Choirs of Angels: Palm Sunday
My husband and I attend a small community church since our marriage last July. The minister married us and we feel comfortable with the structure and enclosure that the community provides. It's a small church, a small building and maybe a hundred congregants. I have a conspicuous voice. I am a strong soprano. I like to belt out the hymns. But I try to tone it down for this church, which makes me kid of sad. I don't want to be the lone voice ringing through the rafters, but I miss giving things full volume. (That's what BIG churches are for!)
One particular Sunday as I sang the hymns with my husband, I was plucked from obscurity by the people in front of me; an Indian couple. They were so sweet. Immediately after service they turned around and complimented my voice (this happens sometimes, and I won't lie, it's flattering) and urged me (by dragging me by the arm) to join the choir. I was introduced to our friendly choir director, Sandy, given a time for rehearsal and urged to join. Sandy didn't need to hear me sing. Being dragged to the front by members of the existing choir was recommendation enough. That made me slightly apprehensive. I like a little standard to reach for. I disapprove of an 'anybody who wants to' kind of artistic efforts. I am a quality snob. Sorry.
But I went to my first rehearsal anyways. My husband was out of town. I had nothing else to do. So I went.
I was given my own folder (#18) and a seat on the front row (where all sopranos go). We did some warm ups. We began our first song. I was beginning to relax into the humble surroundings of this cozy, little choir. And then something magical happened: she arrived.
I'd seen her in services before. She sang solos often, in an operatic style and even though there was some degree of technical know-how to her presentation style, there was an even greater lack of self-awareness. I had commented to my husband in whispers during the middle of service one Sunday on why she wasn't a great singer, because she could not seem to control the volume on her top notes and because she occasionally slid around rather than placing pitches clean. And here she was coming to sit next to me. She had excited little nervous eyes and always wore skirts and open-toed shoes (despite it being winter outside). On Sundays, when she did have a solo, she wore floor-length evening gowns in some obnoxious hue that was designed to make her stand apart from everyone else. In the world.
She settled into her seat that particular evening with a condescending smile to me, the newcomer, and fussed over her choir folder and additional materials. We began a Mozart chorus. Her voice blasting over the pianissimo markings like a trumpet at Mardi gras. After the first song ended, I took in a deep inhale. That's when I realized, I hadn't really been breathing. She took my breath away. Literally.
As a soprano, I am aware that my position on the top of the musical staff comes with certain privileges and obligations: We are given the 'showy' bits more often. Very frequently we outnumber the other sections in sheer numbers. We have to curb those high notes and descants to give equal play to all singing parts. I am aware of this from my years of choir training. I flatter myself that I know how to fold my voice into the smooth texture of the whole, giving it a strength internally, but not giving myself a sore thumb quality. So, I was more than a little disappointed to find myself sitting next to 'Madame Volume' in a humble choir already decidedly tilted in the sopranos' favor. By the end of rehearsal, I was merely mouthing in an attempt to help the choir find its balance. Alas, no tenor was heard above the din to my right. I went home frustrated and confused.
I wrote Sandy the choir director an email stating the situation as tactfully as I could, "It is evident that the last thing you actually need is a strong soprano. If I was an alto, or any other part, I would gladly throw my weight behind finding the balance that is lacking." She admitted the faults of the choir and begged me to continue attendance as the soprano in question 'was not always able to attend.' This seemed too much like hoping for a miracle every Sunday, so I politely insisted that I would rather give my undivided attention to my new husband on any occasion when he was actually home and thanked her for her service to the church and the community.
That worked for a while. I could tell at the services that we did attend that the rest of the choir felt slightly rejected. They still smiled and showed delight with my growing belly, but there was a sadness in their eyes. I wished I could make them understand that there was no sense in my being in the choir when there was a loudmouth clanging like a drum over everything.
And in fact, there was not only one... there were two. Two sopranos; both with God-given talent and no apparent way of controlling it. The other soprano just as cock-sure as the first, was just as greedy with the high-notes, and just as likely to sing a solo during service to blast the ear drums off of all present. She had a little cloud of light brown hair and a wheelchair, which she didn't always need, and a husband who was a good half-a-foot shorter (which probably saved his ears from more permanent damage, now that I think about it). She had large spectacles that hovered over her watery, yet oddly piercing eyes. And if she ever cornered you, you wouldn't get out of the conversation without using Jedi mind techniques. Or abruptly walking away.
And last Sunday (well last Thursday, technically) I went back. I decided to go to choir to keep my lungs active as my belly grew. (I'm supposed to sing at a wedding one week before my due date. I want to keep myself vocally active so as to have fewer surprises the day of.) I went back and discovered that I had been deeply missed. Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when I entered the choir room. Sandy's face lit up like a Christmas tree, the little Indian lady beamed and patted my belly, the older gentlemen in the bass section hovered around and smiled and inquired after my health, etc. Everyone seemed so glad to have me there. I really couldn't tell why.
We had only one death-by-soprano there: Madame Volume herself. I made the mistake of sitting next to her. Again. (Or was it truly my mistake? It seemed to me that the little Indian woman threw me under the bus, as it was she who scooted over leaving the seat vacant next to the Femme Fortissimo! ) I got folder #18 down from its shelf and was fitted for a choir robe -which was snug around my tummy and made me look like a choir balloon animal. I found it humorous, so I said nothing, only thanked my assistor and sat down next to the cannon.
Rehearsal that night went much like you would expect; ears bleeding, spine tingling, wishing I hadn't come. But there was a new development. Sandy, the director, made earnest pleas for a softer soprano section the entire rehearsal. And not only she, but other members of the choir spoke up and called for equality among the parts. No one mentioned the soprano by name and she dutifully bent her head to her folder and took prodigious notes at ever suggestion, but ended up singing at the same unrelenting volume despite the not-so-subtle hints. And she had plenty of questions, comments, and recommendations of her own. She especially liked to throw out technical musical jargon... in their proper native pronunciations, of course. So that if the word's origins were Italian, for instance, she would say it with an Italian flourish, as though brandishing a quill pen and writing a manuscript of international importance. Her sciolism was equalled only by her evident inability to put into practice what her 'expertise' supposedly taught her to do.
Once again, I went home crabby and put off. I had missed a perfectly good evening with my husband to be tortured by the banshee of the choir loft. I complained to my husband (who had a good laugh) and then proceeded to wrack my brain for any excuse to get out of actually performing that Sunday. I didn't come up with anything good enough to merit an absence and so I dragged myself out of bed and went.
(to be continued)