With our next concert a little more than a week away, I am posting something I wrote after my first concert. The thrill does not diminish for me. The following spring, the chorale did sing the Beethoven 9th Symphony, but I was not among them. I was in chemo that spring. Through the kindness of our director ("Music is so healing, why don't you sing with us as long as you can?"), I rehearsed with them until I had difficulty breathing deeply enough and didn't think I could stand for an entire performance. I've been blessed to sing with them each year since then.
I wish you could have been there. Last night I sang in a chorus with an orchestra for the first time, and I have to say, there’s nothing quite like standing six feet behind the french horn section while singing triple forte—in German. Today my throat is a little raw, but I’m hoping that my voice will hold out for many years of singing with the Springfield Symphony Chorale, as we are somewhat grandiosely called. Next year we’re on for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Today, in a nice juxtaposition of events, we sang at church “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee,” the most famous segment of that choral symphony.
I like the experience of choral singing, which humorist Garrison Keillor has described as “better than sex and almost as good as sweet corn.” I particularly enjoy singing with a group that gathers only once a year. There’s something biblical about it, the way we are strangers who blend for a common cause, the way some of us—especially the students who are high school seniors and headed off to college in the fall—will not be a part of the event next year. I’m an introvert who doesn’t introduce myself readily; I learned Shawna’s name only at the final dress rehearsal, but I shall miss her dead-on alto in my left ear.
I also like the very group-ness of making music. Writers are solitary people; even if we write in cafes and coffee shops, we are alone in our heads, and we go where the work takes us. In music, the work is already there on the page, and “all” we have to do is figure out how to sing or play the right notes together. Part of my longing for connection is satisfied by this set form. “Here, altos, it’s a diminished third,” our director will say, and although I have only the vaguest notion of what he’s talking about, I can hear the note and try to reproduce it. On the page, in beginning this essay, I have no idea where I’m headed. I’m trying to say something about community, about the mystery of gathering into wholeness, or about harmony perhaps, even though the program included modern French music, which presents an idea about harmony different from the ideas of earler composers.
I’m happy to have the music in my head now, more or less. I know that the literal vibrations and harmonics somehow help me maintain health. I also know from experience that I will remember these words and melodies, just as I recall songs I sang with my high school choir. They have been woven into my being, and if, decades from now, I have lost most of my senses, I hope to retain that piercing cry of Poulenc’s “miserere nobis”—have mercy on us.
At our first rehearsal with the orchestra, our director admitted we were “not horrible,” a great reassurance. As we left the stage Saturday night, the orchestra’s conductor was in the wings backstage, assuring us we’d done beautifully, and that he was only sorry we had to wait a whole year before doing it again. Me too.