Being part of a greater whole
“Hallelujah Chorus” is magnificent, a soul-filling treat I’m always happy to hear this time of year. It’s the song that comes to mind when Handel’s “Messiah” is mentioned, and it deserves its fame.
But “Hallelujah Chorus,” with its exultation of the risen Christ, is about Easter. There’s a lesser-known piece of Handel’s triumph that is about Christmas, and it is my favorite. It is called “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and if you aren’t familiar with it, you may go to this link on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQWOP2YbQLg. There, you will find the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing of the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
The choir is a masterpiece of Western culture, and musical perfection. On the stage below them is an equally brilliant orchestra, and the combination of the strings below and the voices above just makes that piece soar. I’ve never seen the choir perform that song in person, but the film alone is enough to make my heart leap a little.
When I watch it this time every year, I’m struck by how large the choir is, and how there are no individual stars. There are 360 vocalists on stage, and yet none of them is more important than the rest. Each singer disappears into that vast sea of singers, contributing his or her part but nothing more. You cannot pick out any single voice.
This work of blending-in goes against the prevailing philosophy of our culture. Individualism is the way to success. We teach our children to be themselves, to leave the pack (indeed, to lead the pack), to take the road that others pass by. To stand out. To make your mark.
And that’s all valid. Wish I had a nickel for every time I told my teenagers to think for themselves, and don’t jump off the bridge just because everybody else does. We see our children as singular and special, and they are.
But there is something so enriching about being part of something bigger and better than you are. And music provides the perfect context for this. In high school, I was a not-bad saxophone player. Each year, one or two best musicians from each high school were chosen to participate in district or statewide band. We would gather at a concert hall on a Saturday and practice together all day, and give a performance at night.
With my high school band, there were times we sounded very good, and I recognized it. But to be part of this elite group was astounding. Playing my part, I could feel the rush of sound coming from behind me: the bright trumpets and the rich horns and the rumbling timpani. There, I was no standout, not the best – just one person cradled in this better sound, this bigger community.
Every child should experience that. Yes, sports are built on the idea of teamwork, but when the sixth-grade girls get on the basketball court, there is one star and everybody knows it.
A choir, or a band, is different. You don’t have to be special to make something big and important. The best things don’t always come from being the star in the spotlight. Sometimes you learn more from being the cog in the wheel. As I tell my kids, “It’s not all about you.”
That’s a hard lesson these days. But it can be a comforting lesson, this Christmas especially. Each of us is small and just a piece of the whole. We’re tiny dots on a page, just a player in a woodwind section, a singer on the risers. It is OK to disappear into the greatness and beauty around us.
There is something much bigger than we are. That’s what it means when all those 360 voices sing about the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. That’s what Christmas tells us.
Beth Dolinar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.