In middle school, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of college. I wasn’t wild about school, and wasn’t looking forward to another four years of school after high school, especially if I had to take math. But I was beginning to think that if my parents and teachers insisted I go to college, I would study music. In my immaturity and blissful ignorance of reality, I figured that after college, I could then audition for a paid singing position in some prestigious choir that travels the world. There’s that subconscious longing for the restoration again. I longed for something more than the boring day jobs the adults around me talked about and thought that a unique and prestigious life was what I longed for.
But then I found out that if I wanted to really pursue a music career, I would need to learn to read music. All of my life, I had been learning choir songs by ear. I would just sit and listen to the rest of the choir sight-read a new song the first few times and then gradually join in. If I had trouble deciphering the words to a song, either because the song was in a foreign language, or the words were old English words I wasn’t used to, or the words were stretched out over many notes making them difficult to decipher when sung, my mom would read the words from the print music to me and I would transcribe them into braille. If practice CDs were available, I would take one home to review. The school choirs never had practice CDs, but the Milwaukee Children’s Choir often did, as does the choir I sing in today. I wish all choirs put together practice CDs because even for sighted people who can read music, they are helpful. Of course, nowadays, it is so easy to find another choir singing any song on iTunes or Youtube. There is a braille music code, and in eighth grade when I expressed interest in a music career, my vision teacher gave me a little introduction into it. A couple months later, I ordered a braille music tutorial from National Braille Press with the intention of teaching myself. But it was so complicated with many different symbols to denote every detail of a note—like whether it was a quarter note, half note, eighth note or sixteenth note, and the dynamic of the note (loud or soft)—that I quickly became overwhelmed. And even if I persevered and mastered this code, I couldn’t see how it would be practical in a real choir setting. When choir directors introduce a new song, they start by having the choir sight-read it, meaning that the choir has never seen that piece of music before but just reads it and muddles through the best they can the first time. I couldn’t see how I would be able to keep up with the choir when sight-reading it, so I would need to get the music ahead of time, study it at my own pace and maybe plunk out the notes on the piano, which I could have done if I really wanted to. But learning by ear the way I always had seemed so much more efficient and so I still learn my choir music by ear today.
As a side note, while sheet music is useful for learning a new piece of music, I wish that memorizing the music before concert time was a requirement in all choirs. In elementary school and middle school when the songs were relatively simple, memorization was required, but in high school when we started singing more challenging music, both my school choir and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir directors started allowing the choir to bring concert folders onstage so they could refer to their music. The choir I sing with now also brings their music onstage. I will confess that I don’t always practice what I preach myself. In fact in our most recent choir concert this past May 5, I referred to the words of two german pieces we sang that night because letters are pronounced differently in German and when I tried to sing from memory during rehearsal, I forgot the words and feared goofing up royally if I tried to sing from memory at the concert. But when I don’t refer to my “music” I find that I enjoy the concert experience more. For my fellow sighted choir members, singing a concert using music is a carefully choreographed art that the choir director has to discuss with the choir at every dress rehearsal before a concert. They must find that balance between looking at their music enough to help them, but not so much that they aren’t watching the choir director and thus miss important cues. They must also practice quiet page turning, and make sure they are still engaging with the audience, not just burying their faces in their music. With all these logistics they have to focus on at every concert, sometimes, I fear that my choir mates are nervous and view the concert as something to survive without any major blunders, and thus cannot truly enjoy the experience of engaging with the audience, or letting the beautiful words and melodies of each song transport them.
In high school, music theory, which meant practicing drawing notes on a musical staff and sight-reading took on a larger role in choral classes. I was delighted when the director of the Cantorei Choir created a Cantorei Chamber choir for older students which I was able to join my junior year of high school. But for this choir, the director gave everyone music theory workbooks and time was set aside in most rehearsals to do exercises out of this book. The high school choir director gave music theory assignments as well. Fortunately both choir directors were fine with the fact that I did not read music and let me sit these exercises out, but I kind of felt bad for my sighted choir members as I felt it took something that was supposed to be a joyful pursuit and turned it into drudgery. So in high school, I began to have second thoughts about majoring in music when I got to college. Then, in my sophomore year, I visited the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee which had a special event for prospective college students with disabilities. After a general large group meeting, we had the opportunity to split up and go to presentations about admission requirements for programs we might be interested in, so my vision teacher took me to the presentation for the music program. During this presentation, when the director outlined the requirements for submitting a portfolio with samples of work in areas that included musical theory and performance, I decided I did not want to major in music after all. I had this fear that the stress of trying to assemble such a portfolio, and just the drudgery of four years of music theory and performing recitals for a grade would burn me out to the point that I would lose my passion for music. I was all for challenging myself and learning new music, and I absolutely still wanted to sing with people who took music seriously and wouldn’t goof off and be disruptive, but ultimately I just wanted to sing for the joy of singing and keep that child-like flame of true passion for music alive. I ended up studying journalism, something I enjoy, but in a different way, and I am not as emotionally attached to it as I am to singing.
Unlike middle school, music was not a requirement in high school. I think only one semester of fine arts was required in high school, and students who had no interest in music could fulfill this requirement with things like art, photography, or woodworking. For this reason, although there was still disruptive behavior on occasion, it didn’t reach the level that it did in middle school because everyone who chose to join the choir had at least some passion for singing and was thus willing to take rehearsals seriously. Freshman year, all girls who wanted to be in choir started in a choir solely for freshmen girls. At the time, I was a little miffed that I couldn’t go right to the big leagues when after all, I had already sang with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and been to Italy, but I ended up really enjoying this choir. Because the choir just comprised freshmen women, it was a smaller choir, only around thirty of us, which meant that the director could give us one-on-one attention. I thought we sounded like a children’s choir at the beginning of the year, but over the course of that year, the director worked with us a lot on having a fuller, more mature sound. Now I realize this choir was a good idea as women’s voices change at this age and it was a great way to get used to singing in the high school setting. At the end of freshman year, we could audition for Chamber Choir, the most advanced choir which was open to both men and women sophomore, junior and senior year. If we were not accepted into Chamber Choir, we could still sing in Concert Choir, an excellent choir that just sang less challenging music. I auditioned for Chamber Choir at the end of freshman year and to my delight, I was accepted!
Chamber choir rehearsed the last hour of the school day which at first I thought would be wonderful. After a hard day of academic classes, I would end the day with singing. But the demands of my other classes kept me up late every night, and some semesters I did not have a study hall to work out math or technology challenges, so I had to have a working lunch in the library or the office where my teacher’s aid produced class materials for me. So by the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted. I also had a lot of headaches at that time of my life. Usually they were not severe enough that I had to stay home, but they were just those relentless nagging headaches that sap you of all ambition. Looking back I realize this was probably the beginning of my body’s intolerance to gluten. The headaches increased in frequency and severity over the years until I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease shortly after college graduation. Anyway, this combination of factors made it very difficult to maintain a positive attitude when we had to tediously drill notes day after day, and were stopped constantly by the choir director to correct a stylistic mistake or wrong note. To add insult to injury, instead of sitting in rows of chairs to drill notes, and standing intermittently to sing, this director had us stand on rows of risers pretty much the entire rehearsal, so by the end of class, my feet hurt. This was probably a good thing though because if we had had chairs, I am sure I would have fallen asleep. My energy level was usually much improved by evening when I would often recline on the couch intending to watch a television program but would end up falling asleep. I had Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals once a week, and even when I had to go back to school for the occasional evening rehearsal before a couple big concerts, my energy level and attitude were much improved. I was scared and sad when during my junior year, the choir director noticed this negativity, especially when I started leaving a little bit too early to catch the bus. How had I come so far from that little kid with such passion for singing? To my high school choir director if you ever find this blog: I want you to know I am sorry for my negative attitude back then. I still hate the process of drilling notes (who doesn’t?). But I am still singing in choir today because when the drilling is done and a beautiful concert comes together, the child within me comes alive again.
One particularly difficult rehearsal when the director got the sense that the whole class had a negative attitude about all the drilling and nagging about stylistic mistakes, the director said that although it seemed like she was being mean, she was being tough on us because she loved us and wanted us to be the best we could be, and in the long run, we wouldn’t really want a choir director that didn’t push us when she sensed we could do better. That’s when I really understood the importance of teachers setting high expectations. The teacher who settles for “good enough” in the moment may seem kinder, but it is the teacher who pushes you to be better who really cares about her students. Perhaps to drive this point home, this choir director required us to attend a choral concert at another high school in the area each semester and write a paper critiquing their concert. Most of the schools I went to also had excellent music programs. I still thought our choir was the best, but I was a bit biased. But a couple schools left me feeling sad because I got the sense from the song selection and the kind of mistakes that were made that these programs did not set high expectations for their students, and I actually felt kind of sorry for these students who weren’t getting the incredible rewarding experience of singing challenging music.
This hard work yielded wonderful opportunities. My sophomore and senior years, all the school choirs participated in a choral competition: sophomore year the competition was held in San Diego, and senior year it was in Williamsburg, Virginia. We swept both of these competitions, and got a nice vacation from school as well. Sophomore year, all of the choirs also had the opportunity to perform a holiday concert with the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra. I was so excited for my peers to have the amazing experience of hearing songs come alive in a whole new way with a full orchestra as I had already gotten to experience with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. I loved getting this experience again too as that kind of magic never gets old. My junior year, just the Chamber Choir was invited to sing in a choral festival at Saint Olaf College. Our choir was the first to perform and every time I listen to the CD from that festival, I still feel amazed and blessed that I had the opportunity to be part of a choir that sounded so amazing. There were also a few songs that all of the choirs in attendance at the festival sang together. Since there were around a thousand of us in all, we could not all fit onto a stage, so we sat in rows of folding chairs in a gymnasium while individual choirs performed onstage, and then stood up for the combined songs. This was the most amazing and truly joyful rendition of Joy to the World that I have ever or probably will ever sing this side of the restoration. Since we were spread out instead of crammed onto a small stage, our sound filled the room. It felt like a big happy church service, except unlike church where a lot of people are too shy to sing, everyone in that room was a choir singer, and we sang loud and joyful. It really was heavenly!
My sophomore year, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir was invited to sing a Christmas piece in Carnegie Hall. The piece was called the Christmas Sweet, and it was so much fun to sing. When I first heard a recording of this piece, I was enchanted because it sounded so “New York during the holiday season” even though at that time, I had never been to New York, during the holidays or otherwise. But when an adult soloist accompanied by a soft orchestra in the background sang “when the frost starts to glisten, and the nights flush with cold, and the streets shimmer gold, it’s Christmas,” I was transported by this song. From that first movement, through movements about shepherds in the field, to a movement about children playing in the snow, and even a silly movement in which we simply sang the words Merry Christmas to different melodies, this choral work was magical from the first note to the last, capturing the essence of everything that makes Christmas so special. The last concert I ever sang with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir was the holiday pops concert my senior year. I actually didn’t know this would be my last concert with this choir, at the time, but second semester, there were several extra school rehearsals to prepare for the competition in Williamsburg which conflicted with Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals. But looking back, I couldn’t have asked for a more magical last memory of my children’s choir days. Part of the reason I think it was so magical was that I could truly enjoy it as school was going smoothly and for once I understood the math concept we were studying so homework didn’t take me quite so long. At the same time, I had just come through a really difficult math unit and singing a joyful concert was just the breath of fresh air I needed. But I also loved it because Bill Conti, the guest conductor of this concert selected the most amazing set of songs that captured the childhood magic of Christmas. The Cantorei Chamber Choir started the concert with Candles in the Window from Home Alone the words of which are beautiful by themselves, but come alive even more accompanied by the full orchestra, especially the beautiful silky tones of the violin. Then we collaborated with the adults of the Symphony Chorus and sang all the Christmas favorites including Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sleigh Ride and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, complete with instrumental sound effects for the horses and toys from the orchestra. For my last concert with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, and my second-to-last concert as a minor—I turned eighteen the following March—I could not have asked for a more magical farewell to childhood. But the beautiful thing about music is that unlike athletic pursuits which can only be enjoyed in youth, choir is a passion that I can enjoy my whole life. In the next post, I will talk about my college choir experience and the choir I sing in now.