The man who taught me how to sing passed away this week at age fifty-three. I had only seen him once since he left town fifteen years ago, but I followed his face book page. One weekend last year when my husband and I were in New York City, we later discovered he happened to be there with his choir for a performance in Carnegie Hall. We were eating dinner at a restaurant while he was rehearsing right across the street. I wish I had known. I wish I had run over there, interrupted his rehearsal to give him a hug and say thank you.
He was an incredibly talented musician who could bring it all home to the fans in the stands. To say he inspired those of us who sang in his choral groups is an understatement. I don’t know how many times over the years, I’ve looked at a piece of music and said, “Oh yeah, I know this. We did this with Rob.” He opened up my voice like a box of old clothes, shook some things out and said, “I think maybe we can do something with these.” What I learned from him took me to the Wheatland Chorale and now, the Susquehanna Chorale, both of which have given me some of the happiest and most satisfying moments of my musical life.
I can remember coming to voice lessons directly from a full day of teaching. I would be wound up, stressed out and with enough tension in my body and voice that it took twenty minutes of warm-ups to get me detoxed enough to sing. Several of the warm-ups we do with Susquehanna are ones he taught me, and they take me right back to late afternoon lessons in that choir room in the Presbyterian church. Rob helped me discover I was a “mezzo, mezzo, mezzo” after years of singing second alto and that there was a whole new world beyond fourth line D.
With his training, I became a small-town soloist. Nothing fancy—just the standard arias from the “Messiah,” Vivaldi “Gloria” and Bach “Christmas Oratorio” and “Magnificat.” When someone asked me to sing the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” at their wedding and I wasn’t sure I could do it, he said, “Oh my God. You could sing the hell out of that.” It was exhilarating to be a student again at forty, to be practicing and learning correct diction and the stylistic nuances of a piece. I remember spinning some lame story to a principal about having to leave school early one day, because I wanted to get one more rehearsal in with Rob before a performance. He broke new ground in our community, brought in fabulous artists and occasionally, pissed off some of the people running the long-established musical organizations. The concert series he started became a roaring success.
Rob coached his choirs with love, humor and brilliance and no matter what we sang, he took us to a place deep inside ourselves, where you simply became one with the music. A performance with Rob meant at some point you were going to feel the hair raise on your arms and have to hold back sudden tears. We did a Tenebrae service during Holy Week and at the conclusion, when the sanctuary was pitch-black and silent, Rob’s stunning tenor voice would begin to sing “Were You There” from the back of the church. Every year on Martin Luther King weekend, we would do a jazz vespers concert. He would bring in a gospel choir with a vocalist who could improvise and scat like Ella, backed up by a top-notch band. We lily-white and uptight people learned what it meant to move and sway with the spirit. We would literally rock the house with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” while a standing-room-only audience of all colors, sang their hearts out right along with us.
People drift in and out of our lives all the time and it’s not until they’re gone that we look around and realize how much they’ve changed our own personal landscape. That before they turned to leave, we should have grabbed them by the arm and said, “Wait, wait. Do you know how much learning to sing with sparkly cheeks and palate up, larynx down and sending my sound to that tiny window at the back of the church has changed me? That the opportunity to sing the Bach B Minor Mass in its entirety is something I’ll remember forever? That because of you, singer was part of my passwords for years? Do you have any idea how much happiness those things have brought me?”
The last performance we did with Rob was a jazz vespers service which ended with Moses Hogan’s “We Shall Walk in the Valley in Peace.” Part of the text says “…there will be no more trials there. For Jesus himself will be our leader. Walk through the valley in peace.” My wish for the man who taught me to sing.