Sing A Good Song

If I told you the worst nights of my current life…well. Hmm. Obviously I’m going to tell you. Didn’t really think that sentence through.

Wednesday nights. There.

You know about choir, unless you’ve just now wandered by this blog. My wife, who’s an associate pastor, a minister of music at our church, leads the choir. Small church, small choir. It used to be a bigger church with a bigger choir, and I’m sure some current members miss those days.

And maybe they’ll come again. Churches live out their relative utility to a particular community, and die. It happens all the time.

But sometimes there’s a flow to these things, when the congregation shrinks and then expands. I have no idea.

I just know the choir members are obviously passionate about it, given the need to attend practice in the middle of the week and get to church early on Sundays for more.

And if you’ve been reading, you might remember my experiences with choir. But some back story might be useful.

I always sang. When I was a kid, I wrote a lot, mostly poetry. I’m talking the very first writing, from age 6 or so. I loved poetry, loved to play with meter and rhyme and whatever primitive intuition I had about dissonance, assonance, etc.

But I sang, too. I had a clear prepubescent treble, on pitch and nice to listen to, so I sang in choirs in elementary school and junior high. I played my guitar and sang. When my voice changed to a solid baritone, it was right on time to jump into high school musicals and there I sang a lot.

Then there was college, and a couple of other musicals, and lots of other acting. For two summers, I sang for my supper at a local dinner theater, meeting my wife and friends who remain so all these years later. I sang, essentially, all the time.

I also was fascinated my music, and music theory, and I learned how to play chords on the piano. It turns out I have a good ear, whatever that means, so it was easy to take a few chords and improvise the melody of pretty much anything. This always seems to impress my wife, who can’t do it, and my wife is the most musical person I’ve ever met.

This is the salient point here. I have never had a particular skill with math (except geometry, for some reason; I was a star geometry student), but I can still do basic algebra and I do. You might be surprised how often it comes in handy, despite the clichés.

But I’m not a mathematician, or even very good at it. Most higher math left me baffled and a “B” student. Meaning, pretty average, nothing special. I can add and subtract.

On to music. I have some ability. I have a decent voice, and I can usually match pitch without a problem. After marrying a musician and fathering another, I let it slip away. It was obvious that wasn’t my gift, and I was pretty content to just observe my wife and daughter as an audience.

But that choir was diminishing, down to a solid 8 or 9 members, and not only was choosing anthems for them to sing all that more difficult with a small group, there were no baritones. Our pastor would usually sing that part, even though he’s more of a tenor, but he’s getting his doctorate and that was one more thing he could skip with his busy schedule.

So I got drafted, and thus Wednesday nights became the worst. Really. Just awful.

I hadn’t sung in years, much less in parts. I rarely even touched the piano, and my music-reading skills have never been great (for years, if I wanted to learn a song on the piano, I’d memorize it clef by clef; a few measures of the right hand, then a few of the left, then put them together and move on. I never mastered the bass clef on sight, always having to mentally transpose up two steps).

So I’m in this tiny choir, trying to sing the bass part with no one else to help. I would get hopelessly lost, unable to find a note, any note. My wife would plunk out my part and record it, and sometimes that helped. Sometimes our organist will come over and sing bass with me, which is great.

But most of the time I felt helpless, and I really, really don’t like that feeling. Especially with something I’ve been doing for much of my life.

Usually, though, by the end of practice I was feeling better. Socializing, even with drawbacks, is an injection of happiness in my life.

I still saw myself as hopeless, though, frustrated and always looking for an opportunity to slip away, take my seat in the congregation and sing hymns, always the melody.

Until something happened, and that’s the fun part of this story.

I got better. And sort of suddenly. Things work out that way sometimes.

Suddenly I was able to sight-sing with much more ease, finding the intervals easily and quickly finding the key, which, with my slightly hard-of-hearing but still functional ear, makes harmony so much easier.

And I was finally mastering that bass clef on sight, without the transposition. I know the treble clef backwards and forwards, but now my mind automatically sees a D-flat instead of a B on the lower staff. It feels like a miracle.

Then again, I’m a guy always on the lookout for miracles. Shouldn’t be a surprise.

I’ll never be all that good. And choir singing is not my favorite, anyway; I was always a show-off, and I always wanted the spotlight. Choirs are about cooperation. It’s a good lesson to learn, along with those tricky accidentals.

And I can plunk out my own part now, although JK will still do it for me, singing the melody while she plays my part. Musical, as I said.

Little victories, I guess. These days, for reason that are unclear, I get a lot of reader mail. These are affirming and very satisfying, hearing feedback, and I cherish them all.

But there’s nothing quite like the alto section turning around when I finish an anthem on a low E or something, thumbs up, affirmation from the ladies who carry us and me across the finish line. I’m feeling my age and waltzing between hope and despair as I look at my current state of underemployment. I may feel awkward and out of place, definitely, but the frustration is less and the benefits are crystal clear.

I’m getting better. Talk about hope.

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