It is no secret that I love Christmas. I think I have blogged about it before, but I have noticed that this year, what brings me this joy is different.
I used to think this joy came from the magical poems and stories like The Polar Express and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. But as I have grown in to my adult self, I still smile when I hear these stories, but they don’t enchant me as they once did.
I used to think it came from the baking. I still smile as I lick chocolate remnants from bowls and eat our special cookies, and still plan to this year, but this year, the idea of baking no longer consumes me with joy to the point where I can hardly sleep or concentrate on anything else during the month of December, which baking once did.
I used to think my unusual joy came from the Christmas songs on the radio, but just this year, it seems as though most of the songs are stupid, and the overplaying of songs like Santa Baby epitomizes everything wrong with Christmas in America.
I admit I am still a little enchanted by the Christmas tree. The family tradition is to go to a Christmas tree farm each year soon after Thanksgiving and cut down a real fir tree! Frankly, the spectacular enormity and complexity of so many branches, and the heavenly aroma of fresh pine leaves me baffled as to why so many people settle for unfolding an artificial tree from the attic. I am the only child still living with my parents, and the only one who still enjoys bringing home the Christmas tree, but as I saw my parents struggling to figure out how to hold the tree, carry it to the car and tie it to the roof, feats of strength for which I am not equipped, for the first time this year, I felt a little guilty.
It’s kind of fun to open presents on Christmas morning, and I appreciate everything I am given, but since I am too old for toys now and learned long ago that there isn’t a Santa Claus, it no longer enchants me and keeps me up all night Christmas Eve. Besides, the commercialism which I never paid attention to as a kid is pathetic to me now.
I love when the whole family comes home and we spend the afternoon playing board games, but two of my siblings live far away and could only make it home for Thanksgiving this year, and the one who lives locally usually doesn’t come until dinner time. I will still enjoy playing board games with Mom, and possibly Dad if we can talk him in to it, but with the house being so quiet in recent years, it just isn’t the same.
I apologize if I am bringing you down on this most wonderful time of the year. I admit I am mildly depressed and not in the holiday spirit that I usually am. Part of it could be due to some stressful medical situations in my family which have us all a little worried. In addition, the scarcity of jobs, and a total absence of passion for the job postings I have seen has been discouraging. But this same discouragement has caused me to think about my life from a more spiritual, not just economic perspective (more on that in my next post). But maybe this pull to think more spiritually is why there is still one aspect of Christmas that enchants me: in fact it enchants me on a deeper level than the commercialism that I thought was so magical as a child. Actually, it is not a Christmas tradition, but a beautiful choir memory. Just thinking about it melts all depression and anxiety away.
I know I haven’t written much about my passion for singing in this blog. I don’t know why. I guess maybe in college I was just so busy that it was easier to write about Gilbert and college life than find the inspiration to describe my passion for singing with the beauty it deserves. But now with no responsibilities, I am ready to try.
I started singing in choir as a fifth grader in a school chorus that rehearsed during the lunch recess, and sang every year through high school. In seventh grade I also joined a community choir, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. Unfortunately in college, my classes were so demanding I burned out and couldn’t motivate myself to join choir every semester, but I sang with the college choir two semesters and performed with a really cool women’s barbershop chorus one semester.
All of these choirs have given me beautiful memories to associate with all seasons of the year, but Christmas, a season defined by music brings an abundance of special memories, especially in high school.
My sophomore year of high school, my community choir had the opportunity to sing a piece called the Christmas Sweet, arranged by Mark Brymer in Carnegie Hall. The whole trip was magical; the excuse to get out of school; the chance to experience New York City, the largest city in America that is romanticized in so many television shows and movies; and of course the chance to sing in Carnegie Hall, the dream of every musician. But singing that piece was the most spectacular moment of all. It was beautiful when we rehearsed it with only the piano for accompaniment, but when we sang this piece with a professional orchestra, it was stunning! The orchestra brought the piece to life as we sang about everything that makes Christmas beautiful. In the first movement when the beautiful voice of an adult soloist sings “When the frost starts to glisten / And the nights blush with cold / And the streets shimmer gold / It’s Christmas” and the orchestra accompaniment is soft and light, I could just imagine that beautiful image, despite having no memory of being able to see. When the children (who were as young as ten and as old as 17) came in, I was transported in my mind to a cozy livingroom and imagined a child looking out the window and seeing the images we sang of with awe and wonder. In the third movement called Rejoice, the soloist sings “Rise up shepherds and follow,” and when a soft drum accompaniment that sounded both excited and urgent follows this solo and then us children sing “Follow! Follow! Rejoice! oh Israel!” I remember thinking how perfectly this song depicted the excitement and sense of urgency that was probably felt by the shepherds two thousand years ago. In the fifth movement, Snow, I remember being transported to childhood days of playing in the snow. It began with the orchestra mimicking blowing and drifting. Then the younger children sang “snow, snow!” soft and slow as if they had just woken up and looked out the window to see the first real snow of the season. Then different parts of the choir shouted back and forth “SNOW! SNOW! SNOW!” mimicking that child we all remember who can barely contain themselves as they are so excited to go out and play in the snow. Then there is fast joyous singing and accompaniment as the kids play in the snow. But just like in real life, the end of the piece is soft, as the children are sleepy and glad to be back in their cozy home. “All the world is safe tonight / underneath this quilt of white…Look around and know, the wonder of snow.”
It is easier to write about the wonder of snow than the wonder of music because the beauty of a melody or the spectacular harmony of voices and instruments is beyond words. To fully appreciate the beauty of this piece, you will have to find a recording, but take my word for it that it was absolutely enchanting! I wasn’t able to get a recording of our actual performance, but I have an old recording the choir produced before I had even joined, and every year since then, hearing it would enchant me anew as it would bring back the memory of what an incredible experience singing it onstage with a spectacular professional orchestra in front of us was. But this year for some reason, while I smiled at some of my favorite parts of the piece mentioned above, it didn’t enchant me to the point that I had to stop what I was doing, stand transfixed by the stereo as the magic came flooding back to me, which it used to.
Two years later, the fall semester of my senior year of high school, school was rough for me. I was in the process of applying for college the next year, and meanwhile, to prepare me for college, the aide that worked with me wanted me to be better at thinking for myself and being independent, so she raised my expectations and I wasn’t doing a very good job of meeting them. On top of that, Math concepts covered around Thanksgiving were so hard for me to grasp that it took me hours every night to get my homework done, so I had to take a leave of absence from Present Music, an annual concert featuring unusual pieces from modern composers which the choir participated in at that time, which required extra rehearsals. But to my relief, things lightened up just in time for the holiday pops concert with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which that year was conducted by award-winning screen composer Bill Conti.
I had the privilege of performing with Doc Severinsen four years earlier, but unfortunately, I couldn’t fully relax and enjoy it because I had been sick most of that week and had to miss school, and thus I dreaded the mountain of make-up work that awaited me when I got home from the concert. But if that holiday pops concert was marred, the joy of this concert four years later was double! It was absolutely enchanting!
For one thing, instead of traditional risers, this venue uses bleachers onstage so that singers can sit during instrumental pieces. But the Children’s Choir was supposed to climb up to the back rows of bleachers and my choir director agreed with my mother that I had no business climbing up bleachers, so I got to stand in the front row with the adult choir! I loved this choir, and the director accepted high schoolers, but it did skew young, so what a thrill it was to be surrounded by power-packed full-grown voices! In addition, there were a couple songs where the children’s choir had limited parts. For example, in The Twelve Days of Christmas, the children’s choir was only supposed to sing “and a partridge in a pear tree”, but I wanted to sing with the adults around me so bad, and figured it would look silly if one person wasn’t singing with everyone else around her, so I quickly learned the adult parts of that song, and all the versus of Jingle Bells! Oh what fun it was indeed!
And just like in the Christmas Sweet, the stunning accompaniment of this community’s outstanding professional orchestra transported me and reminded me of the childhood magic of Christmas. I will especially cherish the children’s choir solo piece Candles in the Window. Played on piano I never noticed this, but a professional orchestra can play notes with such emotions that when combined with the words, especially “all of the music, all of the magic, all of the family home here with me,” it was all I could do to keep my composure and sing. It was so beautiful and magical it was all I could do not to cry. And the sound effects for Santa Claus is Coming to Town were so awesome it was all I could do not to jump for joy like I did as a child on Christmas morning!
I don’t know if it was the fact that I was sitting with the adult choir, or even the knowledge that this would be my last holiday concert of my legal childhood, or just the fact that school had been so stressful lately that I was starving for joy. But I am not sure I had ever smiled so big for so long before or since. I savored every moment and would have loved that experience to last forever.
I’m sure the other singers were smiling too. How could you not? But when we were in a room backstage between songs, while the other kids moved on, talked about unrelated things or played cards, much of that time I was in a trance-like state. When I did manage to speak, it was to tell anyone who would listen how much I would love to join the Symphony Chorus next year (forget college choirs) and have this joy every Christmas for the rest of my life!
I was not able to get a recording of this performance. Part of me now wishes I would have had the nerve to break the number one theater rule, you know that announcement made before any professional performance that “recording equipment of any kind is prohibited.” My choir uniform had deep pockets, and I had a really small tape recorder I used for student newspaper interviews. Just kidding. As a musician, I understand why this rule is in place. If everyone recorded performances, and a few people pirated them, musicians might no longer have jobs. Why pay to see future holiday pops concerts if past ones are readily available online? But sometimes, I think memories are even more beautiful without a recording to spark them.
The announcement that Mom had bought two tickets for this year’s holiday pops concert conducted by Doc Severinsen was all that was needed to bring these magical memories back to life. But while the concert was beautiful and Doc Severinsen was an exceptional trumpeter and entertainer, the concert just didn’t live up to my memories of 2007. To be fair, there could be many explanations for this. For one thing, the children’s choir wasn’t in the concert this year, and perhaps for that reason, none of the songs that so enchanted me were in the repertoire. It was beautiful, and I can understand the reasoning behind changing it up every year, but I am a traditionalist and was surprised and disappointed that I didn’t hear the cute orchestra arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas, Candles in the Window or Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. For another, being in the audience is a lot different than being onstage because in the audience, you are far removed from the orchestra, so it is possible that had I been onstage, this year’s songs would have enchanted me, and if the old songs were played, they would not have been as powerful as they were onstage. Or it could simply be the fact that since I was so stressed by school back in 2007 and was starving for joy, the emotions of that concert were magnified beyond normal. But either way, by the next morning, my mild depression and lack of holiday spirit had returned.
But the one memory that has cut through my blues this year started out as a much simpler affair than the grandeur of a symphony orchestra. It was November 2006, my junior year of high school.
At the beginning of the year, the choir director told us we would be going to Minnesota to sing with the Saint Olaf College in their annual choral festival, along with a few other high schools from Minnesota. I was excited because the Saint Olaf choir came to our area the year before for a concert and their choir is fabulous and their director well-renowned in the choral world. But as we rehearsed the songs, I didn’t have the degree of eager anticipation that I had the year before singing the Christmas Sweet because the only accompaniment for these songs was going to be piano, which is of course a beautiful instrument but not as magical as a full orchestra. And as we rehearsed our songs, especially Joy to the World, the finale of the festival that would combine all of the choirs (which I would find out on the day of the festival meant a total of over 1,000 singers), I just wasn’t feeling the Christmas spirit of that song. It could have been because even by choir standards, we were rehearsing Christmas songs unusually early, or it could have been the fact that drilling notes, even for students who love choir is tedious. Since choir was the last hour of the day and I had a very full schedule that semester, I was usually already spent before choir even started. But in retrospect, I think the biggest reason for my lack of spirit was that I honestly had no idea how joyful Joy to the World could be.
Our church sang it every Christmas, and it was a pretty enough simple carol, but in church, it just never really moved me. It could have been that at my church, the organ player played really loud and drowned out the congregation singing, but also as with any church, a lot of people don’t know all the words to the songs and still more are shy about singing, so even though the church easily had over 1,000 people in the pews (and aisles on Christmas Eve), the carol always seemed a little lackluster. Somehow, it just never registered with me that I wasn’t in the company of shy church parishioners anymore. I was at a choral festival with over a thousand people who loved to sing, rehearsed the words well and weren’t shy at all. It didn’t register that is, until the first chord “joy!” rang out. It was loud and confident and joyous beyond words! Because our group was too large to fit on a stage, we sat in rows of folding chairs in a gymnasium, which almost made it feel like I was sitting in a church congregation. When a small choir sings onstage, the sound is still wonderful but because the choir is much smaller, and the traditional arrangement is to be crammed on to small risers, the sound is more crammed too. But in a church congregation kind of arrangement with a thousand singers spread over a whole gym, there is sound everywhere, as if the whole world were singing! Oh was it heavenly!
In fact, a year later, my grandfather passed away and at his funeral, a cousin who I don’t see very often sat next to me and we started talking. One thing led to another and I think I told her about my involvement with choir. That’s when inexplicably, that finale of the Saint Olaf festival flashed in my mind. Many accounts of heaven I had heard talked about a choir of angels, and it occurred to me that if true, it was possible that at that moment, my grandfather was singing songs with the same joyful sentiments as Joy to the World with a choir of potentially billions. If an earthly choir of a thousand people in a gym can fill me to bursting with joy, imagine a heavenly choir of billions of souls, free of earthly distractions and self-consciousness! I am kind of a stoic person. I was sad when both my grandfathers died, but I just am not the type to cry openly at funerals. But the beauty of that image that flashed through my mind almost made me tear up.
Of course, our worldly life has a way of distracting us, and as I plunged back in to the school routine, I forgot about this image. But around Christmas when my mom finds the recording I was able to purchase of this festival, that image comes back to fill me to bursting with joy again and makes me want to live a holy life so I might join a heavenly choir one day too.
As with the Christmas Sweet and the Bill Conti holiday pops concert, that finale left me in a joyous trance as I got on the bus to return home, but unlike the other concerts, this memory has yet to lose its luster, and something tells me it never will.
The summer before I started high school, my mom and I went to Rome with my children’s choir, and of course when we weren’t performing or eating delicious Italian food, we were touring all of the famous Roman landmarks, especially the Vatican. It was in the Vatican that I remember my mom commenting to another mom something to the effect of, “all this marble and artwork is beautiful, but it’s a far cry from a little baby in a manger in Bethlehem isn’t it?” Maybe it is the same feeling with me and music. The thought of singing with an orchestra in front of me is still beautiful. But a lot of what we were singing related to the commercial elements of Christmas. Add to that the fact that the orchestra instruments are man-made and very expensive– (I once was told in a talk given by members of this orchestra that one violin costs a million dollars)–and I also realize that performing with an orchestra is in its way a far cry from the sentiments of a baby in a manger.
As I mentioned earlier in this long post, the lack of jobs in general, and the absence of any passion for jobs I have seen has caused me to think more spiritually about my life. I know so many people who are in jobs they don’t like, but stay with them because “they pay well.” Having money to buy fancy toys may bring you happiness for awhile, but eventually the novelty of a new toy will wear off. I know it will because the man-made joys of cookies and toys were beautiful for awhile, but the novelty wore off as I matured. But the simple beauty of a whole bunch of people in a gym making full use of their God-given musical instruments, their voices, and singing a song that epitomizes the true meaning of Christmas which is Christ’s birth, that is the one element of Christmas joy that remains as magical as ever.
I know that every moment of life is not meant to be bursting with joy, but I cannot help wonder if the fact that this song continues to overwhelm me with joy all these years later is a symbolic sign from the spirit that a prestigious title or great paycheck in a man-made corporation whose only goal is profit might be exciting for awhile. But like a simple song in a simple setting, it is the simple life with a career devoted to a higher purpose that will foster a life that is joyful overall because joyful moments created by God never fade.