Posts Tagged 'choir'

High School Singing

In middle school, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of college. I wasn’t wild about school, and wasn’t looking forward to another four years of school after high school, especially if I had to take math. But I was beginning to think that if my parents and teachers insisted I go to college, I would study music. In my immaturity and blissful ignorance of reality, I figured that after college, I could then audition for a paid singing position in some prestigious choir that travels the world. There’s that subconscious longing for the restoration again. I longed for something more than the boring day jobs the adults around me talked about and thought that a unique and prestigious life was what I longed for.

But then I found out that if I wanted to really pursue a music career, I would need to learn to read music. All of my life, I had been learning choir songs by ear. I would just sit and listen to the rest of the choir sight-read a new song the first few times and then gradually join in. If I had trouble deciphering the words to a song, either because the song was in a foreign language, or the words were old English words I wasn’t used to, or the words were stretched out over many notes making them difficult to decipher when sung, my mom would read the words from the print music to me and I would transcribe them into braille. If practice CDs were available, I would take one home to review. The school choirs never had practice CDs, but the Milwaukee Children’s Choir often did, as does the choir I sing in today. I wish all choirs put together practice CDs because even for sighted people who can read music, they are helpful. Of course, nowadays, it is so easy to find another choir singing any song on iTunes or Youtube. There is a braille music code, and in eighth grade when I expressed interest in a music career, my vision teacher gave me a little introduction into it. A couple months later, I ordered a braille music tutorial from National Braille Press with the intention of teaching myself. But it was so complicated with many different symbols to denote every detail of a note—like whether it was a quarter note, half note, eighth note or sixteenth note, and the dynamic of the note (loud or soft)—that I quickly became overwhelmed. And even if I persevered and mastered this code, I couldn’t see how it would be practical in a real choir setting. When choir directors introduce a new song, they start by having the choir sight-read it, meaning that the choir has never seen that piece of music before but just reads it and muddles through the best they can the first time. I couldn’t see how I would be able to keep up with the choir when sight-reading it, so I would need to get the music ahead of time, study it at my own pace and maybe plunk out the notes on the piano, which I could have done if I really wanted to. But learning by ear the way I always had seemed so much more efficient and so I still learn my choir music by ear today.

As a side note, while sheet music is useful for learning a new piece of music, I wish that memorizing the music before concert time was a requirement in all choirs. In elementary school and middle school when the songs were relatively simple, memorization was required, but in high school when we started singing more challenging music, both my school choir and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir directors started allowing the choir to bring concert folders onstage so they could refer to their music. The choir I sing with now also brings their music onstage. I will confess that I don’t always practice what I preach myself. In fact in our most recent choir concert this past May 5, I referred to the words of two german pieces we sang that night because letters are pronounced differently in German and when I tried to sing from memory during rehearsal, I forgot the words and feared goofing up royally if I tried to sing from memory at the concert. But when I don’t refer to my “music” I find that I enjoy the concert experience more. For my fellow sighted choir members, singing a concert using music is a carefully choreographed art that the choir director has to discuss with the choir at every dress rehearsal before a concert. They must find that balance between looking at their music enough to help them, but not so much that they aren’t watching the choir director and thus miss important cues. They must also practice quiet page turning, and make sure they are still engaging with the audience, not just burying their faces in their music. With all these logistics they have to focus on at every concert, sometimes, I fear that my choir mates are nervous and view the concert as something to survive without any major blunders, and thus cannot truly enjoy the experience of engaging with the audience, or letting the beautiful words and melodies of each song transport them.

In high school, music theory, which meant practicing drawing notes on a musical staff and sight-reading took on a larger role in choral classes. I was delighted when the director of the Cantorei Choir created a Cantorei Chamber choir for older students which I was able to join my junior year of high school. But for this choir, the director gave everyone music theory workbooks and time was set aside in most rehearsals to do exercises out of this book. The high school choir director gave music theory assignments as well. Fortunately both choir directors were fine with the fact that I did not read music and let me sit these exercises out, but I kind of felt bad for my sighted choir members as I felt it took something that was supposed to be a joyful pursuit and turned it into drudgery. So in high school, I began to have second thoughts about majoring in music when I got to college. Then, in my sophomore year, I visited the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee which had a special event for prospective college students with disabilities. After a general large group meeting, we had the opportunity to split up and go to presentations about admission requirements for programs we might be interested in, so my vision teacher took me to the presentation for the music program. During this presentation, when the director outlined the requirements for submitting a portfolio with samples of work in areas that included musical theory and performance, I decided I did not want to major in music after all. I had this fear that the stress of trying to assemble such a portfolio, and just the drudgery of four years of music theory and performing recitals for a grade would burn me out to the point that I would lose my passion for music. I was all for challenging myself and learning new music, and I absolutely still wanted to sing with people who took music seriously and wouldn’t goof off and be disruptive, but ultimately I just wanted to sing for the joy of singing and keep that child-like flame of true passion for music alive. I ended up studying journalism, something I enjoy, but in a different way, and I am not as emotionally attached to it as I am to singing.

Unlike middle school, music was not a requirement in high school. I think only one semester of fine arts was required in high school, and students who had no interest in music could fulfill this requirement with things like art, photography, or woodworking. For this reason, although there was still disruptive behavior on occasion, it didn’t reach the level that it did in middle school because everyone who chose to join the choir had at least some passion for singing and was thus willing to take rehearsals seriously. Freshman year, all girls who wanted to be in choir started in a choir solely for freshmen girls. At the time, I was a little miffed that I couldn’t go right to the big leagues when after all, I had already sang with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and been to Italy, but I ended up really enjoying this choir. Because the choir just comprised freshmen women, it was a smaller choir, only around thirty of us, which meant that the director could give us one-on-one attention. I thought we sounded like a children’s choir at the beginning of the year, but over the course of that year, the director worked with us a lot on having a fuller, more mature sound. Now I realize this choir was a good idea as women’s voices change at this age and it was a great way to get used to singing in the high school setting. At the end of freshman year, we could audition for Chamber Choir, the most advanced choir which was open to both men and women sophomore, junior and senior year. If we were not accepted into Chamber Choir, we could still sing in Concert Choir, an excellent choir that just sang less challenging music. I auditioned for Chamber Choir at the end of freshman year and to my delight, I was accepted!

Chamber choir rehearsed the last hour of the school day which at first I thought would be wonderful. After a hard day of academic classes, I would end the day with singing. But the demands of my other classes kept me up late every night, and some semesters I did not have a study hall to work out math or technology challenges, so I had to have a working lunch in the library or the office where my teacher’s aid produced class materials for me. So by the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted. I also had a lot of headaches at that time of my life. Usually they were not severe enough that I had to stay home, but they were just those relentless nagging headaches that sap you of all ambition. Looking back I realize this was probably the beginning of my body’s intolerance to gluten. The headaches increased in frequency and severity over the years until I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease shortly after college graduation. Anyway, this combination of factors made it very difficult to maintain a positive attitude when we had to tediously drill notes day after day, and were stopped constantly by the choir director to correct a stylistic mistake or wrong note. To add insult to injury, instead of sitting in rows of chairs to drill notes, and standing intermittently to sing, this director had us stand on rows of risers pretty much the entire rehearsal, so by the end of class, my feet hurt. This was probably a good thing though because if we had had chairs, I am sure I would have fallen asleep. My energy level was usually much improved by evening when I would often recline on the couch intending to watch a television program but would end up falling asleep. I had Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals once a week, and even when I had to go back to school for the occasional evening rehearsal before a couple big concerts, my energy level and attitude were much improved. I was scared and sad when during my junior year, the choir director noticed this negativity, especially when I started leaving a little bit too early to catch the bus. How had I come so far from that little kid with such passion for singing? To my high school choir director if you ever find this blog: I want you to know I am sorry for my negative attitude back then. I still hate the process of drilling notes (who doesn’t?). But I am still singing in choir today because when the drilling is done and a beautiful concert comes together, the child within me comes alive again.

One particularly difficult rehearsal when the director got the sense that the whole class had a negative attitude about all the drilling and nagging about stylistic mistakes, the director said that although it seemed like she was being mean, she was being tough on us because she loved us and wanted us to be the best we could be, and in the long run, we wouldn’t really want a choir director that didn’t push us when she sensed we could do better. That’s when I really understood the importance of teachers setting high expectations. The teacher who settles for “good enough” in the moment may seem kinder, but it is the teacher who pushes you to be better who really cares about her students. Perhaps to drive this point home, this choir director required us to attend a choral concert at another high school in the area each semester and write a paper critiquing their concert. Most of the schools I went to also had excellent music programs. I still thought our choir was the best, but I was a bit biased. But a couple schools left me feeling sad because I got the sense from the song selection and the kind of mistakes that were made that these programs did not set high expectations for their students, and I actually felt kind of sorry for these students who weren’t getting the incredible rewarding experience of singing challenging music.

This hard work yielded wonderful opportunities. My sophomore and senior years, all the school choirs participated in a choral competition: sophomore year the competition was held in San Diego, and senior year it was in Williamsburg, Virginia. We swept both of these competitions, and got a nice vacation from school as well. Sophomore year, all of the choirs also had the opportunity to perform a holiday concert with the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra. I was so excited for my peers to have the amazing experience of hearing songs come alive in a whole new way with a full orchestra as I had already gotten to experience with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. I loved getting this experience again too as that kind of magic never gets old. My junior year, just the Chamber Choir was invited to sing in a choral festival at Saint Olaf College. Our choir was the first to perform and every time I listen to the CD from that festival, I still feel amazed and blessed that I had the opportunity to be part of a choir that sounded so amazing. There were also a few songs that all of the choirs in attendance at the festival sang together. Since there were around a thousand of us in all, we could not all fit onto a stage, so we sat in rows of folding chairs in a gymnasium while individual choirs performed onstage, and then stood up for the combined songs. This was the most amazing and truly joyful rendition of Joy to the World that I have ever or probably will ever sing this side of the restoration. Since we were spread out instead of crammed onto a small stage, our sound filled the room. It felt like a big happy church service, except unlike church where a lot of people are too shy to sing, everyone in that room was a choir singer, and we sang loud and joyful. It really was heavenly!

My sophomore year, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir was invited to sing a Christmas piece in Carnegie Hall. The piece was called the Christmas Sweet, and it was so much fun to sing. When I first heard a recording of this piece, I was enchanted because it sounded so “New York during the holiday season” even though at that time, I had never been to New York, during the holidays or otherwise. But when an adult soloist accompanied by a soft orchestra in the background sang “when the frost starts to glisten, and the nights flush with cold, and the streets shimmer gold, it’s Christmas,” I was transported by this song. From that first movement, through movements about shepherds in the field, to a movement about children playing in the snow, and even a silly movement in which we simply sang the words Merry Christmas to different melodies, this choral work was magical from the first note to the last, capturing the essence of everything that makes Christmas so special. The last concert I ever sang with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir was the holiday pops concert my senior year. I actually didn’t know this would be my last concert with this choir, at the time, but second semester, there were several extra school rehearsals to prepare for the competition in Williamsburg which conflicted with Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals. But looking back, I couldn’t have asked for a more magical last memory of my children’s choir days. Part of the reason I think it was so magical was that I could truly enjoy it as school was going smoothly and for once I understood the math concept we were studying so homework didn’t take me quite so long. At the same time, I had just come through a really difficult math unit and singing a joyful concert was just the breath of fresh air I needed. But I also loved it because Bill Conti, the guest conductor of this concert selected the most amazing set of songs that captured the childhood magic of Christmas. The Cantorei Chamber Choir started the concert with Candles in the Window from Home Alone the words of which are beautiful by themselves, but come alive even more accompanied by the full orchestra, especially the beautiful silky tones of the violin. Then we collaborated with the adults of the Symphony Chorus and sang all the Christmas favorites including Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sleigh Ride and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, complete with instrumental sound effects for the horses and toys from the orchestra. For my last concert with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, and my second-to-last concert as a minor—I turned eighteen the following March—I could not have asked for a more magical farewell to childhood. But the beautiful thing about music is that unlike athletic pursuits which can only be enjoyed in youth, choir is a passion that I can enjoy my whole life. In the next post, I will talk about my college choir experience and the choir I sing in now.

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Taking My Passion to the Next Level

Fifth grade was a tough year academically for me, but when it came to my chorus experience, I would have loved to stay in fifth grade forever. But I was optimistic about the transition to middle school because in sixth grade, choir was a class, not an extracurricular activity which I thought would give it more legitimacy. In sixth grade, music was a required part of the curriculum, but students could choose to meet this requirement with band, orchestra, choir, or general music. Of course, I chose choir. What I hadn’t anticipated in my young mind however was that choir would attract students looking for something more interesting than general music, and perceived choir as an “easy” class. The choir teacher was planning to retire after my sixth grade year, and I think our class re-enforced this decision. Some students were so disruptive and made choir rehearsals so chaotic that she lost her cool a couple times and shouted at the top of her lungs “Stop talking.” Maybe this wasn’t the most professional approach to the situation, but I cannot blame her for this reaction because if I were her, I might have reacted the same way. Just as I am sure classmates who took sports seriously and loved gym class must have hated having me on their team because I am not the slightest bit athletic, I was the athlete of choir and longed to be with people who took singing more seriously. My dream actually came true temporarily that year the Wednesday after Labor Day when the teacher announced an event called Singing in Wisconsin where serious singers from all over the metro area would rehearse a set of songs, and then we would meet on a Saturday morning that November at Carroll College, rehearse the songs together all day and then give a performance that evening. I signed up for this opportunity right away. The small group of us interested in this event rehearsed these special songs after school, so while I still had to put up with my disruptive peers during the regular class, these rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school were so peaceful and productive that they became the highlight of my week. I don’t remember all of the songs we performed that day, but I do remember this was the first time I ever sang For the Beauty of the Earth, a song I would sing a lot in the years to come and which is still one of my favorites for its simple beauty and inspiring message.

On that Saturday at Carroll College, all of the groups represented were introduced and I heard them announce the Waukesha Children’s Choir. I perked up when I heard this choir announced, not because I knew anything about them but because that was what planted the idea in my mind of how exciting it would be to sing in a choir not affiliated with school, a choir for serious singers, just like my brother’s club volleyball team. Shortly thereafter, I expressed this to the choir teacher who suggested auditioning for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, as it was bigger and would give me all sorts of exciting opportunities, including the chance to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. So on a Monday night in August before my seventh grade year, Dad took me to an office downtown where I auditioned for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir.

Although it was called an audition, I remember the director saying that no one is rejected. After all, if you didn’t care for singing, why would you audition for this kind of choir in the first place? The purpose of the audition was more about the director evaluating our voice and vocal range to determine what part we would sing. Because it was my first year with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, I was accepted into the Concert choir, which was the middle ground between the choir for really young children, and the advanced Cantorei Choir, or as the director said once when reminding us of proper posture for standing on the risers which included not fidgeting or scratching itches nervously, “you are in between the scratchers and the statures.” At first I was embarrassed because at the first rehearsal when we went around introducing ourselves, I realized I was the oldest one there, with most students being in the fourth and fifth grade, and a few students as young as third grade. But I quickly came to realize that unlike school where everything is so segregated, age difference really didn’t matter in this choir and I quickly made friends.

But despite being a choir for younger children, the director was not soft on us. I will never forget the first rehearsal when the director was teaching us the choir scale “do re mi fa so la ti do.” She wanted us to sing the scale and do hand motions to go along with it, but of course I couldn’t see the hand motions. So I practiced the advocacy my teachers always encouraged at school and raised my hand to ask the choir director to show me the hand motions I was supposed to be doing, to which she responded “that’s your homework.” I think this shocked me into silence the rest of rehearsal. That year, the choir rehearsed at a church downtown and that first year, Mom sat quietly in the back during rehearsals. This was partly due to the fact that it didn’t make sense for her to go home since rehearsals were only an hour and a half once a week. But she also just wanted to be available in case I needed anything, especially if I needed the restroom, which by evening I often did due to the medication I had to take at the time. So Mom heard this exchange between me and the choir director, and in the car on the way home, she explained that in the public school setting I was accustomed to, the teachers had to accommodate me, but in a private organization like this choir, they did not have to. This didn’t mean I couldn’t be in this choir. It just meant that I would need to handle things more on my own. So Mom showed me how to do the hand motions that week, and while my teacher’s aid would transcribe the words of the songs for the school choir into braille for me, Mom read the words of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir songs to me and I transcribed them into braille myself. At the second rehearsal, the choir director asked me a question about something we were singing and in this way caught me dozing off as I was not used to evening activities yet. But after that, I found my footing and Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals became the highlight of my week.

Disruptive behavior was extremely rare in this choir because everyone in it was serious about singing and wanted to be there. On the rare occasion someone did get carried away and misbehave, the director would march over to where they were sitting and reprimand them sternly. Even when no one was misbehaving, this director had a stern demeanor, and I remember one Saturday when Mom had to work and Dad took me to a special rehearsal, I heard him tell Mom later he couldn’t believe how stern she was with us because compared to the Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops my parents used to chaperone, cthese choir students were angels! This director actually was a lot of fun. You could tell she loved working with young people and as the year progressed, she seemed less stern to me. Maybe it was because I liked this sternness and had gotten used to it as it was refreshing compared to the chaos that often defined school rehearsals. (The Milwaukee Children’s Choir had a policy that if your school had a choral program, you were expected to participate in it as well because we could be valuable assets to the choir with the advanced training we were getting, and because they didn’t want us to develop a snobby attitude and think of ourselves as being too good for our school choir.) But I also think this director was intentionally more stern than usual at the beginning of the year to scare off any singers who weren’t going to take singing seriously, and to establish high expectations.

I didn’t get to sing a full-fledged concert with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra that year. That opportunity was reserved for the “statures.” But I did get to sing with the symphony for an educational program they put on for second graders all over the metro area. I actually remembered going to this program when I was in second grade, so it was exciting to come full-circle, knowing that quite possibly, there were future choir members sitting in that audience just as I had been five years earlier.

The following year I auditioned for and was accepted into the Cantorei choir, and this is where my passion for singing blossomed the most. The director of this choir worked for a music publishing company and thus was nationally renowned. My aunt who was a music teacher in Indiana at the time knew of her. I loved how this director made us feele grownup by giving us fancy leather folders for our music, and when it was time for rehearsals to begin, all she had to do was raise her hand and hum the C above Middle C and the room would snap to attention. Many singing dreams were realized that year, including the opportunity to perform with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. That holiday season, we collaborated with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the adult Symphony Chorus to perform Hansel and Gretel, and the Holiday Pops concert which was conducted by Doc Severinsen. In the summer following that year, I went to Italy with this choir where we had the privilege of singing at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I was always appreciative of the sacrifices my parents made for me to have these opportunities. In addition to driving me to the many rehearsals these opportunities required, I remember Mom picking up a lot of over-time shifts so that we could go to Italy. I tried to convince her to let me go by myself so she would only have to pay for one person, as traveling abroad was never a draw for her anyway. But she didn’t feel comfortable sending me alone given my special medical situation, and she wanted me to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But it wasn’t until I was older that I found out how expensive the tuition was for each semester in this choir, and now that I am more aware of how much poverty and inequality there is right in my metro area, I have a deeper awareness of how blessed I was to have these opportunities.

The church we rehearsed in that year is still my all-time favorite rehearsal site as well. It was an old Lutheran church that had that old wood smell that I love. But what was most interesting about this site was that on the wood floor of the room where we rehearsed was a painted labyrinth. At one time I knew what the labyrinth signified, but now I forget. Anyway to protect this labyrinth, the church leadership did not want anyone wearing shoes in this room, so before rehearsal, we all took off our shoes in an entry-way on the lower level before climbing a flight of stairs to the rehearsal room. I don’t know if I ever mentioned this in past posts, but I love being barefoot. The first thing I have always done when returning home from school or work is take off my shoes, and I switch to sandals as soon as the snow melts, and wear them until the first snowflakes in fall. I would wear them in the snow too if Mom allowed me to. If I were a prairie girl living in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s time, I would not have liked the bugs coming right into the house through windows with no screens, but I would have loved being barefoot all the time! I just feel so much lighter and freer without shoes, or when I can at least wear shoes that let my toes breathe. Now that I am in an adult choir where most of the other singers are senior citizens, we are seated the entire time on a typical rehearsal night, only standing for long periods of time at the dress rehearsal before a concert, and for the performance itself. But in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, the director had us standing a lot, and I honestly think my feet hurt less after rehearsal that year than in the years that followed. But more importantly, I loved this rehearsal site because I think the room had a high ceiling because our sound echoed beautifully in this room, so I essentially got to sing in a cathedral once a week that year.

This choir also made my eighth grade year an amazing year from a social perspective as well. In elementary school, there were a few bullies in the before-school daycare I had to go to a few mornings a week from third grade through fifth grade, but overall, I had a lot of friends. In fact, since I was the only blind student in the whole school at the time, I sort of had celebrity status with even students in other grades asking me questions about being blind, and sometimes if I was walking somewhere by myself and another class was processing down the hall on their way to gym, art or music, the whole class would say hi as they walked by. I didn’t know what to make of this celebrity treatment at the time but looking back now, the teachers must have found it adorable and maybe even kind of funny. In these years, I never had a problem finding a partner when we had group assignments. But in middle school when puberty strikes, it was as if a switch flipped. I still had a couple of close friends, but mostly I was ignored. Teachers would have to assign students to work with me for group projects, and I could go whole days in a kind of silent bubble, walking from class to class quietly minding my own business but not speaking to a single peer all day. One of my close friends was in the school choir with me, and we both helped each other. She was new to the area, and because cliques were already well-established by seventh grade, I got the impression she felt ignored to, so we provided mutual companionship and moral support. She was also extremely helpful with logistical things like getting me to my spot on the risers at concert time which was a huge relief for me because the choir director was new to teaching and was not helping me as much as past choir directors had. So I have good memories of school choir in middle school too. But eighth grade in Cantorei choir was like stepping into another world. Once a week, I got to be with “my people!” I felt like a rockstar again surrounded by a happy group of friends at breaktime, and when we would take bus trips, I wasn’t the only one singing on the bus anymore! Even the boys were more mature in Cantorei choir. There was one boy in particular whom I especially enjoyed spending time with. We never officially declared ourselves a couple, maybe because we were both mature beyond our years and didn’t go for the silliness associated with this declaration. But he always came to talk to me at break times and if there was a special event, we would often sit together at lunch or on the bus and talk about religion, politics and music. Life took us in different directions and I haven’t kept in touch with him, but the time I spent talking to him in this choir was the closest I ever felt to having a boyfriend.

Perhaps because this director was nationally renowned for her work publishing music for children, I loved most of the songs she selected for us to sing. Perhaps because she came from Texas, her taste for gospel music was especially amazing. There was one song especially, Music Down in My Soul composed by Moses Hogan that was a favorite of the choir, and on concert days when this song was in the program, we raised the roof and got audiences hollering with joy. Rehearsing this song and others similar to it also filled me with joy that carried me through the week even if school was tough. My parents never had to worry about me turning to drugs or alcohol for happiness, because who needs drugs or alcohol when you can be high on song, floating down the hall between classes singing “Love in my heart! Oh yes I’ve got peace in my soul! Oh yes I’ve got joy in my heart! Joy today!” I even started a new tradition with this song. One rehearsal shortly before the spring concert when we were going to perform this song, I remember singing it and thinking that adding clapping into the refrain would be the icing on the cake of this amazing song. But this wasn’t part of the music, and there is an unwritten rule all serious choral singers know. That rule is that you don’t dare do anything to upset a choir director when concert day is near. I love and respect choir directors, but they are as a rule perfectionistic, especially the last week or two before a concert, and therefore, their fuses are very short. I feared incurring the wrath of the choir director more than I feared God. But a week after the concert, there was a final send-off rehearsal where the choir director would recognize the students who were aging out, and also give us a chance to sing the songs one more time, just for fun. This I decided would be a safe time to clap. So when we got to the refrain, I started clapping to the beat, and then a couple friends around me started clapping, then a few more, and before long, the whole choir of 100 or so singers was clapping! At first I was a little embarrassed when I asked and a friend confirmed that I had indeed instigated this, but that embarrassment didn’t last long as we were all having a blast. The choir director must have loved it too because the following year when we sang this song, the director told us we could clap for part of the refrain when the piano stops playing.

I would continue to sing in this choir my freshman year of high school as well, but unfortunately some of my best friends, including my almost boyfriend aged out of the choir as they were a year older than me, and the director quipped at the time that she did not want to teach students old enough to drive themselves to rehearsal. In addition, my freshman year, the choir rehearsals moved to a newly built Youth Art Center which most saw as a better rehearsal site, but I missed the acoustics of this old church, and the chance to rehearse barefoot. But I still had friends in the choir, and the director was still amazing so I had a blast my freshman year too.

Well I thought I could talk about my childhood choral experience in two posts, but I had so much to say that this post is already long and I haven’t even gotten to my high school experiences. So I will need another post or two. I think I ended my previous post with the director of the fifth grade chorus saying “I hope this is just the beginning for you.” I think it hit me when singing in Saint Peter’s Basilica that this teacher’s hope for me had been realized. Three years earlier, singing for parents in the school gym was a big stage, and now here I was singing in the most famous and beautiful church in the world. And I was still young, with many more opportunities and years of singing ahead of me.

The Beginning of My Passion for Singing

This past Saturday, I sang in my final choir concert of the season. It was a wonderful concert with a diverse set of music that included a couple songs in latin, German and French, but the theme of the concert was Girls Night Out because all of the songs were written by female composers. After this concert, it occurred to me that while I have briefly mentioned my love of singing in posts about other topics, considering how passionate I am about this art form, I have not given it the attention it deserves on this blog. So for this post, I want to share how my passion for singing began, and then in the next post, I will talk about the joys and challenges of choir as I got older.

My mom told me that before I could even talk, I was singing. She recalls listening to a Christmas album when I was about a year and a half, and she noticed that when the singer sang “Walkin’ in a winter wonderland,” I was “singing” too. “Webah wabah webah wabah woo!” I sang emphatically. I didn’t understand the words yet, but I knew the melody. That was just the beginning of what would become a lifelong passion. Right from kindergarten, music class was my favorite class. My first concert of sorts was a kindergarten Christmas program. The theme was “Christmas in the Forest.” Unfortunately I don’t remember much about the concert itself because I feel like I was coming down with a bad cold that day. But I remember we were all asked to bring teddie bears that we held for one of the songs, and the rehearsals leading up to the concert were an absolute blast! The one song that has stuck in my memory from that concert that I still laugh about today was “we fish you a hairy chris-moose and a hippo new year.” One of my many favorite Christmas songs today is a song from the country music band Alabama called Thistlehair the Christmas Bear because it reminds me of those kindergarten Christmas songs from a time of magic and innocence.

Outside of music class, I was singing all the time: on the bus to and from school, walking down the hall at school, and around the house. But at that time, my dream was to sing in the school chorus. Unfortunately, while band and orchestra were open to third, fourth and fifth graders, the chorus was only open to fifth graders. That was when I first realized the truth of that adage that life is not fair! Twice a year, once just before Christmas, and again toward the end of May, the whole school would assemble in the gym for a concert. I remember sitting in the bleachers thinking how loud and obnoxious the band pieces were, and during the orchestra pieces, I would get bored and the teacher’s aid who worked with me would have to reprimand me for fidgeting. Since then, I have come to appreciate the fun nature of band pieces, and the beauty of orchestral pieces. But when the chorus came onstage, I was thrilled and mesmerized. To hear so many kids singing and sometimes clapping in unison sounded like heaven on earth, and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to join this party onstage. Fifth grade seemed like an eternity away, but at last that wonderful year arrived and when the music teacher asked who wanted permission slips to join the chorus, my hand was the first to shoot up. I received this permission slip on a Friday and while most other permission slips would not have been signed until Sunday night, if I even remembered to give them to Mom or Dad then, I remember handing the permission slip to Mom Friday night, and I made sure to turn it in Monday.

In my elementary school, the chorus was considered an extracurricular activity, so rehearsals took place Tuesdays and Thursdays during the second half of lunch in lieu of recess. This was both a blessing and a curse for me. It was a blessing because I was one of those rare kids that hated recess. If I could have spent recess doing a craft or playing a board game with a friend indoors, or even reading in a quiet corner outside, I would have enjoyed recess. But because teachers said I needed exercise, I was forced to go down slides, climb jungle gyms and play stupid running games with shrieking classmates during this supposedly free time. So with chorus, I finally had a valid excuse to get out of recess, and unlike first and second grade when there were two other recess times during the day, and third and fourth grade when there was an afternoon recess, lunch recess was the only one in fifth grade! But it was a curse because I am a slow eater. When I was younger, the classroom teacher and aid made a deal with me that if I could get outside for at least five minutes of the 20 minute lunch recess for a certain number of days—I think it might have been two weeks, I could have an afternoon recess indoors doing a quieter activity with a like-minded friend. But now that chorus, not recess was at stake in fifth grade, I had to learn to eat faster. It was rough at first. I was late to rehearsal the first few times, and a lot of food probably got wasted, but I wasn’t going to let my slow eating stand in the way of my dream of singing in the chorus.

Singing in this chorus was everything I had dreamed it would be. I don’t recall there being any disruptive behavior during chorus rehearsals like there often was during music class, perhaps since recess had to be sacrificed to sing in the chorus, a sacrifice which not every fifth grader was willing to make, only students who really wanted to sing as much as me participated in the chorus and because they wanted to be there, they behaved well. And that first experience singing in front of the whole school and then again for parents later that evening was magical and I still remember smiling ear-to-ear the entire time. That first concert, we sang a song about how children all over the world say hello, My Christmas Tree from the movie Home Alone, and everyone’s favorite, The Everlasting Fruit Cake. For this song, I think there was a special set brought onto the stage and a fake fruit cake. At the end of the song, the principal who loved to be silly and have fun, rang a doorbell and pretended to be a delivery man delivering the fruit cake again, to which we all pretended to groan “not again!” The audience loved this performance, and so did we. A couple weeks later, we got to sing our pieces at a local mall to get shoppers in the Christmas spirit, and the way I anticipated and talked about this trip for weeks, you would have thought I was going to Carnegie Hall. In the spring, we sang a song about Albert Einstein that involved choreography and snapping your fingers, the classic Oldie Doo Wah Diddy Diddy and I had a solo in the song “Colors of the Wind, which is still one of my favorite Disney songs. “The rainstorm and the river are my brothers. The heron and the otter are my friends. And we are all connected to each other, in a circle, in a hoop that never ends.”

The aid that saw me light up when the chorus came onstage worked with me from first grade through fourth grade, but in fifth grade, she was assigned to a younger student. But I got to see her after the concert and she told me she had tears in her eyes when she saw me onstage with the chorus because she remembered how much I longed for that opportunity all those years. The chorus director didn’t spend a lot of one-on-one time with me, but she was a sweet person with a natural passion for working with kids, and she saw my passion too and I will never forget when she said “I hope this chorus is just the beginning for you.”

It was just the beginning for me. I would sing all my years in school and be blessed with many unforgettable opportunities which I will talk about in the next post. I am involved in an adult choir now and hope to sing all my life. Although the music is more challenging now, and sometimes after a long day the last thing I want to do is attend a grueling rehearsal, deep down, I still have the same passion for choir that I had as a child all those years ago, a passion that comes alive again every time I take the stage as I did last Saturday and experience a slice of heaven on earth once again.

A Different Kind of Joy

It is no secret that I love Christmas. I think I have blogged about it before, but I have noticed that this year, what brings me this joy is different.

     I used to think this joy came from the magical poems and stories like The Polar Express and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. But as I have grown in to my adult self, I still smile when I hear these stories, but they don’t enchant me as they once did.

     I used to think it came from the baking. I still smile as I lick chocolate remnants from bowls and eat our special cookies, and still plan to this year, but this year, the idea of baking no longer consumes me with joy to the point where I can hardly sleep or concentrate on anything else during the month of December, which baking once did.

     I used to think my unusual joy came from the Christmas songs on the radio, but just this year, it seems as though most of the songs are stupid, and the overplaying of songs like Santa Baby epitomizes everything wrong with Christmas in America.

     I admit I am still a little enchanted by the Christmas tree. The family tradition is to go to a Christmas tree farm each year soon after Thanksgiving and cut down a real fir tree! Frankly, the spectacular enormity and complexity of so many branches, and the heavenly aroma of fresh pine leaves me baffled as to why so many people settle for unfolding an artificial tree from the attic. I am the only child still living with my parents, and the only one who still enjoys bringing home the Christmas tree, but as I saw my parents struggling to figure out how to hold the tree, carry it to the car and tie it to the roof, feats of strength for which I am not equipped, for the first time this year, I felt a little guilty.

     It’s kind of fun to open presents on Christmas morning, and I appreciate everything I am given, but since I am too old for toys now and learned long ago that there isn’t a Santa Claus, it no longer enchants me and keeps me up all night Christmas Eve. Besides, the commercialism which I never paid attention to as a kid is pathetic to me now.

     I love when the whole family comes home and we spend the afternoon playing board games, but two of my siblings live far away and could only make it home for Thanksgiving this year, and the one who lives locally usually doesn’t come until dinner time. I will still enjoy playing board games with Mom, and possibly Dad if we can talk him in to it, but with the house being so quiet in recent years, it just isn’t the same.

     I apologize if I am bringing you down on this most wonderful time of the year. I admit I am mildly depressed and not in the holiday spirit that I usually am. Part of it could be due to some stressful medical situations in my family which have us all a little worried. In addition, the scarcity of jobs, and a total absence of passion for the job postings I have seen has been discouraging. But this same discouragement has caused me to think about my life from a more spiritual, not just economic perspective (more on that in my next post). But maybe this pull to think more spiritually is why there is still one aspect of Christmas that enchants me: in fact it enchants me on a deeper level than the commercialism that I thought was so magical as a child. Actually, it is not a Christmas tradition, but a beautiful choir memory. Just thinking about it melts all depression and anxiety away.

     I know I haven’t written much about my passion for singing in this blog. I don’t know why. I guess maybe in college I was just so busy that it was easier to write about Gilbert and college life than find the inspiration to describe my passion for singing with the beauty it deserves. But now with no responsibilities, I am ready to try.

     I started singing in choir as a fifth grader in a school chorus that rehearsed during the lunch recess, and sang every year through high school. In seventh grade I also joined a community choir, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. Unfortunately in college, my classes were so demanding I burned out and couldn’t motivate myself to join choir every semester, but I sang with the college choir two semesters and performed with a really cool women’s barbershop chorus one semester.

     All of these choirs have given me beautiful memories to associate with all seasons of the year, but Christmas, a season defined by music brings an abundance of special memories, especially in high school.

     My sophomore year of high school, my community choir had the opportunity to sing a piece called the Christmas Sweet, arranged by Mark Brymer in Carnegie Hall. The whole trip was magical; the excuse to get out of school; the chance to experience New York City, the largest city in America that is romanticized in so many television shows and movies; and of course the chance to sing in Carnegie Hall, the dream of every musician. But singing that piece was the most spectacular moment of all. It was beautiful when we rehearsed it with only the piano for accompaniment, but when we sang this piece with a professional orchestra, it was stunning! The orchestra brought the piece to life as we sang about everything that makes Christmas beautiful. In the first movement when the beautiful voice of an adult soloist sings “When the frost starts to glisten / And the nights blush with cold / And the streets shimmer gold / It’s Christmas” and the orchestra accompaniment is soft and light, I could just imagine that beautiful image, despite having no memory of being able to see. When the children (who were as young as ten and as old as 17) came in, I was transported in my mind to a cozy livingroom and imagined a child looking out the window and seeing the images we sang of with awe and wonder. In the third movement called Rejoice, the soloist sings “Rise up shepherds and follow,” and when a soft drum accompaniment that sounded both excited and urgent follows this solo and then us children sing “Follow! Follow! Rejoice! oh Israel!” I remember thinking how perfectly this song depicted the excitement and sense of urgency that was probably felt by the shepherds two thousand years ago. In the fifth movement, Snow, I remember being transported to childhood days of playing in the snow. It began with the orchestra mimicking blowing and drifting. Then the younger children sang “snow, snow!” soft and slow as if they had just woken up and looked out the window to see the first real snow of the season. Then different parts of the choir shouted back and forth “SNOW! SNOW! SNOW!” mimicking that child we all remember who can barely contain themselves as they are so excited to go out and play in the snow. Then there is fast joyous singing and accompaniment as the kids play in the snow. But just like in real life, the end of the piece is soft, as the children are sleepy and glad to be back in their cozy home. “All the world is safe tonight / underneath this quilt of white…Look around and know, the wonder of snow.”

     It is easier to write about the wonder of snow than the wonder of music because the beauty of a melody  or the spectacular harmony of voices and instruments is beyond words. To fully appreciate the beauty of this piece, you will have to find a recording, but take my word for it that it was absolutely enchanting! I wasn’t able to get a recording of our actual performance, but I have an old recording the choir produced before I had even joined, and every year since then, hearing it would enchant me anew as it would bring back the memory of what an incredible experience singing it onstage with a spectacular professional orchestra in front of us was. But this year for some reason, while I smiled at some of my favorite parts of the piece mentioned above, it didn’t enchant me to the point that I had to stop what I was doing, stand transfixed by the stereo as the magic came flooding back to me, which it used to.

     Two years later, the fall semester of my senior year of high school, school was rough for me. I was in the process of applying for college the next year, and meanwhile, to prepare me for college, the aide that worked with me wanted me to be better at thinking for myself and being independent, so she raised my expectations and I wasn’t doing a very good job of meeting them. On top of that, Math concepts covered around Thanksgiving were so hard for me to grasp that it took me hours every night to get my homework done, so I had to take a leave of absence from Present Music, an annual concert featuring unusual pieces from modern composers which the choir participated in at that time, which required extra rehearsals. But to my relief, things lightened up just in time for the holiday pops concert with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which that year was conducted by award-winning screen composer Bill Conti.

     I had the privilege of performing with Doc Severinsen four years earlier, but unfortunately, I couldn’t fully relax and enjoy it because I had been sick most of that week and had to miss school, and thus I dreaded the mountain of make-up work that awaited me when I got home from the concert. But if that holiday pops concert was marred, the joy of this concert four years later was double! It was absolutely enchanting!

     For one thing, instead of traditional risers, this venue uses bleachers onstage so that singers can sit during instrumental pieces. But the Children’s Choir was supposed to climb up to the back rows of bleachers and my choir director agreed with my mother that I had no business climbing up bleachers, so I got to stand in the front row with the adult choir! I loved this choir, and the director accepted high schoolers, but it did skew young, so what a thrill it was to be surrounded by power-packed full-grown voices! In addition, there were a couple songs where the children’s choir had limited parts. For example, in The Twelve Days of Christmas, the children’s choir was only supposed to sing “and a partridge in a pear tree”, but I wanted to sing with the adults around me so bad, and figured it would look silly if one person wasn’t singing with everyone else around her, so I quickly learned the adult parts of that song, and all the versus of Jingle Bells! Oh what fun it was indeed!

     And just like in the Christmas Sweet, the stunning accompaniment of this community’s outstanding professional orchestra transported me and reminded me of the childhood magic of Christmas. I will especially cherish the children’s choir solo piece Candles in the Window. Played on piano I never noticed this, but a professional orchestra can play notes with such emotions that when combined with the words, especially “all of the music, all of the magic, all of the family home here with me,” it was all I could do to keep my composure and sing. It was so beautiful and magical it was all I could do not to cry. And the sound effects for Santa Claus is Coming to Town were so awesome it was all I could do not to jump for joy like I did as a child on Christmas morning!

     I don’t know if it was the fact that I was sitting with the adult choir, or even the knowledge that this would be my last holiday concert of my legal childhood, or just the fact that school had been so stressful lately that I was starving for joy. But I am not sure I had ever smiled so big for so long before or since. I savored every moment and would have loved that experience to last forever.

     I’m sure the other singers were smiling too. How could you not? But when we were in a room backstage between songs, while the other kids moved on, talked about unrelated things or played cards, much of that time I was in a trance-like state. When I did manage to speak, it was to tell anyone who would listen how much I would love to join the Symphony Chorus next year (forget college choirs) and have this joy every Christmas for the rest of my life!

     I was not able to get a recording of this performance. Part of me now wishes I would have had the nerve to break the number one theater rule, you know that announcement made before any professional performance that “recording equipment of any kind is prohibited.” My choir uniform had deep pockets, and I had a really small tape recorder I used for student newspaper interviews. Just kidding. As a musician, I understand why this rule is in place. If everyone recorded performances, and a few people pirated them, musicians might no longer have jobs. Why pay to see future holiday pops concerts if past ones are readily available online? But sometimes, I think memories are even more beautiful without a recording to spark them.

     The announcement that Mom had bought two tickets for this year’s holiday pops concert conducted by Doc Severinsen was all that was needed to bring these magical memories back to life. But while the concert was beautiful and Doc Severinsen was an exceptional trumpeter and entertainer, the concert just didn’t live up to my memories of 2007. To be fair, there could be many explanations for this. For one thing, the children’s choir wasn’t in the concert this year, and perhaps for that reason, none of the songs that so enchanted me were in the repertoire. It was beautiful, and I can understand the reasoning behind changing it up every year, but I am a traditionalist and was surprised and disappointed that I didn’t hear the cute orchestra arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas, Candles in the Window or Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. For another, being in the audience is a lot different than being onstage because in the audience, you are far removed from the orchestra, so it is possible that had I been onstage, this year’s songs would have enchanted me, and if the old songs were played, they would not have been as powerful as they were onstage. Or it could simply be the fact that since I was so stressed by school back in 2007 and was starving for joy, the emotions of that concert were magnified beyond normal. But either way, by the next morning, my mild depression and lack of holiday spirit had returned.

     But the one memory that has cut through my blues this year started out as a much simpler affair than the grandeur of a symphony orchestra. It was November 2006, my junior year of high school.

     At the beginning of the year, the choir director told us we would be going to Minnesota to sing with the Saint Olaf College in their annual choral festival, along with a few other high schools from Minnesota. I was excited because the Saint Olaf choir came to our area the year before for a concert and their choir is fabulous and their director well-renowned in the choral world. But as we rehearsed the songs, I didn’t have the degree of eager anticipation that I had the year before singing the Christmas Sweet because the only accompaniment for these songs was going to be piano, which is of course a beautiful instrument but not as magical as a full orchestra. And as we rehearsed our songs, especially Joy to the World, the finale of the festival that would combine all of the choirs (which I would find out on the day of the festival meant a total of over 1,000 singers), I just wasn’t feeling the Christmas spirit of that song. It could have been because even by choir standards, we were rehearsing Christmas songs unusually early, or it could have been the fact that drilling notes, even for students who love choir is tedious. Since choir was the last hour of the day and I had a very full schedule that semester, I was usually already spent before choir even started. But in retrospect, I think the biggest reason for my lack of spirit was that I honestly had no idea how joyful Joy to the World could be.

     Our church sang it every Christmas, and it was a pretty enough simple carol, but in church, it just never really moved me. It could have been that at my church, the organ player played really loud and drowned out the congregation singing, but also as with any church, a lot of people don’t know all the words to the songs and still more are shy about singing, so even though the church easily had over 1,000 people in the pews (and aisles on Christmas Eve), the carol always seemed a little lackluster. Somehow, it just never registered with me that I wasn’t in the company of shy church parishioners anymore. I was at a choral festival with over a thousand people who loved to sing, rehearsed the words well and weren’t shy at all. It didn’t register that is, until the first chord “joy!” rang out. It was loud and confident and joyous beyond words! Because our group was too large to fit on a stage, we sat in rows of folding chairs in a gymnasium, which almost made it feel like I was sitting in a church congregation. When a small choir sings onstage, the sound is still wonderful but because the choir is much smaller, and the traditional arrangement is to be crammed on to small risers, the sound is more crammed too. But in a church congregation kind of arrangement with a thousand singers spread over a whole gym, there is sound everywhere, as if the whole world were singing! Oh was it heavenly!

     In fact, a year later, my grandfather passed away and at his funeral, a cousin who I don’t see very often sat next to me and we started talking. One thing led to another and I think I told her about my involvement with choir. That’s when inexplicably, that finale of the Saint Olaf festival flashed in my mind. Many accounts of heaven I had heard talked about a choir of angels, and it occurred to me that if true, it was possible that at that moment, my grandfather was singing songs with the same joyful sentiments as Joy to the World with a choir of potentially billions. If an earthly choir of a thousand people in a gym can fill me to bursting with joy, imagine a heavenly choir of billions of souls, free of earthly distractions and self-consciousness! I am kind of a stoic person. I was sad when both my grandfathers died, but I just am not the type to cry openly at funerals. But the beauty of that image that flashed through my mind almost made me tear up.

     Of course, our worldly life has a way of distracting us, and as I plunged back in to the school routine, I forgot about this image. But around Christmas when my mom finds the recording I was able to purchase of this festival, that image comes back to fill me to bursting with joy again and makes me want to live a holy life so I might join a heavenly choir one day too.

     As with the Christmas Sweet and the Bill Conti holiday pops concert, that finale left me in a joyous trance as I got on the bus to return home, but unlike the other concerts, this memory has yet to lose its luster, and something tells me it never will.

     The summer before I started high school, my mom and I went to Rome with my children’s choir, and of course when we weren’t performing or eating delicious Italian food, we were touring all of the famous Roman landmarks, especially the Vatican. It was in the Vatican that I remember my mom commenting to another mom something to the effect of, “all this marble and artwork is beautiful, but it’s a far cry from a little baby in a manger in Bethlehem isn’t it?” Maybe it is the same feeling with me and music. The thought of singing with an orchestra in front of me is still beautiful. But a lot of what we were singing related to the commercial elements of Christmas. Add to that the fact that the orchestra instruments are man-made and very expensive– (I once was told in a talk given by members of this orchestra that one violin costs a million dollars)–and I also realize that performing with an orchestra is in its way a far cry from the sentiments of a baby in a manger.

     As I mentioned earlier in this long post, the lack of jobs in general, and the absence of any passion for jobs I have seen has caused me to think more spiritually about my life. I know so many people who are in jobs they don’t like, but stay with them because “they pay well.” Having money to buy fancy toys may bring you happiness for awhile, but eventually the novelty of a new toy will wear off. I know it will because the man-made joys of cookies and toys were beautiful for awhile, but the novelty wore off as I matured. But the simple beauty of a whole bunch of people in a gym making full use of their God-given musical instruments, their voices, and singing a song that epitomizes the true meaning of Christmas which is Christ’s birth, that is the one element of Christmas joy that remains as magical as ever.

     I know that every moment of life is not meant to be bursting with joy, but I cannot help wonder if the fact that this song continues to overwhelm me with joy all these years later is a symbolic sign from the spirit that a prestigious title or great paycheck in a man-made corporation whose only goal is profit might be exciting for awhile. But like a simple song in a simple setting, it is the simple life with a career devoted to a higher purpose that will foster a life that is joyful overall because joyful moments created by God never fade.