love, our love for what and how we sing here, commands both heaven and earth, we cannot keep from singing.

By James Ranson, Atlanta Master Chorale Tenor

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