Monday, July 10, 2006


When I took voice lessons, at a year-end recital, I absolutely destroyed my semester grade by forgetting the second line of the second stanza to "The Rose." I feel strongly this was a mental act of self-defense, the brain vomiting the song right back up at me so as not to be contaminated with the likes of "I say love it is a flower, and you its only seed."

Evil irony, for I am a second soprano. We sing beneath the first sopranos, who get the dog-calling, upper-end notes, and above the altos, who do a lot of "ba-bum"ing beneath the melody. I love singing second.

If only I didn't sound like a very angry wombat with a sinus infection.

I tried, at Saint Mary's, having discovered female choral singing at my sister's high school concerts. I tagged along with my mother to pick her up from a late rehearsal one afternoon, and echoing down the hall was two-part a capella. I laid my miserable sixth-grade head against the doors, then slid inside and sat in the back of the theatre. The alto and the soprano melted and bent the musty air-- this was a bunch of fourteen and fifteen year olds slogging through "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and they very likely sucked, but the harmony slid over me like warm caramel.

I auditioned for--and clearly because few others had was admitted to--the World's Most Obviously Named Vocal Group, the Saint Mary's College Women's Choir. Few songs were in English, which seemed to be the rule for Serious Music. I didn't mind, because I didn't need to comprehend what we were singing to understand that the human voice, when properly struck against another human voice, provides a glorious sense of human tonal smugness. Screw you, piano and trombone! Look what we can do! Sometimes during rehearsals the director would sustain us in the middle of a note, arms raised: Hold it hold it hollllllllllld it.... and the thick female braid of sound wound about the room.

And sometimes we were placed in circle so as to check our pitch against the other vocal parts. The director stood in in the center, keeping time, slowly spinning, stopping before offending off-key singers. When she pointed at me--and she always did--I cringed into my sheet music and stopped singing, camouflaging my English major's voice by mouthing the syllables. Nodding at my sudden competence, she would move on to some other poor girl who had been in the bathroom when the Vocal Talent Fairy rang her doorbell. The voice lessons aided me in forming a water addiction but not much else.

The Women's Choir wore floor-length sapphire blue dresses fashioned by the cast of Dynasty. They had puffy sleeves and a pointy waist and nobody looked good in them, not
even after we started selling wine and beer in the lobby before concerts. When I was a junior we sang at a fundraising affair and an alumna was so appalled by them that she sat down and wrote the director a big fat dress-replacing check on the spot. "Big Blue" was chucked in favor of stretchy black dresses, which were somewhat less hilarious but not nearly as character-building.

We sang "The Belles of Saint Mary's" and "The Magnificat," and we never ever had hand motions, which disappointed me until I realized that few truly elite vocal ensembles throw synchronized shoulder rolls into every little thing. Once we performed a Latin piece in honor of the inauguration of a new College president, and it ended with a trio of shouted "Vivat!"s, and my desire to throw in in corresponding arm-pumps practically caved the stage in, but I clenched my music folder. I'd done enough to disgrace Big Blue already.


Carrie said...

This post amused me to no end. My musical career consists entirely of grade school Christmas pageants, a few rounds of karaoke with my engineering sorority sisters in college, and an ill-advised audition for the high school choir when I was, I believe, a sophomore. I am, shall we say, vocally challenged. I have a range of perhaps six notes, but I lack the reassuring tone-deafness that would allow me to believe I can actually sing. Instead, when I belt out whatever song is blasting from my car radio, I am acutely aware of every missed note. For this reason I have taken to listening to music at a high enough volume that I cannot actually hear the sound of my own voice.

Naturally, I gleefully watch "American Idol" every year and mock the poor, deluded souls who audition. I may not be able to sing any better than they can, but at least I have the common sense not to prove it on national television.

Jess said...

Ahh Women's Choir! We had a concrete, circular stairwell at Hope that was perfect for forcing the girls in the group I directed to actually listen to each other. It never failed to build incredible harmonies and a sense of "Hey! We don't suck nearly as bad as we thought we did!"

If only we had had the budget for ugly matching dresses. We got stuck buying our own sort of matching ugly outfits.

Good Times.

Ophelia said...

Ugh. The memories that this brought back.
What is with Choir Directors having to choose the ugliest, most horrific dresses they can find? The Show Choir at my high school (dubbed the Satin Starlights) wore these gaudy fluorescent pink, lycra-based, silver-sequined monstrosities that that looked like the losing end of a fight between Pepto-Bismal and a jazzercise class. At least the men were only subjected to hot pink bow ties and cummerbunds.
The lesser choirs had better dresses - but not by much. I think these were left over from the 70's: satin/polyester blend leaning heavy on the polyester; one dress was a nice shade of red and came with a nifty box collar and an empire waist. The other was a button front piece of nastiness in this hideous shade of blue.
I think they did so well in competitions because the judges pitied the outfits. I'll find pictures and post them as proof.
I won't go into the band uniforms for that is another story in itself. There was no love lost between the band and the choir - thus we dubbed each other "Band Fags" and "Choir Queers".
I was proud to be a "Band Fag"

Cbell said...

From one second soprano to another... well done! I have continued singing second to this day in my church choir and all I can say is that I much prefer our green polyester robes to the silver sequined monstrosity that one of our past choir ministers thought would be appropriate for a Christmas pageant.

Corn-fed big-boned gals like me should NEVER highlight ourselves with silver sequins. NE-VER. What do these people think?

graycie said...

i am the only person I have ever heard of who was asked, with great gentleness by the director of a tiny church choir,"Sweetie, we are delighted that you come to choir practice every Wednesday, but from now on, would you please just make the coffee?" This was a choir that lurked in the shadows before Wednesday night Bible study in order to Shanghai voices -- any voices.


Jcat2323 said...

Hi, my name is Jenny, and I'm a second soprano with a bad voice.
I feel for you, girls (that includes you too MB). There's nothing worse than being a person who loves to sing, yet knowing that you're not good and you won't develop a gourgous voice no matter how hard you try.
I only sing in the car now. I used to sing in the shower, but everyone sounds good in the shower. I would get hopeful that I wasn't that bad, only to have reality fall when I exited the bathroom.

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Ruby Rose said...

Hey mb

I loved this post - I don't get to sing in choirs anymore, but I've been in my fair share and I'd have happily sung next to you in the second sops (and you would have loved me because I'm a very LOUD first sop - the correct choral symbiotic relationship) because you may not have felt you could sing perfectly BUT you loved the music and the process. As opposed to those dreadful women who cannot sing but think they can...*shiver*.


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