The Universal Notebook: Upon hearing sacred music

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There is very little music in my life these days.

When I was younger my life had a soundtrack supplied by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Tom Rush and Dave Van Ronk, later Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and Tom Petty.

Now the ancient CD player in the corner skips and gathers dust and the car radio is tuned exclusively to the bad news. I turn off public radio as soon as I hear the first strains of classical music.

When the girls were home, I’d overhear Phish riffs, Green Day anthems and the upbeat sarcasm of the Violent Femmes. I even went to Phish and Green Day concerts. But these days the only live music I hear is sacred music.

John Updike once said (or wrote, I know not where) that he went to church on Sundays for the rare opportunity to stand up and sing with his neighbors. I know what he means. I can’t carry a tune, but I sing much too loudly in church, especially chesty songs like “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and anything with a rousing Alleluia chorus.

Church music and choir directors are the saints of the musical world, laboring as they do in relative anonymity on the local level. At First Parish Congregational Church in Yarmouth we have been blessed with two of the best. Nancy Wines-DeWan, who I first knew as a fiber artist, is the music director and organist. Sitting high, front and center at the keyboard of the great pipe organ, she orchestrates our spiritual life. I admire and envy her talent. Music is an extension of her being. It just seems to flow from her. Her whole family is musical. Mine isn’t.

Folks wrestle with when and whether it is appropriate to applaud in church, but there are times when spontaneous applause simply erupts at the end of worship service, especially when Nancy and our moderator Peter Haynes perform an organ-piano duet. Their music just lifts you up out of your seat and makes you want to clap your hands and cheer. I’m sure God approves.

Our choir is small but powerful, a dozen or 15 voices strong. Under the choir director, John Coons, they take on ambitious arrangements of sacred, classical, gospel and world music, leading us in songs of praise and celebration. John is an extraordinary young man. He has been a student at the University of Southern Maine the entire time he has been directing the choir. Possessed of a glorious tenor voice, he is equally at home singing hymns, opera or show tunes.

John’s solos in church are often the high points of worship for me, magical moments that fill the sanctuary with otherworldly sound. Unfortunately for us, John is about to move on. It’s difficult to make one’s way in the world as a musician, but I see a stellar career ahead for him, whether as performer, arranger or music director.

To honor John Coons for his years of music ministry at First Parish, the choir is taking a trip to Quebec in May, both to sing and to sightsee. To raise money for the trip, there are three performances coming up – April 23, May 1, and May 16. Check the First Parish website ( under Upcoming Events for details. These concerts may be the last time to hear John Coons sing before he hits the big time.

Bravo, John!

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The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.

Editor of The Forecaster; prior reporting/editing gigs at Automotive Age magazine, Daily News of Los Angeles, Biddeford Journal Tribune; Syracuse U. Orange-bleeder; lifelong NY Yankees fan, longtime resident of Red Sox Nation.