“It’s like running a marathon,” I say to Lynn, who sits next to me during choral rehearsals. The program we’re preparing that Monday night, to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary, is thrilling, but exhausting.
We’ve been singing for an hour straight, ending with Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, the blueprint from which the Ode to Joy evolved. It’s a spectacularly demanding piece, especially for sopranos like me. The opening notes are stratospheric, and they keep ascending. Trained singers who know how to breathe properly and where to place their pitches love it, but I’m not trained.
In fact, it’s a miracle that I’m sitting here at all.
I love to sing. I’ve sung in choirs since elementary school. My voice is pleasant enough, and I can carry a tune-which got me through the first part of my audition for the group, six years ago. The next challenge, though, was to sight-read a line of unfamiliar music. It didn’t look difficult and I began bravely enough when the accompanist gave me the opening note. But the first interval proved perilous: I couldn’t figure out quite how high I should go. I sang on, sweating ever more profusely and losing the thread so completely that I saw the accompanist’s fingers hovering above the keys, itching to rescue me.
“Well,” said the conductor after I’d stumbled my way to the end, “you know when to go up and when to go down. . . .”
Nonetheless, he let me join the group.
I returned the favor by making sure I sat next to one of the best sopranos in the section. With Lynn singing in my left ear, I can fake just about anything.
But now I see that even Lynn is winded and a bit hoarse. “I could use a break,” she says, slugging some hot tea.
No such luck.
“Mozart next,” announces the conductor-the last thing I want to hear.
Singing the “Lacrimosa” from the Requiem Mass in D Minor has always been a highlight of any rehearsal. Most of us have sung it before, some of us several times-which means we don’t have to rehearse the notes and can concentrate instead on making music, swelling and softening together, pronouncing the Latin as one voice, sweeping together certain notes into dramatic phrases and intentionally separating others.
Then there’s the music itself, so unspeakably somber that it seems to take root in your body, raking you raw. But tonight I’m completely out of voice, breath, and stamina, unable to reach a single pitch.
As the thin opening notes sound, and those around me begin to sing, I find myself stepping back, not just vocally, but mentally. Holding my music, I just listen. The middle of the soprano section isn’t the ideal place to sample the sound-and frankly, we’re not that polished yet-so I begin noticing what’s happening around me. Lynn, to my left, sings as if in performance, her voice full and beautiful; perhaps she’s sung like this all the time, but I only hear her now that I’m silent. Another soprano in the row below me holds her music with one hand while the other hand choreographs a private dance, her fingers as expressive as a ballerina’s. Two others, standing next to each other, are swaying together in time to the music. Nearly everyone has closed eyes, especially as the piece climbs to its heartbreaking climax, the downward weight of sadness and supplication contrasting with the soaring scale.
At this moment we aren’t a chorus: the music is prismatic, diffracting us into a hundred souls, freeing us, separating us so that even as we read the same music, standing shoulder to shoulder, we stand alone. As the piece descends to its final supplication, dona eis requiem, I find that I can join in. But my few moments of silence have given me a new perspective.
I’d always thought that singing with this chorus, taking time away from my family to indulge in something I loved, was a gift I gave myself, a selfish pleasure. So it had puzzled me when a close friend came to see one of our concerts and remarked on what a generous gesture it was for me to sing with this group. In her eyes, it was a form of community service-a way of giving back.
Maybe she was right. Looking around the room, I feel moved. Here we are, a hundred people with hundreds of reasons not to leave our houses on Monday nights for eight months a year. Yet we assemble, whatever the weather, for two hours every week, to rehearse music that was written centuries ago. The music itself is nothing more than a series of symbols on a page, a pattern of tones and silences, until someone picks it up and gives it life.
We usually think of generativity in terms of offspring, but singing together is also a generative act. We sing tonight, but our eyes are on the future. We’re not only making room for Mozart in our own lives: we’re inviting others to take him in, too. It isn’t just the music that moves me. If a family is a group of people among whom more is unspoken than expressed, defined by all that doesn’t have to be explained, then this is my musical family.
We don’t need to talk about why we’re here, what the music gives us, or what we hope it will give others: that’s all understood. I feel affection even for those members I don’t know-the altos, for example, who sit on the other side of the room. That lovely feeling of cohesion that I experienced as a teenager in the junior high school chorus has survived all these decades, only now our hair is gray, and we wear bifocals and help each other up the steps to our seats, complaining, as we do, that our voices aren’t what they used to be.
In a couple of months, Lynn and I and the other women will put on long black skirts and white blouses; the men will put on their black tuxedos, and we’ll take our places on risers on the stage of the high school auditorium. As the audience settles in, I’ll peer into the darkness to find my husband and friends, and lament, just for a moment, the empty seats-for our concerts never sell out. We’ll be under hot lights, and my palms will start to sweat as they do before every concert I’ve ever been in.
Primed for performance, giddy with anticipation, we’ll stand on the conductor’s signal and wait for our cue. We’ll look and sound like a chorus. In a single voice we’ll sing our well-rehearsed, well-loved program for the last time, each performance less a culmination than a bittersweet leave-taking.
Sometime during the program, I’ll think to myself that what we’re singing can’t possibly mean as much to anyone in the audience as it does to all of us. We know every note, every breath, every hesitation. But try as we might, we can’t hold on to it: we’re merely conduits; it belongs to everyone. At the end of the performance, we have to say good-bye to the music we’ve come to love. In that moment, we offer it to all who’ve come to hear us. Take it, we say. Listen well, sing it to yourself, learn to love it, and pass it on.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz
Roberta Israeloff is a freelance writer who lives and teaches writing in East Northport, New York.