Monday, December 12, 2011

Choir: A Tribute

Some babies cry when they’re born but I think I must have emerged singing.  To the untrained ear, my yowling might have sounded like that of any generic baby.  But I’ve never stopped humming, scatting or making my own versions of joyful noise ever since.  
I sang when I hoed the long rows of potatoes.  I sang when I rode our Percheron horse along the fence lines of our Peace River homestead. I sang when I walked to meet the school bus, across the fields and through the bush, saluting the trees and greeting cattle in a singsong litany, delivering a bovine benediction.  
Sometimes the adventurous teachers who came north to our two-room school in Cecil Lake could carry a tune and a precious hour or two every week was spent singing.  But except for rehearsals for the Christmas Concert and the Spring Talent Show, singing wasn’t much of an educational priority. So many of the children were too shy or too stubborn, in the case of the boys, to sing properly in any case.  The Christmas carols were a blur of mumbled verses, except for the first, perhaps, but the choruses were enthusiastically hammered home by those of us who were not petrified on-stage.
One winter my father came home from working away at a construction site with an old pump organ, discarded by a church because very few of its white keys functioned.  I learned to play the black keys, inventing a left-handed chord to accompany myself as I picked out the melody to O, Susannah or Red River Valley with my right hand.  
I’d been coaxed out several times to sing solos in the community hall, Silent Night or Danny Boy, rehearsing at home by standing in the farthest corner of the house and belting out the tunes for the musically discerning ears of my parents.   
“Sounds good.”  
“Don’t start off so high next time.”
“Can’t hear the last verse.”
            “Just stand up straight and don’t fidget with your hands.”
Bolstered by this heady praise, I’d made my forays to the limelight.  Frankly, I’d been too nervous to enjoy myself or even to look anywhere but up into the rafters so I must have given sweetly wooden performances.  There must have been applause but I’d not been taught to stand still for that reward, much less take a bow and enjoy the moment.  I’d quickly flee the imaginary spotlight to rejoin the chorus of shepherds draped in grey Army blankets.
Then a red-haired Mennonite boy came to our school and my brief reign as a soloist mercifully ended.  Johnny Siemens loved to sing.  He smiled at the audience, he waggled his cute little head and waved his small hands in ways that gave extra oomph to familiar words and made even the grumpiest old-timers at the back of the hall beam fondly at him.
From the vantage point of middle-age, I realize those retired school-teachers with their shrewd, assessing eyes and the sour-smelling elderly bachelors probably smiled when I sang Sewanee River too.  But I was too busy keeping my shoulders squared and my fingers flattened by my sides to notice any such approval while Johnny, our pre-teen boy soprano, observed all these good things, beamed right back and sang divinely, like the angel he all too soon became.
I remember my last solo as a child quite clearly.  It was rumoured there would be cash prizes given at the Spring Talent Show.  Unprecedented!  Inspired by Johnny, whose piercing high notes had lately started to crack and nasally splat, and by the promise of rare hard cash, I commenced serious rehearsals.   My parents, who could never be accused of being pushy stage-struck types, advised me that Danny Boy was out of the question since the histrionics required to hit the penultimate note were beyond me no matter how low a note I started with.  So I decided to stick to the tried and true.  Old Black Joe and Loch Lomond.
The term “show-off” was a black mark on one’s character in my family, revealing a shameless and inappropriate need for attention.  I was walking a fine line with this Talent Show hoopla, being twelve and all, which was too old for this sort of thing, if I was interpreting the silences and grunts and sighs around home correctly.  But I was determined.  I had no money and I wanted some. So, forewarned of being thus labelled and knowing the Hall would be jam-packed with the inevitable baby population, singers all, noisy toddlers, watchful peers, sharp-eyed mothers, and mumbling men, I made the short, heroic journey  to centre stage.
I sang Old Black Joe to the back of the hall, where the farmers stood holding their suspenders and coughing up grain dust.  I swung my head a little, from side to side, mourning my ancestors, all slaves down South, where my heart was yearning ever.  Despite the fact it was February and nearly 30 below Fahrenheit, closer to Alaska than Alabama, and that I was the first generation offspring of Dutch and Welsh immigrants, I did my best to convince the audience of my true musical roots.  In fact, I received a decent smattering of applause before I moved along to interpret Loch Lomond, a wee ditty I could have sung backwards in my sleep.  
I trilled along the high road, shifting my gaze row by row from the back of the hall to the middle, where I encountered the frizzled home perm, glinting eye-glasses and frowning face of my very own mother. Row upon beaming row of friends and neighbors and then this, my anxiously poised close relative. I delivered!
‘On the bonny, bonny ba..a..angs....’  I slid, spectacularly off-key, down the punishing banks of Loch Lomond.  The hall was silent.
“Oh, Gott!” declaimed the maternal voice and a nervous laugh was quickly stifled, but not quickly enough, by a gloved hand.  
I took a breath and climbed back up the bank.  
“Sorry,” I said and gathered air.
‘For me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond!’  I finished triumphantly, nailing every pure, true note to the boards at the back of the hall, sending them out past the frost-spangled trucks and cars, some filled with men sharing  rye whiskey.  Up and out went my twelve year old voice, past the scrubby spruce and stunted pines and swamp tamarack, over the huddled willows in the muskegs and up to the indigo sky sequined with stars, there to vapourize among the northern lights.
The rest of that evening was a blur of the usual songs by the usual entertainers; the
Scandinavian father and daughter accordion duo, Mr. Cuthbert, the Irish patriarch of Erin Lea,
rising from the side bench to recite Yeats and Goldsmith to a Hall for once silent, and the
marvellously disguised matrons of the Women’s Institute presenting their collectively out-of-character skit of a louse-infested tramp claiming a park bench from all other comers.  If there were fabulous cash prizes, I certainly didn’t win any.
    I joined the fledgling high school choir when I left home.  I don’t mean that I ran away from the homestead to join the choir in the way that the truly adventurous join the circus.  I mean it was simply necessary for 120 teenagers to leave Métis, Mennonite, oil patch, cattle ranch or other just plain isolated places our parents had gotten themselves into in order to complete our education.  We lived in the Fort St. John Dormitory run by Miss Lamb, a 300 pound sixty-something Englishwoman with platinum bottle blonde hair and ice-cold eyes.
Gone forever were the morning sounds of wood blocks clunking into the heater, soon to crackle and spit sap, the kettle singing, the quiet murmurs of my parents, and gentle wake-up calls.  Dad’s Welsh baritone floated back to us as he made his way out to do the cattle chores, Mom sang comforting lullabies in English or Dutch or bits of both as she filled four lunch-kits and made hot cereal and cocoa.
Instead, clanging electronic bells woke us up, called us to meals, started and ended study periods, signalled curfew and the final lights out.  I adjusted to the hideous bells and the new regimes of dormitory and high school life but I needed to sing.
What I sang for several months were two songs: Bali High and Rolling Down To Rio.  About sixteen girls were in the choir, fourteen of whom thought they were sopranos until Mrs. Pullan sorted the melody-makers from the potential altos.  I had a strong voice, so without benefit of formal musical instruction, I was designated an alto.
Oh dreary, droning alto!  It just didn’t sound right and I struggled unhappily until one day when Mrs. Pullan whispered the best, most necessary advice in my ear.
“Don’t sing so loudly and listen to Helen.”
I was embarrassed and ashamed but I listened to Helen who could play piano and read music, as well as being blessed with a velvety alto voice. I learned to listen and to blend my voice with my neighbours in that choir.  At the Festival we were commended for our strong altos and our songs, whose exotic lyrics meant more to tiny, pretty Mrs. Pullan, who immediately fled Fort St. John, than to me.
Fast forward to my own first year of teaching back in Fort St. John. Not content with working 50 or more hours a week on a pilot program with high-risk teens, I also performed as an alto shepherd in ‘Amahl and The Night Visitor’ and joined my second choir.
The Cardinal Singers (white frilly blouses, long red skirts) were accompanied and directed by one of twelve Canada Council Community Musicians working in a program devised in the seemingly more affluent and culturally enlightened 1970's.  She was patient, thoroughly professional, and she put us through our paces every second Monday night.  I was, happily, found to be a soprano again, stationed between two minister’s wives who, like all minister’s wives I’ve ever known, were seasoned and capable singers.  
Finally, I was learning about The Voice, the physical facts of singing, little tricks for breathing properly, and the importance of smiling, thereby raising one’s cheekbones to create a resonant inner chamber which releases rounder, more pleasing tones.  Pear-shaped vowels, precise tongue-work on consonants, calibrated beginnings and endings, all these things and more I learned.  Almost every other Cardinal could read music.  I had to rely on my ears to memorize the words, the tune, the rests, the dynamics, everything.   
I was often too tired to drag myself to practice or to focus well enough to gather momentum once I was there.  Instead of feeling renewed by singing, it was just one more stress-inducing thing to do on my long, over-achieving list.  When the choir was asked to perform at a Health Fair in the arena, I blurted out that I couldn’t possibly make it because, once again, I had other commitments.  The director looked up, peered at me as if to recollect who I was or how well I sang, and then said in her mild-mannered way, “Well, I suppose it won’t make... much difference.”
The minister’s wife on my right clutched my hand, giving it a quick squeeze.  Chastened, I said that I would do my best to attend and I did.  We sang five songs, struggling to keep smiling, instead of collapsing into giggles.  It’s not every day that a person gets to sing in the acoustically-challenged environment of a hockey arena while hundreds of people are trying out treadmills, heart rate gadgets and healthy hors d’oevres, paying absolutely no attention to us.  
I don’t remember a single song, and only one name from that group of women in long red Fortrel skirts.  I did begin to learn the necessity of attending every practice possible and not relying on my talented musical neighbours in order to fudge my way through complicated arrangements.  Then I, too, left the rambunctious northern town and changed occupations several times until I landed a care-taking position on North Pender Island, B.C., complete with two dogs, a large garden, wood heat, and a four-storey cedar and glass mansion.  I did more off-site gardening for pay,  battled shrinking self-confidence at the typewriter, and played on the women’s baseball team with a great deal of exuberance. And I joined the choir of North and South Pender Islanders.  I was the youngest member by at least two decades.  
There was something so wonderful about walking into the little hall and having people smile as they greeted me with genuine affection.  I had been a rolling stone for the best part of twelve years, working in Asia, Europe and all around Canada.  It was quickly established that I was a full-timer on the island, not a mere weekender or summer cottage sub-species but a true islander.  The only thing better would be owning a place on the island like my choir pals did, all gleefully retired for the most part.  
One of our members took on the job of wrangling the thirty to forty of us through our sheet music while another good soul accompanied us on piano.  We made our way through great old tunes like Summertime, Stormy Weather, Hit the Road Jack, and of course, the familiar canon of singalong Christmas carols.  We dressed up in our individual versions of seasonal finery and sang at the Christmas Concert in the school gym, then promptly disbanded for the spring and summer to tend to visitors, gardens, grand-kids, or sailing up the Coast.  I toiled in island gardens, walked the dogs, wrote fitfully and sang with another friend in little pubs.
The second winter we imported a director from Saltspring Island, an ex-nun who quickly curtailed the quarter-hour visiting session we traditionally warmed up with before stretching our vocal chords with musical demands. We picked up the pace, learned our music faster and began to occasionally meet in small groups to tackle our parts.  I was discovered to be a mezzo-soprano in this choir and I enjoyed singing in my natural range at long last.      
I was definitely the oddball in this merry band of seniors, ‘that writer gal looking after the modern place up on Schooner’, but I blended in vocally and I rarely missed practices. Choir was a social occasion, a mini-community, as well as a place for learning and enjoying music. That was the gift I took away with me from that lovely place as I spread my wings yet again.
In Nelson, B.C., I joined the Images Ad Hoc Singers, an a capella feminist group featuring four part harmonies, feisty, often revisionist lyrics, and a two hour practice every Tuesday evening.  We appeared at five or more public events annually, the West Kootenay Women’s Festival, and other cultural shin-digs, like Vancouver’s Maywerks Festival, the national conference of Women in Trades and Technology, and a Peace Conference in the acoustically sublime Doukhobour hall in Brilliant.
It was great fun to be entertaining, I discovered, as we cheerily sang about a male contraceptive device or a satirical ditty about the pitfalls of marriage. We stood in a staunch semi-circle, the better to hear ourselves.  New songs took months to learn because only a few of the twelve singers could read music with any proficiency.  We learned by ear, mostly, and we increased our practices in small groups as performance dates loomed ever closer.  I learned much about dedication to practice in the seven years I performed with this group and I learned, again, about the undermining politics of some collective efforts.
Solos were frowned upon by some fiercely vocal members because they called attention away from the group and placed focus on an individual for a line or even a verse. Subversive resistance was the strategy encountered by any brave soul who stepped forward to conduct, nay, to lead the collective.  Several times during my stint, musically trained and talented women were asked, and even paid, to work with us in order to improve the glacial pace of learning new material or to tackle especially challenging new arrangements.  No one lasted more than a few months before tiring of us. Then we went back to spending a half-hour visiting and another half-hour warming up before devoting the final hour to several songs, stopping frequently for complaints about someone (else) being sharp or flat.  
Several times I would vow to quit when the semantic wrangling over possibly suspect patriarchal lyrics meant that we actually sang for only 32 minutes of a two hour practice. But we would usually sing beautifully when we performed, never using sheet music as a reference but communicating directly with each other and the audiences.  And the audiences loved us and our stage antics, our powerful message-oriented songs, and our well-crafted harmonies.  I learned to enjoy the applause, to smile and wave and clap along with the audience. We made them laugh and we made them cry and that’s as good as it gets.    
          *                                              *                                           *
Someday I want to learn to read music properly, to take piano lessons, but most of all, I want to play the banjo.  I have an unshakeable image in my head of being a sixty year old white-haired wild thing in an all-grrrrandma rockabilly band.  Meanwhile I have a living to earn in the bookstore my partner and I run in New Denver, B.C., population 650.  I have our son to help raise and more books to find time to write.  But I keep my ear in, I do, singing in the Valhalla Community Choir, as different and as alike as any choir in the country, I’m sure.  
This is the choir that, in my own middle-age, gives me a safe place to sing unafraid, to throw my plumb line down the well to find my voice and to release it, along with joy, forgiveness, sorrow, and stress.  The Choir is composed of over 40 people, aged 14 to 84, with musical “ringers”, which is to say exceptionally skilled singers, in every section.  Some have near perfect pitch, most of us have good ears, the rest sing softly or worse, loud and clear.  Our director is a beaming dynamo who says she simply loves choosing and then hearing a work of music evolve and, I suspect, seeing us evolve too.  Under her twelve years of direction, we are learning more and more difficult pieces at a faster and faster rate, many of us learning to read music en route, a thrilling fact.  We’ve sung in Latin, Spanish, French, and German so far.  
This is a most diverse choir, or at least the most diverse group I’ve ever sung with.  For starters, there are lots of men. We are the envy of several regional choirs for the breadth and depth of our musical males.  Our pianists, for two share the load and one sings while the other plays, are both accomplished musicians and talented singers.  The director constantly scouts for interesting arrangements, works full-time at the local hospital, and gets not one sou for her efforts.  To help all of us learn our parts, she and another choir member have learned to transcribe each part for each song onto audio tapes.  Choir members can be identified as those individuals wearing headphones for months and humming something not quite recognizable.  Sheet music plus audio tapes plus weekly two hour practices plus as many small group practices as we can manage... all this for several Spring concerts and the all-important Christmas concert, preceded by three studio recording sessions to produce CD’s and tapes.
When I walk up to the hall on a rainy October night to sing, after a long day of standing in the bookstore, I often sink gratefully onto the first wooden chair I see, rising only
when the sopranos must to sing our parts.  During that two hours though, something marvellous happens.  We get to focus on our vertically-challenged director, standing on her chair at the front of the hall, beaming at us when we’ve pulled it off, or arms waving frantically to bring an errant section up to snuff.  Then again, the whites of her bright brown eyes flash, alarmed, when the first sopranos screech, the mezzo-sopranos lurch off-pitch, the tenors warble off-key, the altos slow to dirge tempo, and the bass-baritones break up with laughter in the back row.     
Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the difficulty of the music we are handed at the start of the season and sometimes there is eye-rolling at the fondness she has for stretching our musical boundaries, for moving us well past our preferred comfort zones filled with old chestnuts and favourite hymns and easy listening singalongability.
In this choir there are people struggling with failing businesses, miserable marriages, unhappy children, broken-down vehicles, addictions of all kinds, deteriorating bodies and sagging spirits.  I swear sometimes I can practically see these spectres, the vapours of our daily afflictions wafting above our heads and away into the ether.  How can I worry about money or the wretched teacher inflicted upon my child when I am sweetly singing A Gaelic Blessing?  Of what import are the vagaries of earthly life when sixteen of us step forward and romp through the Magnum Mysterium, that lovely Latin call to wonder and awe?     
      To be sure, there are prima donnas, complainers, the less-than-gifted, the friends and neighbours with bad breath, gas and the compulsion to chat, the latter thereby attracting our tolerant director’s most baleful glare.  I’ve learned to appreciate how we’ve all dragged ourselves out to practice, on icy mountain roads and in pelting rain, that this is a community choir not the Bach Cantata Singers, and that we all have made a commitment to be present and heard from.  We all love to sing.  It brings us joy.  It eases our burdens and for some of us, I have no doubt, it is the highlight of the week.
But sometimes my love of singing is truly put to the test.  In my third year as a soprano, the director flummoxed me, and certainly others, by announcing that I would take the soprano part in a quartet singing Es Ist Ein Reis Entsprungen.  I was thrilled.  I also endured some gimlet-eyed scrutiny from reigning soloists and much encouragement from more generous quarters.  Still, I  considered using those adult diapers to get me, worry-free, through the concert.  But as soon as the quartet began practicing, the voices of my colleagues quickly dispersed my worries.  The beauty of our voices silenced the fearful nay-sayer within.
                *                                          *                                    *
Well over three hundred people attend our Christmas Concert in the Silverton Memorial Hall, arriving early to get good seats even as we are readying ourselves for the candle-light procession along both aisles to the stage, singing Dona Nobis Pacem.  We have greatly benefitted from the intense sessions in the studio where technology provided a virtual cathedral for our voices but has not spared us our timing gaffs, screeches or sour notes.  We are as ready for this concert as we’ll ever be, dressed in our simple white and black outfits.
We sing Gloria In Excelsis Deo, a zippy, complex version of Deck the Halls, the beautiful Kyrie, and others. All too soon, our quartet steps forward to sing.  Sam’s perfect pitch and gorgeous baritone, Barbara’s tenor, pure, velvety, immediately calming to the ear, Mary’s milk chocolate alto melting sweetly through the lyrics, and my own clear, unvarnished soprano voice.  We sing in German, a capella, note by note in complete accord with each other, no one grandstanding, no one hanging on for an extra eighth, just a delightful carol simply offered.  The sour, judgmental ghosts hovering over me, humming Loch Lomond off-key, were sent packing at long last.  I hugely enjoyed the rest of the concert and sang like a freed canary.
                        *                                      *                                      *
The hardest test is upon us.  Summoned with a day’s notice in mid-summer, nearly forty of us gather to rehearse Deep River, a song to comfort the bereaved.  For in one of this life’s random acts of senselessness, an aneurism has claimed Marian; mother, singer, teacher, artist, clown, age 42.  No one could belt out the rousing gospel tunes or wail on the blues like our Marian.  But now we must pull ourselves together and sing the sombre song of the final campground, for Marian, who would have sung the lead in better times.     
This time more than four hundred people jam the Hall and pay tribute, in speech and song, to a remarkable woman.  The choir sits at the back of the hall, many of us weeping, waiting to stand up and sing.  And as we stand on the stage, I know in my sad, grieving heart why the slaves sang for hours and hours, finding harmony with each other, sounding out the pain of existence, and altogether soaring beyond it, pure and free at last.
                                    *                                 *                                  *
We’ll walk each other home in little duos, trios and quartets, talking, singing, laughing, not fearing human predators but to alert the last bears of autumn rooting in compost bins or straddling the pear and apple trees. I’ll stand on my deck and listen for the final wisps of lyrics spiralling up from the streets of my village as we sing each other safely home.   


  1. Great read. I remember the Image Ad Hoc singers well, though I am not sure I have ever seen a live performance. They were around. Somehow I can sing along to
    "It is the IPD! the IPD!
    It may not feel so good to you
    but it isn't hurting me...."

    Your wonderful Motherlode store is still being missed, but we wish you well as a lighthouse keeper.

  2. PS will be thinking of you when I enjoy the Valhalla choir in Nakusp tomorrow.

  3. I've been teaching a course on creative non-fiction at Athabasca University that has used as a text Lynne Van Luven's Going Some Place, which includes Choir: A Tribute as its first selection. Choir is my favorite story from the collection because it exemplifies so well what creative non-fiction is about, the way a really fine article causes a little gasp of recognition and wonder at the end as the writer reveals her theme. It's the piece I point out to my students, saying, "Write like this." GSP is now out of print, but I am grateful to you for allowing us to continue to read Choir on your blog.

  4. Thank you, Ien and Paul, for your lovely comments. I'm an infrequent blogger/reviewer, as you've no doubt noticed as I tend to focus on paid work. Paul, there is a CBC piece, which Ien is referring to, which is 13.5 minutes long called 'Keep On Singing'. I adapted it from the essay you are working with in your creative non-fiction class. If you go to their archives, you may be able to link to it and that will give your students actual voices and let them see how the producer and I played with the structure for the audio format. It is now a bit of a seasonal chestnut (the original was done in 1999 I think) and it was originally produced for Outfront and then migrated to other programs (alas, a flat fee payment system for freelancers means no residuals for moi).
    That piece was also picked up by an American company called Soundprint and put on disc with two other seasonal radio pieces. CBC's contract with freelancers, in the fine print, allows them to do things like this without paying the originating artists/freelancers again. I had to ask for two free copies of the CD. Both issues are important points to discuss with your students, I think, as it underlines the prevailing ethos of downloading all forms of content for free. This does not apply to what I put on my blog although, as you did so politely and ethically, acknowledgement and thanks are always very much appreciated and I am very glad when my work really reaches out to readers and listeners.

  5. I just joined the vallican choir...thank u for this.

    1. Thank you for reading, Jo! Singing with friends banishes the mid-winter blues...and the eagles and whales now qualify as neighbours out here! Please say hello to my Vallican friends, whom I miss, Rita, Moe, Dan, Marcia, Chris...some of whom sing!

  6. your piece gave me the shivers as I also lived in New Denver for a while, and of course am familiar with Silverton, etc. And yes, singing is fantastic! Thank you so much for this piece. Jo

  7. This piece is so lovely, Caroline. I laughed out loud when I read about you, "mourning your ancestors, all slaves down south". And that's saying something coming from a "mumbling man" (an appreciative smirk is usually the best I will do.)

    Rita and I have agreed again that we have to make it to your island while you are still there. Here's hoping.


  8. This piece is so lovely, Caroline. I laughed out loud when I read about you, "mourning your ancestors, all slaves down south". And that's saying something coming from a "mumbling man" (an appreciative smirk is usually the best I will do.)

    Rita and I have agreed again that we have to make it to your island while you are still there. Here's hoping.