Fifth grade was a tough year academically for me, but when it came to my chorus experience, I would have loved to stay in fifth grade forever. But I was optimistic about the transition to middle school because in sixth grade, choir was a class, not an extracurricular activity which I thought would give it more legitimacy. In sixth grade, music was a required part of the curriculum, but students could choose to meet this requirement with band, orchestra, choir, or general music. Of course, I chose choir. What I hadn’t anticipated in my young mind however was that choir would attract students looking for something more interesting than general music, and perceived choir as an “easy” class. The choir teacher was planning to retire after my sixth grade year, and I think our class re-enforced this decision. Some students were so disruptive and made choir rehearsals so chaotic that she lost her cool a couple times and shouted at the top of her lungs “Stop talking.” Maybe this wasn’t the most professional approach to the situation, but I cannot blame her for this reaction because if I were her, I might have reacted the same way. Just as I am sure classmates who took sports seriously and loved gym class must have hated having me on their team because I am not the slightest bit athletic, I was the athlete of choir and longed to be with people who took singing more seriously. My dream actually came true temporarily that year the Wednesday after Labor Day when the teacher announced an event called Singing in Wisconsin where serious singers from all over the metro area would rehearse a set of songs, and then we would meet on a Saturday morning that November at Carroll College, rehearse the songs together all day and then give a performance that evening. I signed up for this opportunity right away. The small group of us interested in this event rehearsed these special songs after school, so while I still had to put up with my disruptive peers during the regular class, these rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school were so peaceful and productive that they became the highlight of my week. I don’t remember all of the songs we performed that day, but I do remember this was the first time I ever sang For the Beauty of the Earth, a song I would sing a lot in the years to come and which is still one of my favorites for its simple beauty and inspiring message.
On that Saturday at Carroll College, all of the groups represented were introduced and I heard them announce the Waukesha Children’s Choir. I perked up when I heard this choir announced, not because I knew anything about them but because that was what planted the idea in my mind of how exciting it would be to sing in a choir not affiliated with school, a choir for serious singers, just like my brother’s club volleyball team. Shortly thereafter, I expressed this to the choir teacher who suggested auditioning for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, as it was bigger and would give me all sorts of exciting opportunities, including the chance to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. So on a Monday night in August before my seventh grade year, Dad took me to an office downtown where I auditioned for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir.
Although it was called an audition, I remember the director saying that no one is rejected. After all, if you didn’t care for singing, why would you audition for this kind of choir in the first place? The purpose of the audition was more about the director evaluating our voice and vocal range to determine what part we would sing. Because it was my first year with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, I was accepted into the Concert choir, which was the middle ground between the choir for really young children, and the advanced Cantorei Choir, or as the director said once when reminding us of proper posture for standing on the risers which included not fidgeting or scratching itches nervously, “you are in between the scratchers and the statures.” At first I was embarrassed because at the first rehearsal when we went around introducing ourselves, I realized I was the oldest one there, with most students being in the fourth and fifth grade, and a few students as young as third grade. But I quickly came to realize that unlike school where everything is so segregated, age difference really didn’t matter in this choir and I quickly made friends.
But despite being a choir for younger children, the director was not soft on us. I will never forget the first rehearsal when the director was teaching us the choir scale “do re mi fa so la ti do.” She wanted us to sing the scale and do hand motions to go along with it, but of course I couldn’t see the hand motions. So I practiced the advocacy my teachers always encouraged at school and raised my hand to ask the choir director to show me the hand motions I was supposed to be doing, to which she responded “that’s your homework.” I think this shocked me into silence the rest of rehearsal. That year, the choir rehearsed at a church downtown and that first year, Mom sat quietly in the back during rehearsals. This was partly due to the fact that it didn’t make sense for her to go home since rehearsals were only an hour and a half once a week. But she also just wanted to be available in case I needed anything, especially if I needed the restroom, which by evening I often did due to the medication I had to take at the time. So Mom heard this exchange between me and the choir director, and in the car on the way home, she explained that in the public school setting I was accustomed to, the teachers had to accommodate me, but in a private organization like this choir, they did not have to. This didn’t mean I couldn’t be in this choir. It just meant that I would need to handle things more on my own. So Mom showed me how to do the hand motions that week, and while my teacher’s aid would transcribe the words of the songs for the school choir into braille for me, Mom read the words of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir songs to me and I transcribed them into braille myself. At the second rehearsal, the choir director asked me a question about something we were singing and in this way caught me dozing off as I was not used to evening activities yet. But after that, I found my footing and Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals became the highlight of my week.
Disruptive behavior was extremely rare in this choir because everyone in it was serious about singing and wanted to be there. On the rare occasion someone did get carried away and misbehave, the director would march over to where they were sitting and reprimand them sternly. Even when no one was misbehaving, this director had a stern demeanor, and I remember one Saturday when Mom had to work and Dad took me to a special rehearsal, I heard him tell Mom later he couldn’t believe how stern she was with us because compared to the Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops my parents used to chaperone, cthese choir students were angels! This director actually was a lot of fun. You could tell she loved working with young people and as the year progressed, she seemed less stern to me. Maybe it was because I liked this sternness and had gotten used to it as it was refreshing compared to the chaos that often defined school rehearsals. (The Milwaukee Children’s Choir had a policy that if your school had a choral program, you were expected to participate in it as well because we could be valuable assets to the choir with the advanced training we were getting, and because they didn’t want us to develop a snobby attitude and think of ourselves as being too good for our school choir.) But I also think this director was intentionally more stern than usual at the beginning of the year to scare off any singers who weren’t going to take singing seriously, and to establish high expectations.
I didn’t get to sing a full-fledged concert with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra that year. That opportunity was reserved for the “statures.” But I did get to sing with the symphony for an educational program they put on for second graders all over the metro area. I actually remembered going to this program when I was in second grade, so it was exciting to come full-circle, knowing that quite possibly, there were future choir members sitting in that audience just as I had been five years earlier.
The following year I auditioned for and was accepted into the Cantorei choir, and this is where my passion for singing blossomed the most. The director of this choir worked for a music publishing company and thus was nationally renowned. My aunt who was a music teacher in Indiana at the time knew of her. I loved how this director made us feele grownup by giving us fancy leather folders for our music, and when it was time for rehearsals to begin, all she had to do was raise her hand and hum the C above Middle C and the room would snap to attention. Many singing dreams were realized that year, including the opportunity to perform with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. That holiday season, we collaborated with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the adult Symphony Chorus to perform Hansel and Gretel, and the Holiday Pops concert which was conducted by Doc Severinsen. In the summer following that year, I went to Italy with this choir where we had the privilege of singing at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I was always appreciative of the sacrifices my parents made for me to have these opportunities. In addition to driving me to the many rehearsals these opportunities required, I remember Mom picking up a lot of over-time shifts so that we could go to Italy. I tried to convince her to let me go by myself so she would only have to pay for one person, as traveling abroad was never a draw for her anyway. But she didn’t feel comfortable sending me alone given my special medical situation, and she wanted me to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But it wasn’t until I was older that I found out how expensive the tuition was for each semester in this choir, and now that I am more aware of how much poverty and inequality there is right in my metro area, I have a deeper awareness of how blessed I was to have these opportunities.
The church we rehearsed in that year is still my all-time favorite rehearsal site as well. It was an old Lutheran church that had that old wood smell that I love. But what was most interesting about this site was that on the wood floor of the room where we rehearsed was a painted labyrinth. At one time I knew what the labyrinth signified, but now I forget. Anyway to protect this labyrinth, the church leadership did not want anyone wearing shoes in this room, so before rehearsal, we all took off our shoes in an entry-way on the lower level before climbing a flight of stairs to the rehearsal room. I don’t know if I ever mentioned this in past posts, but I love being barefoot. The first thing I have always done when returning home from school or work is take off my shoes, and I switch to sandals as soon as the snow melts, and wear them until the first snowflakes in fall. I would wear them in the snow too if Mom allowed me to. If I were a prairie girl living in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s time, I would not have liked the bugs coming right into the house through windows with no screens, but I would have loved being barefoot all the time! I just feel so much lighter and freer without shoes, or when I can at least wear shoes that let my toes breathe. Now that I am in an adult choir where most of the other singers are senior citizens, we are seated the entire time on a typical rehearsal night, only standing for long periods of time at the dress rehearsal before a concert, and for the performance itself. But in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, the director had us standing a lot, and I honestly think my feet hurt less after rehearsal that year than in the years that followed. But more importantly, I loved this rehearsal site because I think the room had a high ceiling because our sound echoed beautifully in this room, so I essentially got to sing in a cathedral once a week that year.
This choir also made my eighth grade year an amazing year from a social perspective as well. In elementary school, there were a few bullies in the before-school daycare I had to go to a few mornings a week from third grade through fifth grade, but overall, I had a lot of friends. In fact, since I was the only blind student in the whole school at the time, I sort of had celebrity status with even students in other grades asking me questions about being blind, and sometimes if I was walking somewhere by myself and another class was processing down the hall on their way to gym, art or music, the whole class would say hi as they walked by. I didn’t know what to make of this celebrity treatment at the time but looking back now, the teachers must have found it adorable and maybe even kind of funny. In these years, I never had a problem finding a partner when we had group assignments. But in middle school when puberty strikes, it was as if a switch flipped. I still had a couple of close friends, but mostly I was ignored. Teachers would have to assign students to work with me for group projects, and I could go whole days in a kind of silent bubble, walking from class to class quietly minding my own business but not speaking to a single peer all day. One of my close friends was in the school choir with me, and we both helped each other. She was new to the area, and because cliques were already well-established by seventh grade, I got the impression she felt ignored to, so we provided mutual companionship and moral support. She was also extremely helpful with logistical things like getting me to my spot on the risers at concert time which was a huge relief for me because the choir director was new to teaching and was not helping me as much as past choir directors had. So I have good memories of school choir in middle school too. But eighth grade in Cantorei choir was like stepping into another world. Once a week, I got to be with “my people!” I felt like a rockstar again surrounded by a happy group of friends at breaktime, and when we would take bus trips, I wasn’t the only one singing on the bus anymore! Even the boys were more mature in Cantorei choir. There was one boy in particular whom I especially enjoyed spending time with. We never officially declared ourselves a couple, maybe because we were both mature beyond our years and didn’t go for the silliness associated with this declaration. But he always came to talk to me at break times and if there was a special event, we would often sit together at lunch or on the bus and talk about religion, politics and music. Life took us in different directions and I haven’t kept in touch with him, but the time I spent talking to him in this choir was the closest I ever felt to having a boyfriend.
Perhaps because this director was nationally renowned for her work publishing music for children, I loved most of the songs she selected for us to sing. Perhaps because she came from Texas, her taste for gospel music was especially amazing. There was one song especially, Music Down in My Soul composed by Moses Hogan that was a favorite of the choir, and on concert days when this song was in the program, we raised the roof and got audiences hollering with joy. Rehearsing this song and others similar to it also filled me with joy that carried me through the week even if school was tough. My parents never had to worry about me turning to drugs or alcohol for happiness, because who needs drugs or alcohol when you can be high on song, floating down the hall between classes singing “Love in my heart! Oh yes I’ve got peace in my soul! Oh yes I’ve got joy in my heart! Joy today!” I even started a new tradition with this song. One rehearsal shortly before the spring concert when we were going to perform this song, I remember singing it and thinking that adding clapping into the refrain would be the icing on the cake of this amazing song. But this wasn’t part of the music, and there is an unwritten rule all serious choral singers know. That rule is that you don’t dare do anything to upset a choir director when concert day is near. I love and respect choir directors, but they are as a rule perfectionistic, especially the last week or two before a concert, and therefore, their fuses are very short. I feared incurring the wrath of the choir director more than I feared God. But a week after the concert, there was a final send-off rehearsal where the choir director would recognize the students who were aging out, and also give us a chance to sing the songs one more time, just for fun. This I decided would be a safe time to clap. So when we got to the refrain, I started clapping to the beat, and then a couple friends around me started clapping, then a few more, and before long, the whole choir of 100 or so singers was clapping! At first I was a little embarrassed when I asked and a friend confirmed that I had indeed instigated this, but that embarrassment didn’t last long as we were all having a blast. The choir director must have loved it too because the following year when we sang this song, the director told us we could clap for part of the refrain when the piano stops playing.
I would continue to sing in this choir my freshman year of high school as well, but unfortunately some of my best friends, including my almost boyfriend aged out of the choir as they were a year older than me, and the director quipped at the time that she did not want to teach students old enough to drive themselves to rehearsal. In addition, my freshman year, the choir rehearsals moved to a newly built Youth Art Center which most saw as a better rehearsal site, but I missed the acoustics of this old church, and the chance to rehearse barefoot. But I still had friends in the choir, and the director was still amazing so I had a blast my freshman year too.
Well I thought I could talk about my childhood choral experience in two posts, but I had so much to say that this post is already long and I haven’t even gotten to my high school experiences. So I will need another post or two. I think I ended my previous post with the director of the fifth grade chorus saying “I hope this is just the beginning for you.” I think it hit me when singing in Saint Peter’s Basilica that this teacher’s hope for me had been realized. Three years earlier, singing for parents in the school gym was a big stage, and now here I was singing in the most famous and beautiful church in the world. And I was still young, with many more opportunities and years of singing ahead of me.