Virtual Choir

As I listen to the organ introduction to O Come All Ye Faithful, I’m nervous, as though I’m about to launch into an aria from the Messiah. My singing voice, mostly unused since March, sounds dry and pinched against the subdued strains of the organ coming through the headphones. It’s like an athlete gone to seed, sitting in the bar reminiscing about the good old days when it was scoring touchdowns.

I struggle with all this equipment needed to record. I simply cannot keep those damn little earbuds in my ears, so I appear in videos with gigantic headphones looking like I’m ready to flag planes into the airport. I open sound files on the phone or laptop while my husband operates the high-tech recorder we bought so these home productions would have a decent quality. I listen to the introduction, make sure I’m on the correct verse, and try to time my entrance to coincide perfectly with the accompaniment, which doesn’t always happen. The recordings are merciless—they expose me in all of my musical ineptitude. I sing alone without the comfort of other voices blending with mine in the sometimes flawed, yet glorious tapestry of sound that is choir. And then there’s the uploading of files– are they going to the right place and will they open and, if they do, can my mistakes be edited out?

As I record carols that are as familiar to me as my own name, I try to picture the church on Christmas Eve instead of worrying about the dog barking or singing the wrong words. The jostling bodies and excited anticipation of lining up at the back of the sanctuary as sneaker-clad acolytes light the tapers and the crucifer stands ready, waiting for the precise moment to lift the cross and start up the aisle. The procession moving past pews packed with parishioners and their family members home from afar along with those who only show up twice a year. Our voices, perhaps tired from earlier services, but still singing festive anthems with gusto. The banks of poinsettias and candlelit Silent Night and a few of us altos bravely scaling the heights of the soprano descant in Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

This year, hearing those carols through phone and laptop speakers will have to suffice, and I suppose in time I will become less anxious and more adept at singing virtually. We’ve ordered Bluetooth earphones that may fit me better, and I could (and should) practice more frequently to keep my voice in condition. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught me I can get used to almost anything. It’s also taught me how much I took the gift of singing with others for granted. I’m tired of singing alone into a machine. I will be so grateful when I can raise my folder, take a deep breath, and see reflected in the eyes of my fellow singers, the joy of once again making music together.

Grand Pause

I haven’t sung since the second week of March. Well, that’s not completely true since I recorded (with much angst and frustration) a piece for a virtual choir and a few hymns for a friend’s church service, but that’s it. This is the longest stretch in my adult life that I haven’t sung. When I try to sing along with the hymns and familiar liturgy of live-streamed worship, my voice sounds the way I feel, which is miserable and sad. Those of us who sing are stuck in one Grand Pause—a seemingly eternal fermata of silence.

I know there are far worse situations in the midst of this pandemic than not being able to sing. I know there is unspeakable suffering and catastrophic financial hardship and whining about the loss of music-making seems petty and self-serving. But until it was taken away, I don’t think I realized what a huge role singing with others plays in my spiritual support system. Choir is part of who I am, and I suspect I’m not alone in this feeling.

I miss being shoulder to shoulder on the risers. I miss the intensity of watching the director and keeping my head up out of the music and fighting that fourth line D which is my break note and feeling the hair raise on my  arms at the sound of the organ introduction to a favorite hymn. I even miss the annoying stuff–the hokey church anthems that inspire eye-rolls, or the dress rehearsals where your feet go numb and your shoulders ache from hours of standing and holding a folder. Right now, I’d give just about anything to sing a lame anthem or endure a grueling dress rehearsal.

And yes, I read the optimistic posts about virtual choirs and being creative and singing with masks and rehearsing outdoors but the harsh reality is we’re stuck in this nightmare until there is a vaccine. That which so many of us love either as participants or listeners and which has lifted us up out of the muck so many times is now forbidden because it’s dangerous. Take the hymnals out of the pews and don’t even hum along behind that mask. No singing with your favorite group in a sold-out stadium filled with adoring fans. No live singing for weddings or funerals or even family birthdays. I simply can’t  wrap my head around that. The loss of the human voice raised in song, whether it’s on the Broadway stage or in the elementary classroom, leaves us bereft and grieving.

Part of what makes this so hard is the not knowing. If we knew that as of a certain date, this would be over, it would be a little easier. We could check off the days on our calendar, like a child anxiously waiting for Christmas. But right now that’s not a realistic expectation. We remain stuck in this purgatory, hoping and praying for a vaccine or a treatment that will eliminate the fear of creating and enjoying live music.

A Grand Pause in music indicates the musician is to rest indefinitely. Everything stops, and the choir stands frozen, waiting for that pivotal moment when the conductor’s arms come down and his or her face lights up and we are released to sing again. The music always comes back after a Grand Pause, no matter how long it lasts.

Should Have Been

My husband and I should have been singing our spring choral concerts this weekend. Should have been describes all of our lives right now. Should have been getting married, running a business, taking the trip, going to the gym. Should have been visiting family, watching a ball game, graduating from high school, dining in a favorite restaurant. The list, like this quarantine time, is endless.

Our calendars are virtually empty except for the harsh lines crossing out the rehearsals, meetings and  appointments that comprise our retirement life. As a Type A person who constantly looks ahead to the next thing, seeing that blank page on the calendar is disconcerting. I feel cast adrift without the anchor of having to be somewhere. I’m grateful to not be one of those who must provide care or food or community safety, on whom our survival depends. I realize it’s a privilege to sit in my nice suburban home and navel-gaze about not having enough to do, but it’s an odd feeling for someone who thrives on showing up and fulfilling obligations.

So as my world shrinks, I try to adjust my vision. Those who know me know I am not one for waxing poetic about spiritual practices. I have a low tolerance for the word “mindful” and don’t even get me started on  “intentional.” But I will admit to having developed a deeper appreciation for that which is right in front of me, that would have just whizzed by the window in my frantic rush to be somewhere I should have been.

The hummingbirds who graciously showed up the day after I hung the feeders. The long-simmering essay I finally submitted to a publication where it will probably be rejected, but I know it’s some of my best work and will eventually find a home. My almost child-like delight in walking into the dining room to see how my vegetable seedlings are doing. The elderly and chronically ill dog we keep alive with expensive drugs and gourmet meals who rewards us by toddling out of his crate every morning, waiting to be lifted into our bed for a snuggle. A good read on the porch in the afternoon and Netflix at night without guilt. An out of town shopping trip to a favorite grocery store, a walk in the local park, a deliciously gossipy two-hour phone call with a church friend.

These small things are life rafts keeping me afloat in the unrelenting tidal wave of the pandemic. I find myself grabbing the phone every time I hear a push alert from the local TV station, thinking, “My God, what now?” The constant bombardment of grim statistics followed by everyone shouting at each other on social media keeps me in a roiling sea of fear and anxiety and yet it’s like an addiction. I crave the fix of the latest news.

Tonight my husband and I will order take-out meals from a local restaurant and settle into our TV chairs. We may stream The King and I from Lincoln Center or watch another episode of The Wire. It’s a far cry from stepping into formal concert clothes and singing exquisite music we worked months to prepare and that makes me sad. I miss all the should-have-beens, but they will come back. In the meantime, appreciation for what we do have, for what makes our lives richer and better right now, is enough.

 

A Perspective on the Demise of Midnight Mass

I realize I’m a curmudgeonly dinosaur, but I miss late-night church on Christmas Eve. I know, I know, everyone’s exhausted and has obligations the next day, and no one wants to come out at that hour anymore, but I still miss it.

I was about seven when my parents decided I was old enough to go to midnight mass with them on Christmas Eve, and I could barely contain my excitement. After the starkness of Advent, I was awestruck walking into the candlelit church, bedecked with garlands of real pine and laurel and with banks of brilliant poinsettias filling the chancel. That child-like joy has remained with me over the years, and I don’t think I have missed a Christmas Eve late service ever since.

There is something about going to church in the middle of the night that makes the mystery of Christ’s birth all the more meaningful. Once a year, we make the effort to say this is special, this is a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. In the church where I grew up, at the stroke of midnight, the service paused as the baby Jesus was gently placed in the manger. To me, that was Christmas, and everything else was just window-dressing.

But like so many things in mainline churches, all has changed in an effort to keep getting those elusive bodies into the pews. I suspect God doesn’t care when you worship, and it’s better to be practical and offer services when people are willing to come. The first time I attended the midnight service in my current church, the ushers wore tuxes. Now, sadly, we struggle to get enough ushers to volunteer. After years of decreasing attendance at the late service and threats of mutiny amongst the choir members, the decision was made to move the service earlier, and it looks like that will stand for the foreseeable future.

Last year, we fulfilled our commitments at our home church and then attended a midnight service in a nearby town. The sanctuary was filled to capacity and it was a glorious celebration. I shed a few tears for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it just felt so good and so much like the Christmases I knew growing up. When we looked at church websites to find a late service for this year, there were few listed, so I’m not sure if we’ll get to one or not.

In the meantime, my husband and I have been rehearsing with the choir of a church where a friend and former teaching colleague is the director. We’re helping to sing their cantata because it might be the last time I get to do this. My friend is fighting a deadly form of cancer and he’s tired and the treatment has taken its toll. I’m there partly because I want to sing and partly in case he needs a back-up conductor.  He’s still very much himself, though, full of snarky remarks and loving his music schmaltzy and over-the-top. But as we sang Dan Forrest’s gorgeous arrangement of Silent Night, and I watched my friend’s face glow with pride and emotion, I thought this cantata service may well be my midnight mass this year–a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. Everything else is just window-dressing.

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