When I was in college, I auditioned and joined the Official! University! Choir! Open to [accepted] faculty, staff, and students alike, it was about 300 people strong. I was thrilled to participate. It was the first part of University life I sought, suckers ready to attach.
The first rehearsal was nothing like the structured, yet joyful, choir rehearsals I had participated in during the first 17 years of my life, mostly because the joyful part was missing.
The choir director spent the first 30 minutes of the first three-hour rehearsal detailing the dire consequences of missing rehearsal (namely, getting kicked out of choir.)
Fear not, there were multiple ways to get kicked out of choir. He shared them all menacingly. He then spent another fifteen minutes talking about how his choirs are always precise, militarily almost, and that comes from discipline. Mistakes, he explained, would be corrected quickly.
I thumbed nervously through that season’s music when I dared to look down from the Many Ways to Get Left Behind. Some of it I had sung before. Normally, that wouldn’t faze me, or would even disappoint me, but I felt a strange sense of RELIEF. This was not the creation of art that I was familiar with. This was not the warm hug of music creation. This was Artistic Waterboarding.
I had sung in the New Jersey Opera Company my senior year in high school. The demands were many, the expectations high, but never was I as
terrified as I was in this first college rehearsal.
This particular choir director had contacted me directly when my application got to the school. He wrote to the effect that he had been pleased I applied and hoped that, should I be admitted and should I consider attending the school, that I would audition for his choir and his smaller groups.
I should note that this was not a school known for its choir.
I should also note that this was a contributing factor to my deciding to go to this school.
I auditioned for the choir, obviously. He had made me nervous even back then. He asked me to sight-read, during which I made some small, nervous mistakes. He looked at me in my audition and said, “I expected more from you.”
But he welcomed me in his choir.
This was not a sentiment I was used to. I’ve been knocked down more than a few pegs in my lifetime, but not in music. I had always been warmly welcomed in whichever music group I auditioned for, mostly because I am a steady, but not heavy-handed alto. I was always told I steadied a group, grounded it. I had practically taken up residence in the music wing at my school. I never was a soloist, mostly because we second altos
don’t solo much, but also because that wasn’t in my nature. I’ve always fancied myself a supporting singer, just as I fancy myself a supporting character actress. I always find those parts more satisfying.
I am good at those parts.
We warmed up that first rehearsal. I held back. I didn’t like how Herr Director was eyeing my section.
We worked our way through the first piece, one I didn’t know. He started with the sopranos, then turned full guns on us. He didn’t like what the seventy-five of us were doing.
“STOP!” he’d yell. “Just this half. Someone is flat. Someone is flat!”
He had my half of the altos sing.
Then he halved it.
And halved it again.
Until it was me and the woman next to me, another freshman.
“Yeah. There’s the problem…” he explained to the rest of the choir, which in large remained without expression.
Both of our faces were, I’m sure, beet red.
But it wasn’t me who was flat. My seat neighbor started to cry.
I’m pretty sure, now, that we were being made examples of. We were part of the setting of the tone (so to speak) of that director’s choir. Such a trained ear, right?
Yeah, she was a little flat, but nothing so horrifying that it needed that kind of intervention. Not the first week of college. Not the first rehearsal. Not at all.
Nor did I.
I still walked out of that rehearsal at break and never returned. I declined the invitation to his smaller groups.
I had found a new way to exit the choir.
The next week I auditioned for the female a cappella group.
I was approached by the director of that group the day after the audition. She told me that they loved my audition, but they didn’t need any more first altos at that time. My heart racing, I told her to please check my sheet again, I sing second alto.
I was welcomed into that group. I made mistakes and I’m sure I sang flat on occasion. We sang the usual a cappella fare that you now hear on The Sing Off or Mouths Off or whatever place you tend to get your a capella fix.
But I also sang my first public solo with that group.
Accentuate the Positive. (Insert anvil dropping)
I still miss singing in choirs, though. Haven’t done it since. I’ve sung in shows, sung in classes, taught students, and certainly lathered up a few goodies in the shower.
I miss it. Especially around Christmas. I can always join the choir in the car, but I do think it’s time for me to join a group again. It’s time to lend my voice to something greater than myself.