Singing in College and Beyond

Looking back, it’s ironic to realize that when I was a child, I couldn’t wait to be an adult. I loved the mature, full sound of adult choirs when we collaborated with them. But now that I am an adult, I long for the children’s choir and school choir days again. I know I ended my last entry touting the fact that unlike athletic activities which can only be enjoyed in youth, I can sing in choir my whole life. This is wonderful and true, and it is inspiring to sit with retired people who still enjoy singing. My best friend in the choir, a retired music teacher can hit the high notes better than I can. But I was a little sad to discover when I got to college that performing concerts in adult choirs isn’t quite as exciting as I had imagined. I think a large reason for this is that after high school, the number of people who choose to continue singing in college and adulthood drops dramatically. While peer pressure has negative implications in many arenas, one area where peer pressure may actually be good in my opinion is when friends convince friends to join choir with them. In high school, choir is popular and fun, and even students who know they wouldn’t want to actually study music in college, and don’t sing walking down the hallway like I did, still join choir because it is fun. I think this is why in our school concerts, there were always hundreds of singers, enough to have a well-balanced tenor and bass section, and have a wonderfully full sound onstage even if our voices weren’t as mature as adult voices. But after high school, these same students understandably focus on their own majors and the demands of adult life so that only music majors, and a few people like me that just have a deep passion for singing continue to sing in choir. In one sense, this was what I always wanted. In school I used to get so frustrated by students who didn’t take singing seriously and were disruptive. This was less of a problem in high school as music wasn’t a requirement so everyone in the choir seemed to have some passion for music. But even in high school, there was some disruptive behavior. I was a little sad when the choir director told us she was going to enter us into a more intensive singing competition, but decided we weren’t mature enough for it. So in one sense it is wonderful to be an adult singer where only people with a deep passion for music make time for choir. But this also means that choirs are smaller, and although even in childhood, most choir singers were girls, the disparity between men and women becomes even more pronounced in adulthood, so that in some concerts, we may only have two tenors and two basses, so the thirty or so of us soppranoes have to be cognizant that we are not drowning them out.


Audiences are smaller too. In both the children’s choir and the school choir, it was a full house for every performance. At Carroll University, there is a long-standing tradition called Christmas at Carroll where the choirs and orchestra would collaborate for a beautiful Christmas program. This program is a favorite of music alumni and even the larger community, so the house would be full for that performance. But for the other performances I could tell by the sound of the applause after each song that there were a lot of empty seats. I realize that in childhood, the majority of the audience was proud parents and grandparents. Even parents who weren’t fond of choral music would attend just to support their sons and daughters. But in college, many of the choir members came from other states so their parents were unable to come, and in the adult choir I sing with now, for many of the choir members their parents are no longer living. Unlike Donald Trump, I don’t really care about the size of the audience. That’s not why I sing. I would perform with the choir to an empty auditorium because I just love the emotional experience of singing itself. Furthermore, the audience, just like the adult choir, may be small, but the senior citizens and occasional community members that do attend truly enjoy the music and the applause is boisterous. But there was just something exciting about singing for a full house that was exciting, and I admit sometimes I am nostalgic for those days.


After the incredibly magical holiday pops concert with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, I wanted to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus in college. But Mom convinced me that I should sing in the college choir. Carroll University’s music program isn’t as large as it once was as the university has focused more on fields like nursing, but they still have an excellent music program, and Mom pointed out that while I had my whole life to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus if I wanted to, I could only be in college choir for this relatively brief time of my life. I am glad I listened to Mom’s wisdom because looking back, I realize that commuting to downtown Milwaukee for rehearsals would have added a lot more stress to an already stressful time trying to adjust to college and working with Gilbert. Furthermore, I made some wonderful friends and fond memories through the college choir experience. I actually only sang with the college choir for two semesters because the classes I needed for my Journalism major often conflicted with choir rehearsal times and since I wasn’t a music major, even I had to make the courses necessary for my degree the priority.


First semester of freshman year, I sang in a women’s choir that rehearsed from 4:00 to 6:00 Tuesdays and Thursdays. In hindsight, I wish I would have foregone choir that first semester because I had so much going on that semester adjusting to college and Gilbert that I was exhausted by 4:00 and actually started dreading rehearsals. It didn’t help that since I had 3 hours between an English class and choir, Mom would often take me home for lunch and to start reading some textbook chapters to me that weren’t accessible yet, and since I was already home, I hated having to go back to school. That semester we spent the bulk of rehearsal time learning Vivaldi’s Gloria, but I didn’t really appreciate the beauty of this piece until 2014 when I had the chance to sing it again in the Waukesha Choral Union. But at that time, after singing in choir every semester since fifth grade, I could not imagine doing school without choir. One nice thing about this choir though was that the director was someone I knew. In my high school, the choral program was staffed by two choir directors. The head director worked full-time at the school and directed both the freshmen girls choir and Chamber Choir so I had her all four years of high school. The other director divided her time between the concert choir at my high school, and the other high school in our district. But she would direct us occasionally when we collaborated with concert choir for a performance, and I would say hi to her in the hallway. This director also taught the women’s choir at Carroll University. In a world where everything and everyone else was new, it was comforting to hear a familiar voice and have a connection to high school. But after singing four years in Chamber choir with that wonderful mix of male and female voices, I missed that full sound and decided that if I ever sang in college choir another semester, I would join Concert Choir.


I think I could have sang in concert choir second semester as I don’t think I had class at noon when this choir rehearsed. But after the craziness of first semester, I decided to take a semester off. Then sophomore year, I wanted to sing, but I wanted to try something different too. As beautiful as challenging classical music is, I wanted to try singing a different style of music that would require less tedious drilling. I wanted to sing only in English and wanted upbeat songs that would make me smile. Remembering how much I loved Moses Hogan, I looked for a choir that sang exclusively gospel music but could not find one in the area. Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee had gospel choirs but only for their students. I had visited both of these universities in high school and knew that overall, these schools would have been too large and overwhelming for me, but for a short time, I regretted not choosing one of these schools so that I could sing in a gospel choir. In December of that year shortly before Christmas, I auditioned for the Milwaukee Choristers, a traditional choir but one I thought I would enjoy that year at least because for their spring concert, they were going to be singing Broadway show tunes which I remember as being relatively easy and fun to sing. But for the first time ever, I was rejected. It so happened that my almost-boyfriend from Cantorei choir was there to audition as well. We had a great time catching up as we waited for our appointments, and met at a coffee shop a few days later. At this meeting, I found out that he had been accepted, but he said his sight-reading wasn’t very good, so he speculated that this choir takes balancing of voice parts very seriously. Like all choirs, they were short on men and had too many women interested in joining, so the competition was a lot tougher for women. But then I discovered Sweet Adeline’s, an international organization promoting women’s barbershop! For those of you who may not know, barbershop is a cappella (no instruments) four-part harmony and is the perfect style for many gospel and pop songs. Shortly before I had found out about Sweet Adeline’s, I watched The Sing-Off, an a capella music competition that ran on NBC for a few seasons, and it was so much fun to watch! I couldn’t wait to explore this style of music for myself.


So in January 2010, I started attending Monday night rehearsals with Crosstown Harmony Chorus, a local choir affiliated with Sweet Adelines. I became good friends with several members of this chorus, one of whom said she had been singing in this chorus for sixty years. This choir was an interesting mix of fun and serious. Instead of the traditional stretching and formal warming up that marked the start of a traditional choir rehearsal, this choir would warm up by dancing to an upbeat song like Rockytop Tennessee. After choir rehearsals, I had to get home because I was tired and often had school the next day, but a lot of the choir would go to the bar after rehearsal. Several of the singers were smokers, but the funny thing was that their gravelly voices after years of smoking made them excellent bass singers. For about the first year, this choir was loads of fun. Barbershop singing required more drilling than I expected especially when it came to singing in tune. We would think we were in tune, until the last note of the song when the director would play the note we were supposed to be on and we would all laugh because we were way off. But it was fun singing pop songs and a few gospel songs all in English. I learned from a long-time member that English is the only language allowed in barbershop music. Sweet Adeline’s is an international organization so I had always assumed that choirs from other countries sang this style of music with songs in their own language, but this is not the case. This member who had been to competitions said it is very interesting to hear choirs from other countries sing barbershop because since English is not their native language, the sing some words differently. This makes sense. In traditional choirs when we would sing songs in French, Italian or German, the choir director would carefully research proper pronunciation of words and when I was in Cantorei choir, a guest language coach came to rehearsal a couple times to help us with pronunciation. But I am sure if we went to France, Italy or Germany to sing these songs, the people there would be able to tell it wasn’t our native language.


I had to leave this choir temporarily the fall 2010 semester because the Feature Writing class I needed for my major was only offered Monday evenings. But when I returned in January 2011, I gradually started finding it more difficult to motivate myself to go to rehearsals. I think it was a combination of the fact that my courses were more demanding and the lack of energy that I now realize was probably the progression of Celiac Disease, was becoming even more pronounced. Just like Chamber choir, we stood on risers for rehearsal, but these rehearsals were two and a half hours long instead of just fifty minutes. I didn’t want to be a quitter, but I started dreading these exhausting rehearsals. Another thing that I hadn’t anticipated when I joined but which made this choir less feasible for me was when they started adding choreography to the songs. I had done simple choreography to a few songs when I was in school and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, but this choreography seemed a lot more complex. People tried to show me the choreography but I just wasn’t getting it, and when guest coaches would come and talk about how choreography was about showmanship, not just doing the moves, I was lost for good. The choir planned to compete in Houston. I had school the week of that competition, but I wouldn’t have gone anyway because I wouldn’t have wanted to bring down the choir’s score given that I probably wouldn’t have been in sync with the choreography and didn’t understand the nuances of showmanship. But I had fun performing these songs at a Cabaret the chorus put together to raise money for the trip to Houston. I just sang the songs while the rest of the chorus did the choreography. I also sang a Christmas concert with them in 2011, but didn’t return in January because I was starting to have headaches all the time and was barely keeping my head above water with my school work.


Since I could not be in Crosstown Harmony Chorus in Fall 2010, and didn’t have to take any classes at noon that semester, I decided to join Carroll University’s Concert Choir. I really enjoyed this choir because while the director took choral music very seriously, she was also a lot of fun and her demeanor didn’t seem as stern as the typical choir director. I also liked the fact that unlike past choirs where we had to get measured for special uniforms that were either dresses or long skirts with cumberbuns that had to be tied, and/or earrings that were painful on my sensitive ears. The thought of getting my ears pierced never appealed to me so I had to wear clip-on earrings. Crosstown Harmony and all the choirs at my high school required earrings. Thank goodness the choir I sing in now doesn’t require earrings. I was getting pretty tired of having a constant stinging feeling on my earlobe at concerts. Anyway, the director of Carroll University’s concert choir just told us to wear dressy black pants and a white top. For her, the music was more important than uniformity which I liked. Rehearsals met four days a week but for only 50 minutes a day, and our classroom was on the stage of Shattuck Auditorium. This was perfect because all of our concerts would be performed in Shattuck Auditorium, so unlike most choirs who rehearse in a smaller space and then have to have a special rehearsal to get used to the acoustics of the performance venue, this choir rehearsed in the performance venue every day. Just before the concert, we would practice singing on risers, but most days, chairs were arranged onstage so there wasn’t the exhaustion of standing on risers for fifty minutes. But most importantly after being away from classical music for awhile, I had a renewed appreciation for its beauty and loved every song we sang, especially Benjamin Britain’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Incidentally, we collaborated with the Waukesha Choral Union for this piece, the choir I would join as an adult. I was sad to see this semester end and in retrospect, maybe I should have foregone the Public Policy course that conflicted with choir the following semester and stuck with choir. But then again, Public Policy was something I was interested in and something that would benefit me if I decided to be a political reporter after college. And I never would have thought to apply to the amazing internship experience with the governor’s office if I hadn’t taken this class and been encouraged to pursue this opportunity by the professor. So I guess everything worked out as it was supposed to.


I stopped attending Crosstown Harmony rehearsals after the Christmas concert in December 2011, but officially resigned my membership in 2012 shortly before college graduation. After graduation, the rest of 2012 and the winter of 2013 were a blur of medical crises. My Celiac Disease was diagnosed in July 2012 and once I started eating a strict gluten free diet, the frequency and severity of my headaches decreased dramatically. But in August when it would have been time to audition for choir, I just didn’t feel ready to commit to anything. My energy level was improving but after years of school, homework and crazy schedules, I just wanted to relish the chance to rest and have no real responsibilities. As the winter 2013 semester approached, I thought about the many exhausting years of going out in the cold and driving through snow and ice to choir rehearsals and decided to take the winter off as well. This was a wise decision as my mom needed to go to Oregon to take care of my brother who needed surgery. She was away for almost a month, and it would have been very difficult for my dad to get off work in time to take me to choir rehearsals. But by August of 2013, I was feeling restless and life had settled down. I was ready to sing again.


So in the fall of 2013, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Waukesha Choral Union a community choir that performs four concerts a year at churches or schools in the Waukesha area. It has been the perfect fit. I am one of only a few young people in the choir, but the older I get, the more I appreciate how little age matters when it comes to singing because the camaraderie that comes from getting together to sing every Tuesday night, and the passion of singing the songs themselves gives every rehearsal a youthful vibe. Everyone in the choir is passionate about singing, but not so overly serious that we cannot stop rehearsal and laugh every now and then. In fact, not a rehearsal goes by without a singer, or the director himself saying something witty, and one long-time member keeps track of all the witty things the director says all year and then reads them at our end-of-season banquet. I also love the fact that this choir is welcoming and inclusive. Most of the singers read music, but I am not the only one who doesn’t, and there are a couple of singers on the autism spectrum who might have had a difficult time fitting into other choirs, but whom this choir warmly embraces. In fact, they are an asset to the choir as they have perfect pitch!


I still enjoy being an audience member at the Milwaukee Symphony’s Holiday pops concert every year. In fact ever since I became employed, I have been buying the tickets for Mom and I to go to this concert, and she considers it her Christmas present. That is how much we both enjoy it. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus is a bigger choir, and when I hear the full orchestra and that big choir sound, I have a fleeting moment where I admit I long to be up there singing with them. But the rehearsal schedule and even the audition process is much more intense, and this is the kind of choir that probably would have required me to read music. I loved, and am occasionally nostalgic for the prestigious opportunities and huge audiences that defined my choral experience as a child. But the further I get into adulthood, the more I realize that as wonderful as these childhood opportunities were, the flame of passion for singing that has always been in my heart doesn’t need prestigious opportunities or large audiences to keep burning bright. My passion is fueled simply by singing those songs that are so joyful I feel as though I am in heaven, or so beautiful I almost cry. And I know that this passion is real because when I stopped singing to address health concerns in 2012, and put my career ahead of singing in 2016, in both cases it wasn’t long before I felt a spiritual void in my life. But when I returned to choir, I felt a renewed sense of joy and purpose. In Crosstown Harmony, we sang a beautiful piece part of which said “What would I do without my music? What would I do without my song? What would I do without my music, to make things right when everything seems wrong?” I honestly don’t know what I would do without my music. As a child, it was a source of stress relief, comfort and joy when school was difficult, and as an adult, it is my favorite way to pray. Our culture likes to focus on what people “do for a living.” In other words, how do you earn money? I decided not to make a living through music, fearing that the demands of making music my livelihood would tarnish my passion for it. Nonetheless, every time I thought I could live without music, I don’t feel alive.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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