Music. It soothes, it heals, it stirs the spirit. It evokes memories, emotions. Paints pictures. Feeds the soul.
And all meet in singing, which braids together the different knowings into a wide and subtle music, the music of living. ”
― Alison Croggon, The Naming
Music has often been a source of inspiration, an emotional outlet, a convergence of generations and genders in which people can relate and converse and share. It’s been all these things to me, and I’m now trying to foster that with a new generation of singers. Get ’em while they’re young, right? I may not be Whitney Houston, but that doesn’t mean I can’t build the foundation for someone who could be.
Singing has always been a big part of who I am. These past few years, though, it’s been largely relegated to concerts while showering, cleaning the house, or driving. Oh, and birthday greetings in voicemail. So when my friend Jill asked me to help her build a children’s choir, I got excited. I’d long been seeking outlets for musical expression and altruism; here was an opportunity to combine both. Having worked with children before (albeit not in a musical capacity), accepting the opportunity was a no-brainer. There was just one thing I’d neglected to consider: The age range was 4-9 years old, so some of the choir members are just there for the cute factor rather than vocal ability.
For all but one of the dozen children, this was their first exposure to a musical ensemble. So until the children grew accustomed to 1) singing 2) singing as a group, and 3) singing into microphones, I had to be the vocal backbone of the choir…which would have been less of an issue were I not also trying to simultaneously conduct the children. (Did I mention I have zero conducting experience?) For someone who’s always had a bit of an aversion to microphones (“Kiss the mic!” I’ve been frequently told), I struggled with having to be the constant voice leading the children – sometimes the only audible voice despite being surrounded by the children.
It was slow progress. I abandoned my vision of having a choir that could split into SATB. Or even just SA. At least for the time being. It was difficult enough producing a sound. Any sound. There were days I wondered if I had enough motivation to persist. But persist I did. And the children began to find their voices. And the choir began to grow. (We started out with just three members, so I’ll take the present dozen, even if half of them are inaudible.) We’ve now reached a point where I (sometimes) feel comfortable enough for the children to carry the melody while I sing a descant.
With Jill focusing on playing the guitar, I’ve become hyper-aware of a chorale’s vocal shortcomings (breath support, unsynchronized entrances, out-of-tune singers who insisted on being in front of the microphones) that might otherwise be masked by stronger singers in a bigger, more mature group. Shortcomings that require patience and humor with such young singers. It’s slow progress, but at least it’s progress. The children still need to work on their timing, and they still slide out of tune easily. But they are getting better at sustaining notes, and they listen eagerly to instruction. I’m starting to regain hope they’ll be able to distinguish harmonies someday…. Some day. In the distant future.
In the meantime, I’m trying to build the confidence of the most promising vocalists with solos. And in the meantime, I’m also gaining confidence in my musical and conducting abilities. (And sometimes, testing the limits of my patience.) Sure, it sometimes involves tradeoffs in my weekend schedule, but it’s worth it. The children give back to me as much as I give to them. To see their smiling faces and their enthusiasm energizes me. And for all the energy it takes to keep them focused and engaged, it gives me some sense of purpose. There are days the children are restless; there are days I don’t want to be one of the adults; but our music keeps us going.