Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Countdown to Christmas: Carol of the Bells

Once upon a time, music was important -- not just the music stored in our iPods (of which I still am not possessed), but the music we made.

When I was in elementary school, we had a music teacher. I don't remember her name, but I can't forget her presence: she was tall, blonde, beautiful -- the kind of woman for whom the adjective "willowy" was coined -- and once a week she wheeled her upright piano into our classroom for an hour or so of blessed relief from math and history: for an hour or so of song.

In junior high, chorus was an elective. I was there. This began my real life in song, a brief but mostly happy life. (I was going to scan my 8th grade yearbook, which contains the only known photo of me in a chorus, but I can't find it. More on my bitterness about lack of ocular proof later.) In 11th and 12th grade, I also took chorus as an elective. From the first week of school in September, we started practicing for the Christmas concert. While the leaves were falling outside, we practiced "Let It Snow." As people planned their Halloween costumes, we rehearsed "What Child is This?" Just before school broke for the brief Thanksgiving holiday, we put the finishing touches on "Carol of the Bells." Today as I absentmindedly sing along with classic Christmas songs, I still precisely pronounce that one line in "Angels We Have Heard on High" as "in egg shells cease day-oh" because that's how the music director told us to do it so it would come out sounding right...

In short, chorus was a major part of my young life, a major part of my adolescent identity. None of my regular crowd went out for chorus, so I had my primary friends and a chorus set of friends. Together we understood something that the others didn't, something I couldn't have articulated at the time, and still can't fully. But music, communal music, was an important creative outlet.

In high school, the top chorus was called the Choralairs. This was an elite group; one joined it only through audition. We in the school always knew when the Choralairs had an event: the boys wore suits and the girls wore their dresses: burnt orange suit-dresses.

How I craved owning one of those dresses.

In 11th grade, after a few years away from chorus, I made room in my schedule for a general chorus elective. This was not really a chorus of my peers. Most were there for a perceived easy grade -- or at least an easy-to-live-through hour -- and participated in lackluster manner. This made the handful of us who were there for the music stand out. In the spring, I tried out for the Choralairs, along with my neighbor. I made it; she didn't.

Senior year was going to be great.

(Now is probably a good time to point out that I don't have the voice I wish I did. I have pretty much the same vocal skills as Madonna: I can carry a tune without embarrassing myself. However, my whole life I've longed for the skills of k.d. lang, which is something else entirely.)

I was dealt two blows upon my return to school in the fall of my senior year. Somebody had fouled up my schedule and placed me in general chorus. Worse, our beloved chorus director, Mr. W, was now an administrator, and we had a new, far-from-warm-and-fuzzy director: Mrs. M, a woman who took every chance she got to remind us that we'd better not make her raise her classically-trained voice.

Somehow I managed to convince people that I did, indeed, belong in the Choralairs, and I got my schedule fixed. (I think Mr. W vouched for me.) But there was no fixing the fact that we were stuck with Mrs. M.

As an adult, I can look back and see that this was probably not her dream job and that she was doing it because she needed the income. She was probably also cowed by the fact that the love that everyone felt for Mr. W hung over the room like her personal black cloud.

She was always grouchy.

She never tired of telling us how superior her 9th grade chorus was to us, and again, as an adult I can see that it was probably insecurity on her part: the 9th grade chorus was untainted by the memories of How Good It Used to Be Under Mr. W.

Worst of all, she also ended the era of the burnt-orange suit-dresses. We performed in chorus robes. I never got the chance to carry the mark of being a Choralaire as I walked through the halls of EHS. I looked just like everyone else, even on concert days.

Except that, for the record, I was ultimately invisible.

On the day the Choralairs had its yearbook photo taken, I skipped school and went to Philadelphia. It wasn't my idea. My then-boyfriend and future ex-husband wanted to go. I really didn't want to; I wanted to be in the yearbook photo, and I think this is precisely why he thought this was the day to make the road trip. If I really loved him, I would go, etc. (Only much later did I realize how hard he tried to make me less successful and how much I bought into it. This is a story unto itself.) Several more candid yearbook photos of the Choralairs in concert also managed to crop me out. Almost 40 years later, I still haven't quite gotten over this.

Still, I was in the Choralairs, and despite Mrs. M and my invisibility problem, it was a great experience. By spring, she had mellowed somewhat. Perhaps she didn't feel as insecure as she had when she first arrived.

For each of us who celebrates Christmas (and this is surely true of any major holiday), there's an element of it without which the holiday just isn't right. For me, more than anything, it's the music. I hope that you all get plenty of whatever "it" is for you.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.


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Bee said...

The other night I went to my daughter's Christmas carol concert, and I was disconcerted to remember (and for some reason, I will always forget), that the English have different carols (or even different tunes for the same well-known songs). It is a disorienting experience, and a little reminder that I am not home.