One of my favorite things about August, along with the State Fair, yellowing corn- and beanfields beginning to dry before harvest, shorter days and cooler nights, is choir practice. It’s like a little foretaste of the feasts to come, as we progress — at least musically — through the last weeks of Pentecost to autumn, Reformation Sunday, All Saint’s, Christ the King, Advent and Christmastide.
So color me nostalgic as summer turns into fall.
Technically the new church year doesn’t begin until the Sunday after St. Andrew’s Day (Nov. 30), but to me it begins in September with choir rehearsals, the Rally Day potluck, Sunday School and — not coincidentally — the end of summer vacation and the beginning of fall semester.
Which means our first choir practice last week was also a lingering reminder of the beginning of a new school year. When I sang with the choir at my two-year Catholic liberal arts college, we’d get the music right away for our end-of-semester Advent and Christmas program. So it was still hot and sticky outside, real August weather for downstate Illinois, but we were working up arrangements of numbers like “Oh come, all ye faithful” and “Good Christian men, rejoice,” and it felt to me like a time of new beginnings.
Anyway, the choir at Peace Lutheran started back last Wednesday, and it was as full of promise as the first day of fall semester.
One of the hymns we went over is called “Build Us Up, Lord,” a new one we’re singing Sept. 8 for “God’s Work. Our Hands” Sunday, a day of community service billed as “an opportunity to celebrate who we are as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – one church, freed in Christ to serve and love our neighbor.” (I have a favorite T-shirt with that slogan on it.) The hymn’s by Mark Glaeser and Donna Hanna of Christ Lutheran Church in Charlotte, N.C. It’s in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, our new ELCA hymnal (No. 670), and Glaeser told the editors of the ELW Hymnal Companion they wrote it for a capital campaign to “raise funds for ministry and outreach.” It’s new to us, and the rhythm is tricky — especially, perhaps, for Lutherans up north in the Midwest — so we started going over it well ahead of time.
What makes it tricky is this — the tune has got a definite gospel swing to it, and I suspect Glaeser and Hanna managed to write the music so white folks would have no alternative but to syncopate it, to come down on the upbeat. “The rests in the melody,” says the Musicians Guide to ELW, “are critical to the rhythm of this gospel-like tune.”
You bet they are. Like Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” And the rests give “Build Us Up” that swing. Here’s how:
The Digital Songs and Hymns website at https://digitalsongsandhymns.com/songs/9586 has notation for the first phrase of the hymn:
Build us up, Lord, build us up;
set in us a strong foundation.
To follow along, CLICK HERE to open another window. You’ll notice the song is in 3/4 time (the signature isn’t marked, but each measure has three beats). But the first measure begins with a quarter rest, so you rest a beat and sing “build us …” on the two quarter notes in the first measure, and “… up” on the first note of the second measure. It’s an eighth-note, but it gets the emphasis because it falls on the downbeat.
So it goes like this — “build us UP …” — and to quote Duke Ellington a little out of context, it’s got that swing.
Likewise, there’s a pause after “build us up.” It’s written with two eighth-rests, which may look confusing if you’re self-taught at reading music (like I am) … but it has to be written that way to make the measure come out right. And “… Lord” gets a beat and a half — written as an eighth-note tied to a quarter-note — so the whole phrase, “Build us UP (pause), Lord” comes out right.
And, what’s most important, it’s got that swing.