For the past three weeks I have been 25% of our choir. This is indeed a pity. I am, by all accounts, a second or even third stringer. One of us, in her 80's, has sung in choirs since age nine. I, 56, have sung in them (and sung) since age 54. Thanks be to God for M.
I was thinking about this today. If playing music on an instrument is like rowing a boat on the ocean, then singing is like being thrown in headfirst. Like swimming, or, in my case, trying not to drown.
Last week we had 15 minutes to rehearse the anthem. I stared at the music. It was in a peppy, even martial 6/8. There were many, many notes. Coupled to many, many words. I gazed, depressed, at a brace of high Es. The choir director, attempting to comfort me, announced that he had transposed it down a whole step.
Whoopee skip, I thought, uncharitably, then Yes, but the third stringer must exercise the monastic virtue of obedience.
Where does he get these freaking hymns ! I thought, even more uncharitably. I pined with deep Anglican longing for the Purcell he had tantalized us with a few weeks back.
Shut up and sing, I scolded myself. I had to to put myself in the Director's shoes. I was, after all, 25% of his raw material. That alone should merit some compassionate cutting of slack.
Then I noticed the triplets, densely and unintuitively coupled with words:
full of the -- faith that the -- dark past has
over a --way that with -- tears has been
stray from the -- places, Our -- God, where we
and then, a few measures later, first note a darkling half step lower,
full of the -- hope that the -- present has
treading our -- path through the -- blood of the
drunk with the -- wine of the -- world we for-
A leaden, musical despair set in. The senior warden (another 25% of us) was right: my lungs were too small for this. Plus my Dad would probably show up, and the old I-never-sang-for-my-Father neurosis -- fully operative a half century later -- would kick in.
You might want to leave before the anthem, I whispered in Dad's ear while passing the peace. He grinned. He was fully abreast of out choir's recent tribulations. A magnificent, trained baritone, he'd sung in and directed many a church choir back in the day -- even, it turns out, sung in a choir with M. in the 1960's. He knew that afflictive brouhahas could occur in choirs. One had in ours. It had been a high ecclesiastic melodrama, an opera savon, all very Church-of-Corinth, all very unfortunate. Upshot ? The two best singers packed up their voices and left.
Leaving yours truly, at least for a few weeks there, not just as 20-25% of the choir, but 100% of the altar guild.
I AM the altar guild I chanted, swaggering about, mad with power. And above all else, do NOT put flowers in the baptismal font !
Eventually the dread moment arrived. The offeratory was beginning. The oblation bearers were milling around at the back of the church, the LEM was juggling the collection plates. The four of us heaved to our feet, the choir director lit into the intro, and we flung ourselves gamely into the rolling sea of the anthem. Honestly, I tried my best. I really did. I used everything I knew: breast-stroke, dogpaddle, butterfly, crawl, even treading water. I gulped seawater and spluttered; triplets and syllables foamed out of my nose. Chas-ten-ing rod ! I sang, and a deep, upbubbling vent of gassy hilarity threatened to blow me out of the hymn altogether.
A few million choruses later it ended with a resounding Chord of Victory, then stony silence. That was the sound of the Body of Christ's collective jaw dropping. We sat down and stared at our hands. I was dizzy, hypoxic. My knuckles were white, my fingernails blue. I could have used some artificial respiration: out with the bad air, in with the good.
J., the last 25% of us, turned to me. Boy, that was bad. she whispered, shaking her head.
After the service, as we filed back to the choir room, I noticed that the Director was reprising the anthem as the postlude. I rolled my eyes. The music washed over me like a best-avoided topic that someone was always bringing up, either out of cluelessness or spite or both. I had to admit it was a catchy tune, a decent hymn even. I anticipated a week-long earworm, boring through my annals of musical shame like some mythical sea-beast. Ah, well. Our parish was kindly. They'd probably even compliment us on our performance. And my Dad, the uber-kritiker ?
I couldn't understand the words.
Also, I suppose, kind in its own way.
The Director, probably realizing his minions needed more than 15 minutes to rehearse next week's anthem, was prepared. He passed out music and called a quick rehearsal. I looked at the music. To Those Who Came Before Me, I read, shuddering a little at the flowery cursive font of the title and at the rippling arpeggios in the accompaniment. By someone named Sally DeFord. No Hyfrydol, no Aberystwyth. No Byrd, no Purcell, no freaking Ralph Vaughan Williams even ! Well, it began on a low A. That was something. And there was an alto part. OK, then. And a descant ? And a terminal up-a-half-step modulation ? Uh oh. We hurriedly rehearsed the first two pages and agreed to meet 15 minutes earlier than usual next Sunday.
When I got home I turned to the last 2 pages. Beneath the appeggios and 8va arpeggios of the final measure there were two asterisked phrases in fine print:
*words for heritage theme
**words for genealogy/ temple work theme
Say what ?
Heritage ? Genealogy ? Temple work ????
Was this a freaking MORMON hymn ??????????
The choir binder fell out of my hands. I quickly Googled Sally DeFord. I was right.
It was a Mormon Hymn. Mormon ! The church that had, by all accounts, just nearly singlehandedly bankrolled the triumph of Prop 8 in California, elevating homophobia to the status of constitutional fiat ! I had been feeling particularly ill-disposed toward Mormons all week, and now this !
I stared at the computer screen. Monastic, third-stringer obedience be damned, this was outrageous ! This must not stand ! I raged inwardly, plotting revenge. I Googled furiously. Aha ! Yes ! I would download "If You Could Hie To Kolob" and leave it anonymously on the piano in the choir room ! That would send the Director a message !
Bwahahaha ! I danced gleefully around my study as the pages spewed from my printer. I AM, I AM the Altar Guild I sang to the tune of Old Hundredth.
I gathered up the pages of Kolob and looked at the music. Huh ? This couldn't be ! If you could hie to Kolob in the twinkling of an eye -- no, no, no -- those weren't the words ! I knew the words to this tune ! When Jesus left his Father's throne he chose an humble birth... This was #480, this was Kingsfold ! -- not some Mormon ditty about Kolob !
I sunk into my chair. Our choir was still bleeding from its fracture over, of all things, choir robes -- and now here I was about to foment musical discord among the faithful remnant. I took a few deep breaths. Look, PT, I told myself. The Catholics were pretty instrumental in supporting Prop 8 -- and if the Director handed you a Gregorian Chant you'd be in Heaven, in Kolob even. And, Mitt Romney notwithstanding, there is, after all, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which could probably sing the ever-living heck out of our late, sainted, mangled anthem. My cheeks reddened.
This 25% third-string, gravely-voiced, back-bencher needed to practice two things: her music, and humility.