I was raised in a small Christian tradition that was very conservative on a number of questions, and one of those was worship. Like Christians in the first centuries, that tradition still worships with no instruments. Instead, it is straight a cappella hymn singing.
And though I’ve learned to love the rich Anglican musical heritage, some days I still miss a good four-part gospel number.
Growing up in Grand Haven, I sang in my first choir at Peach Plains Elementary School, under the direction of the incomparable Shirley Lemon. I still remember the excitement of getting the solo in “Be Our Guest,” and even coming up with a little dance number I did while I sang.
Yes, as you might guess, I was not remarkably popular or cool as a child. But Shirley encouraged me like she has countless other students over her three decades of teaching.
I loved choir in middle school, under the direction of Cheryl Gallas, too, as I began to learn more of the mechanics of singing well. But it was when I entered high school that I truly began to immerse myself in music.
Our first few concerts in choral that first year were not very good. We thought they were all right, but I remember so very clearly near the end of my senior year that was not the case.
I was in chamber choir by then and we had just taken the choral prize of first in the state. Of course, this was largely the same group of kids that had begun in choral only three years prior. Shirley played us the recording from that first choral performance and we were all stunned — not only by how clearly sub-par our performance had been, but by how far she had brought us as singers.
She did more than teach us to sing; she taught us to make music.
When I left high school, I began college as a music major. I wanted to be like Shirley. I wanted to learn the techniques and tools to help teenagers learn to love music and to sing well. I wanted to instill in young minds the same seemingly impossibly high standards she had so that I could watch them reach those standards.
Shirley invited us to shoot for the moon — and, as the quote on her wall says, remarkably enough we often did land among the stars.
During that first year of college, I eventually was drawn back to my first love: ordained ministry in the church. I eventually moved into the Episcopal Church only to discover that so much of what Shirley had taught me about music could be realized in the glorious chorale traditions of the church. This year, I even started my own small parish ensemble, one named after St. Benedict, devoted to the singing of the offices of the church.
You may not know this, but Shirley is retiring this year. And, as she exits her office at Grand Haven High School, she will leave tremendous shoes to fill. Talk to anyone who knew Shirley when the program there began and you will be amazed at what it has been transformed into: consistently one of the highest-rated choral programs in the state, even in the country.
A small group of people are planning an event to celebrate Shirley. We’re calling it “An Evening with Shirley.” Everyone who has sung in her choirs is invited to join her professional peers for one large alumni choir. That group will perform, once more under Shirley’s direction, for one night only: at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 25.
The concert will be at the Frauenthal in Muskegon and tickets are available online. Information on the concert, including how you can register for the choir, is online at lemonretirementcelebration.com.
I am forever changed by the years I spent being taught, mentored and encouraged by Shirley. I am proud to be among the alumni of her students and I will be there on May 25, dressed in my best and standing up straight, singing my heart out under her direction.
Because the truth that is inscribed on the GHHS Choir Plaque hanging next to the door of my office still rings true — “Music is fundamental: one of the great sources of life, health, strength and happiness.”
— By the Rev. Jared C. Cramer, who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. His reflections on life and ministry can be found at carewiththecure.blogspot.com.