Joining a Chorus, and the Utter Joy of Singing

I grew up singing. My small school could not afford instruments or instrumental teachers, so school music was singing. We sang in our classrooms every day, and in a group music class with a piano accompanist once a week. My first written music was Gregorian chant, sung by us second graders when at least half of us were still struggling with “See Spot run,” let alone Latin. We sang the mass at least once per week. We had Christmas and Easter music programs every year, and multi-school choral contests each spring.

I was duly taught the “nouns and verbs” of musical language: the names of the lines and spaces of the treble clef, the different kinds of notes and rests and their relationships, the meaning of time signatures, how to count rhythms, how to follow music on the page through repeat signs, etc. All of which meant that I did not totally flounder when I began harp lessons, and that, at last, I had a reason to be thankful for my childhood nemeses, the nuns.

But no one ever taught us how to sing, or how to use our voices. Singing was something you just knew how to do, or else you learned to mouth words silently so Sister’s pointer would not crack the back of your head when you were sharp or flat. I had a good ear and picked up tunes easily, so I was one of the kids who really sang.

I sang in Girl Scouts, at troop meetings and at every meal and every evening campfire at summer camp. I sang with friends as we played guitars and ukeleles during the ’60’s folk revival. I sang in the church choir and in the high school chorus. Singing was where I found community, belonging, and joy.

When I went to college it all stopped. Too intimidated by what I perceived as a lack of “real” musical training, I steered clear of the music department and whatever singing opportunities might be there. Classes and working multiple jobs left no time to sing for fun, anyway. After graduation I didn’t look for places to sing – by then I was totally out of practice. And my voice, unused and ignored, left me. I knew nothing about how to get it back. Just singing “Happy Birthday” could be embarrassing. There was no longer any predicting what sound would emerge from what had been a decent-enough alto voice, or whether it would be in tune. The back of my head would have been blackened and bruised, if the nuns were still near enough to hear me.

But for many years I had harbored a secret desire to take voice lessons, so that I could sing again. Time, circumstances, and fear kept me from pursuing either. I’d not even added voice lessons to my “what I’ll do when I retire” list. Then last October my harp teacher introduced me to a voice teacher who welcomes to her studio people like me, people who would like to sing and would like to get better at it. I scheduled an initial lesson /assessment, and had so much fun, I’m doing monthly lessons.

My teacher only had two requirements: one, that I practice, and two, that I find somewhere to sing. Practicing, I could handle, but finding a group to sing with was a challenge. I won’t join a church just to sing in a choir. My favorite community singing group meets the same night as my recorder class. My solution was to register for the chorus class at the community college.

Today was the second day of class. There’s about 60 traditional college-age students, one man who looks to be my age (i.e. grown) and me. Who has not sight-sung an alto part in 42 years. But at least half the class claims that they don’t read music AT ALL, so I’m hoping that the accompanist will play enough repetitions of the alto lines for me to resurrect being able to connect the note I see to the pitch I sing.

And today, with only one rudimentary run-through of a piece, our 60 or so voices joined in song, and I was transported.  To be surrounded by the music of so many voices, to be one of those voices creating that music, to feel my own voice resonant and strong, to ride the waves of sound and the emotions of the lyrics – it was pure, all-encompassing, total joy, created both from our singing today, and from memories of singing with all those other voices, so many years ago.