Duncanson: Singing in the choir
duncanson, joann, columnist
Believe it or not, I am now singing in a choir made up of dead people. I discovered this one Sunday morning shortly after I’d joined. All the singers were gathered around the long rack of choir robes, and they were mumbling names out loud. Someone would choose a robe, then turn to another choir member and ask, “Are you Bessie Williams?” Then this person who, I happened to know was named Donna, answered, “No, I’m Trudie Allen.” It was weird. I even heard my own daughter Heidi tell someone that she was Ida Loring.
It took me a while to realize there was a good reason for this. Inside each one of these robes, printed clearly on the labels, are names of former choir members — most of whom are no longer among the living. No doubt, those folks were singing in the choir the year they purchased brand new robes, and since choir members seem to have very long shelf lives, their names were put right inside for posterity. Don’t ask me why these current choir members don’t ever write their own names inside these robes. Perhaps it’s out of respect for all those sopranos, altos, tenors and basses who have gone before — and in a way, that is nice.
I’ve taken part in several singing groups over the years, and each one had its own personality. First came my college quartet. We had little or no formal training, but what we did have was natural harmony and a couple of passable dance moves — enough to get us invited to perform for a very special event in one of the City of Portsmouth’s most historic homes. I seem to recall we wore grass skirts for one number, although what a Hawaiian theme had to do with their early seacoast settlers still escapes me. I’m sure our very limited repertoire had something to do with it.
Then came a folk singing group called the Amens. I was their leader – but not always a dependable one. When taking up a new song, I would sometimes launch right into it without announcing what key it was in. Luckily, the guitar players were pretty good at figuring it out and would jump right in, but no so for our poor harmonica player. I didn’t realize at first that unlike guitars, each of his harmonicas played in just one key. That explains why we’d be half through a song while this poor guy was still fumbling through his pockets to come up with the right instrument. Figuring that I might never change my faulty ways, his wife came to the rescue by making him a special vest with pockets for each of his harmonicas. After that, give or take a bar or two, we all were on the same page.
It was much later — in a large church choir — that I got my musical come-uppance. It came from a fellow alto who happened to possess an exceptionally nice voice — and she knew it. One night at rehearsal she announced that she was “the only true alto” in the choir. “The rest of you,” she pronounced, “are just tired sopranos.” Then came the Sunday the seating arrangement changed and I was moved to the front row. When I remarked that I was more comfortable in the second row, the “only true alto” who was sitting behind me said, “Don’t worry, I will be behind you to give you the notes!” Somehow you never forget those things. And yes, there can be egos in choirs.
Something else that most singing groups seem to have are self-appointed commentators. During rehearsals, whenever there is a lull, they like to fill the void with jokes, or comments about the music. It’s in their DNA — they can’t help themselves. I admit to falling into that category occasionally, myself.
Finally, there is the little matter of sight reading the music. I am not as good at it as I used to be — I’ve slowed down when it comes to following the director’s orders. When he suddenly says to go back to a certain Coda, by the time I have found where the darned thing is, the rest of the choir has already been there and moved on. One night in desperation, I decided that rather than try to find where the rest of the singers were, I would simply turn to the last page, and wait. I knew that eventually they would all have to catch up with me there — and they did.
There is something wonderfully fulfilling about singing with like-minded people — dead or alive. By the way, my name is Lena Caldwell. I sure hope she doesn’t mind that a “tired soprano” is borrowing her robe.
Joann Duncanson, a former Peterborough resident now living in Greenland, is the author of “Who Gets the Yellow Bananas?,” co-author of “Breakfast in the Bathtub” and author of her latest book, “Eight Crayons - Poems and Stories by an Almost Sane Woman.” She can be reached via her website www.jsnowduncanson. com or email ourbooks@ worldpath.net.