Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Balm in Gilead

“Patty,” I whispered to the accompanist as the director went on to the next song, “Thank you.” This was followed with a facial expression on my part that was intended to communicate bewilderment and gratitude, with my eyes wide and then opened wider with a shrug and a self-effacing grin of triumph.

Triumph probably wasn’t totally appropriate. But the director had asked me to sing a solo over the entire choir with no warning and I managed to give a passable performance by the time I got to the end of the song. I had never even heard it before! They had never heard me by myself before! At least she didn’t ask me to stand in front and face them. Thank God for good diction. It can make even the shakiest notes sound OK and even a little deliberate. I should probably write a personal note to both Mrs. and Dr. Whitecotton, Lynne Payette, my high school voice teacher, my college voice teacher and Alan Wellman for insisting on good diction to the point that it has become habit.

“Rebecca, have you been looking at the solo in ‘Balm in Gilead’?”
“Not really. But I can.” Hopeful tone.
“Well, why don’t you try it tonight.”


I looked at the notes. Sometimes you can get lucky and the solo is just the melody sung by a single voice on top of fancy harmony. And, as I looked, this was indeed the case. However, this was a spiritual and at no point does the choir sing the melody so I wasn’t at all familiar with anything other than humming long notes. The soprano solo sings every verse! We’d been practicing the harmony and just ignoring the melody.

So, panic some more.

I looked at the notes again, trying to hear the intervals in my head, grateful that the rhythm was all quarter notes, half noted and only a few eighth notes. I can’t sight read anything faster than that no matter how determined I am. Then, eureka! The accompanist plays the melody on the piano under the harmony. I was saved. I would have something to lean on. I can mask a slight hesitation to hear my note and could also follow the rhythm played by the piano.

I wanted to focus on my tone and phrasing (which normally can’t exist before I learn the notes and rhythms) because when I was in college, I was selected for a solo in the Chapel Choir. I was a freshman and had auditioned after rehearsal for the director with a couple upperclassmen. Dr. Gehrenbeck didn’t announce his decision until the next week, so it was just as big a surprise as tonight. I was so nervous that, even though I knew the solo, (it WAS a verse above harmony that the whole choir had been practicing) I barely croaked it out. I only had that one chance to show all of these older kids my talent and I totally blew it. We didn’t practice again until the Christmas service and I had that terrible heavy dread feeling in my stomach because I knew that at any moment, the director was going to take it away from me and give it someone more reliable. I also knew that all of those older kids hated me for getting a solo that I didn’t deserve, either through talent or seniority. This story has a happy ending regarding the performance, but I don’t think I ever recovered from that first impression with my peers, as evidenced by tonight’s terror.

So, I was a little more comfortable because I knew the piano would be playing my part with me while the rest of the choir ooh-ed. Then, as the accompanist began playing and Catherine cued the basses, she then made a shushing motion to the accompanist and told her to “let them do it themselves.” She was testing our ability to hold tight, gospel harmony on the first time through for the evening when my solo was coming up! Panic doesn’t even begin to describe it. I had wasted precious moments of pre-sight-reading time relaxing into the idea that the accompanist would play with me. Now, I had to fix the pattern in my head, while other music was being sung around me and not miss my cue. Have you ever tried to think of a tune while another song was playing on the radio or tried to read while someone was talking loudly nearby? I could barely hang on to my sheet music I was shaking so hard.

Thank God not only for good diction but also for attentive piano players. I don’t know whether Patty looked over at me or whether the basses and tenors were struggling, but relief struck my soul when she began to play again in the middle of the second page. My part started at the top of page 3. Patty was a balm to heal my sin sick soul. After my first two tentative notes, she plunked away at my part, basically handing it to me on a platter. I stumbled my way through that first verse, doing a very good impersonation of myself at age 18. Then, I had a chorus to literally shake off the cringing posture I had sunken in to and to take a few deep breaths. Luckily, most of the solo is in the “d,” “e” and “f” part of the soprano range, which is where I can make my clearest, most bell-like tones. So, I flustered my way through the last two verses with pretty sounds, clear end consonants, and a portrayal of confidence through my shaking (that the high school girl who sits next to me said she could feel) that I learned in Forensics.

Then, I thanked Patty.

At the break and after rehearsal, probably 6 people told me that I did a nice job. This is a group that has been pretty stand-offish up to this point. In fact, I skipped last week and told Jeff at dinner tonight that I just wasn’t enjoying choir very much. As usual, I spoke too soon. I realize that I didn’t enjoy choir, partially, because people didn’t necessarily know that I could sing. (I guess some of my sense of self is wrapped up in that, too.) Because although my father always tells me that I’m the best one in whatever choir I’m in, I can’t actually be heard above anyone else. Catherine said I might have this solo for the concert, which would be very nice, but even if she gives it to one of the women with seniority, I feel better with the choir knowing what I’m contributing.

Humility is hard, especially when being acknowledged feels so good.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good life lesson learned re: humility. My compliments and congratulations. I'm proud of you. Unfortuneately, you will have to learn it tomorrow and then learn it again the next day. You are both blessed and cursed with being a Murphy. Humility does not seem to be in our dna. But today I'm happy for you. Love, dad