By Rowena Coetsee - Contra Costa Times
Don't let a tin ear keep you from Donald Schell's class. "Everybody can sing," says the Episcopalian priest, who holds workshops around the country and beyond demonstrating how music not only can bring people together but even change them. "Every natural voice is different and naturally, they're all beautiful."
As president of a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to "congregational music-making," Schell will help lead a workshop in Brentwood next week introducing people of all faiths to a nontraditional form of worship.
All Saints Company to date has held 18 of these events from Houston and Chicago to Ottawa, Canada, during which Schell leads participants in a variety of songs, mostly without instrumental backup.
"The music happens not on the page but in the sharing of it and the making of it together. It's about people," said Schell, who might use only one or two pieces of sheet music during a workshop just so participants can compare the two experiences.
The activity differs from what goes on during traditional worship services, where congregations either stare straight ahead at lyrics projected on a large screen as they sing or look down at hymnals and sheet music, Schell said.
His approach encourages people to look at each other, he said, which is important because it creates the possibility of two strangers acknowledging one another's humanity -- if only for a fleeting moment -- in a world that is largely impersonal.
Singing offers a natural way for eye contact to occur because it's an important form of human expression, Schell said, noting that mothers the world over sing to their babies.
Instruments are the exception rather than the rule during his singalongs; the absence of this distraction makes it easier for the group to apply its collective creativity to a work, perhaps weaving in a harmony or adding different rhythms, Schell said.
He uses a variety of music, drawing not only on works that All Saints Company commissioned composers to write, but summer camp songs, sea shanties and those that prisoners on chain gangs used to chant as they toiled away.
"We'll be singing a lot," Schell said.
He also teaches some participants how to lead the rest of the group in song.
Although the workshops are based on some esoteric principles, Schell's overarching goal is simple.
"I really, really want them to enjoy it ... to have them say, 'I haven't enjoyed singing this much with a group of people for a long time,' " he said.