Monday, July 09, 2007

choirs, heavenly and earthly


In one section of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, a choir of women cluster next to the throne of God and sing their saintly little hearts out. What I love about these women is the intense looks of concentration on their faces: eyebrows raised, foreheads creased, and jaws dropped low enough to create double chins and neck folds. I have heard three different theories for the singers' facial expressions, each from credible sources. You decide.

1) From a musicologist: each singer represents a different pitch in a particular medieval scale, best reached by certain facial contractions.

2) From me (based on my own experience in choirs): everyone in the group – with the exception of the snooty blond in profile at the top – is singing a B. She, with all the confidence and volume of a woman certain she is right while everyone else is wrong, is singing a B FLAT. Thus the sour expressions.

3) From my son Ethan: “They look like they’re all suffering from either constipation or diarrhea.”

I chose this painting to commemorate my unexpected encounter this weekend with one of my former identities: Julie the Choir Geek. After much arm-twisting from various friends, I agreed at the last minute to participate in a choir reunion concert at my old high school on Saturday night. My big regret was not attending all of the pre-concert rehearsals. Had I done so, perhaps I could have avoided the embarrassment of not knowing my part for a majority of the songs, but if there’s anything I learned from my years of choir participation it’s how to “fake it till you make it,” a time-honored coping skill that goes back as far as there have been choirs. (In fact, in the excavation of the music hall at Pompeii, archaeologists discovered bundles of papyrus with rows of notes followed by the Latin inscription fakatum ad facerem. I also predict that someday a musicologist will argue that even in van Eyck’s celestial choir, as determined by a careful study of the neck and mouth musculature and the lung expansions of each woman, only two of them are actually singing. The rest are mouthing the words and trying their best to look good.)

Fortunately, at the reunion concert, we sang a few old songs I knew. I could sing the alto part to the Battle Hymn of the Republic in my sleep and sometimes do. Never mind the fact that on Saturday I was singing alto in the middle of the soprano section because I wanted to stand with my friends. I tried to blend as best I could. I’m a good blender.

Looking back, I think my high school choir experience qualifies as one of the major miracles in my life. I still don’t know how I got there. I love music and sang in our church choir growing up, but I seriously don’t have a beautiful voice. And I’m not just saying that in hopes of being contradicted (like when I used to say “I’m so fat. I’m a horkin’ hippo!” all through adolescence when I was maybe 5 pounds over my ideal weight). When I say I don’t have a beautiful voice, I mean honestly I have a very average voice, no vibrato, no bright tone, no solo potential whatsoever. But I’m a good blender and once I learn the alto part, I make a decent contribution to a choir in a “hope nobody can actually HEAR me, but I’m going to sing all the right notes” kind of way, which is the only explanation I have for the fact that just before my senior year, I was selected to sing in both the A’capella choir and the elite Show and Chamber choir.

I spent the year questioning my right to be in either choir, especially Show and Chamber which was made up of the 19 best singers in the school, plus me. But I also spent the year singing gorgeous music and performing in front of crowds and making some of the best friends of my life. These were true friends who never once made me feel like I didn’t belong. Friends who could stack eight Oreos in their mouths (okay, so that was just Rick, but we all aspired to his greatness). Friends who never tired of telling me I in no way resembled a horkin’ hippo, despite my protests to the contrary. Friends whose idea of a good time was sluffing English in the back office of the choir room where we engaged in daily group naps relaxation therapy. Friends with whom I listened to the soundtrack of Chess so many times we had it completely memorized. Friends who recreated said soundtrack, complete with Russian and British accents where appropriate, at the top of our lungs in the halls, in the parking lot, and in the booths at Hamburger World, without the slightest hint of shame. Friends who bonded so closely in that year that several ended up married to each other (6 out of 20 actually). Friends who still get emotional when we talk about Danny, a member of our choir who died riding his motorcycle to his college graduation ceremony. Friends who sang with such beauty that on Saturday, when we got to a certain line in "Go ye now in peace" – a song we sang together at the end of every concert – I had to mouth the words, not because I didn't know that part but because I was so touched by the memories...

Know that the God who sent his son
to die that we might live
will never leave you lost and alone
in his beloved world

Somehow– call it luck, call it a fluke, call it an act of God (and I choose to think the latter)– I sure won the choir lottery and the friend lottery at the same time. I’m not sure how it happened but 20 years later I’m still grateful.

13 comments:

bubandpie said...

It was the salmon mousse!

Heffalump said...

I don't have a solo voice either. I like to say I have a choir voice. I can blend, and I can help support a part (preferably alto), but I can't sing a solo to save my life (well...to save my life, but no one else would like it much).

compulsive writer said...

My oldest spent two years floundering in high school because he didn't have a niche. Or any real solid friends. He won both lotteries too when he made chamber singers for his junior year. It has changed his life in such a significant way I almost can't talk about it. So your post really resonated with me.

Dedee said...

I love singing. Choir is so much fun. Un fortunately, in high school, I opted out of choir and went for orchestra instead. Oh wait, I can't really use the word unfortunately there because I had the time of my life in orchestra. (I was concert master, after all.) I've never really regretted that decision, but I do love to sing. Go girl!

Luisa Perkins said...

So lovely.

I was also an alto in high school choir. My most vivid memory is of our long, yellow Gunne Sax choir dresses.

But I suppose you are too young for that image to resonate.

An Ordinary Mom said...

Taking voice lessons is still something on my to do list. I enjoy singing in choirs, but I, too, don't have that solo voice.

What fun memories! Thanks for sharing them. Playing high school volleyball is what brings back lots of amazing memories for me.

Luisa Perkins said...

This seems an appropriate time to make you an official Rockin' Girl; I gave you the award today on my blog.

Shalee said...

Oh, I know what you mean by this post. I have such fond memories from choir (and my friends), though I'm sure there were a great many better singers in it. But there's something about singing that makes me feel alive.

Imagine my surprise when I, who had sang 1st and 2nd alto throughout HS, went to college as a music major and was told I was a 1st soprano. Now there's a range...

I know fake it til you make it very well, as well as mouthing "watermelon" where needed.

Glad you went. Those good memories are still going strong for you.

Annette Lyon said...

What a surge of HS choir memories this brought up--it sounds so much like my senior year. Love the reference to Hamburger World (I loved that place!). For my group of choir friends, it was Training Table after every choir permformance--and always cheese fries and lemonade, often with one of our drama friends ordering in one of her spot-on accents. (My favorite: Russian.) Oh, if only we still had the metabolisms we had then . . .

Scribbit said...

One of my pervasive nightmares involves me standing in front of a group and performing a solo. That's why I took piano lessons all those years--to have an instrument to hide behind.

And those faces? Not only unattractive, very similar. Why are they all the same? VanEyk was so talented surely he could have painted features with some variety? Or am I missing something?

Ann Kroeker said...

You do such a great job getting me thinking about art...looking at it closely and considering various elements and possible explanations.

Your choir experience seems like one of those turns in life that set you on a path that provided unexpected gifts of all kinds--friends, music, beauty, memories, laughter, joy.

This was a wonderful glimpse into your history--another tile of the rich mosaic you offer of yourself here at Mental Tesserae.

Jenna said...

Thank you so much for this reflective post. It stirred fond choir memories, and made me want to sing some more! You are so eloquent!

Anne Bradshaw said...

Hilarious post. Love the painting theories--AND the quirky crack about being Mental Tesserae.

My theory for the work of art, is that it really IS all the same person going through the motions. That would be singing motions, not the kind inspired by Ethan :-)