I haven’t written a lot in the blog lately. I was sick last week. Then my parents came home from their trip to England. Then 9/11 was upon us. And then it came to mind that I should probably actually do something about updating my archive of fanfic for the cartoon series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, given that it’s the only dedicated one. But I’m feeling better now, so here I go again.
I cantored a Mass again on Saturday. In some ways, it’s not easy. How do you sing your best when you have no way of hearing how you’re doing? (The speakers all point away from the altar, and there’s not enough echo to judge volume.) How can you sing best (ie, not directly into the hymnbook) without losing your place or getting too caught up to pay proper attention? How can you pay attention to Mass, pray, and remember that another song is coming up? Oh, and let’s not forget that ever-popular skill of Catholic singers: learn the new song as you go! (Okay, so I didn’t actually have to do that this week. But not being able to sight-read is a real pain in the butt.) I’ve gotten used to all this in choir, but cantoring is a whole different thing. It throws me off, which of course does marvels for my technique and confidence. I hope nobody noticed. Oh, well. At least I’m getting lots of practice in “just keep going”.
They say that singing once is praying twice. I don’t know about that. I do know that it’s easiest for me to feel the presence of God when I’m singing. However, it’s also very easy for me to get so distracted by the process of performance that I scarcely feel like I’ve gone to Mass. I don’t think that improves my singing, either. Ideally you have to achieve a sort of Zen state, where your body sings just the way you’ve practiced, your mind keeps an eye on the audience and nuances of performance, and your soul kinda basks in God. Unfortunately, this kind of multi-tasking was beyond me this week.
When I was a kid in the children’s choir at my parochial school, I used to worry all the time about whether it was wrong to enjoy singing so much. Reading about St. Therese and other mystics reassured my younger self somewhat, but I still worry about maintaining a proper balance. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of singing (or praying, or anything) solely in order to feel God more. I worry that it’s too much like opening your mouth equals ordering God like a pizza. Not that it works that way, but you can delude yourself into thinking that. Also, singing is a pleasure for
the senses, for the body, and for the ego. People who inveigh against the sensuality of liturgical dance while ignoring the sensuality of song obviously don’t get out much. I guess I shouldn’t tempt fate by telling them, though.
My first choir teachers, the Stocks, did a good job of grounding us kids in singing without being overbearing. My second choir teacher, Mrs. Sharon Busch of Ferguson Junior High School, specialized in petty tyranny. No doubt we were a trying bunch, but being yelled at is no fun, either. I didn’t really notice, because I loved singing. I learned my part. I learned the second sopranos’ part. I learned every part but the basses’. Mrs. Busch yelled at me. Then she apologized afterward, because I was one of the singers she wanted to keep for high school. So I went on my happy oblivious way, until I stood in the wrong place at choir competition at the end of the year. Mrs. Stock announced that it was my fault we had lost. Then she called me in for a conference and told me that I could either take the A I had earned and never come back, or take an F and be allowed to come back next year.
I really think she thought I would accept the F. I loved her. I loved her class. I didn’t have anything else; I was the one of the least popular kids in school, and I had no other teachers I really liked that year, my first year back in public school. I loved singing. I was desperate to learn the mysteries of sight-singing and become a soloist. Of course I would take her bargain; she’d done it to other students before (as I learned later). But at that moment, she was very fortunate that I was able to control my temper enough not to punch her.
I have my regrets now. I wish I hadn’t feared so much for my mother’s career as a substitute teacher. I wish I hadn’t just stomped out in a fury; I wish I’d asked that woman to repeat her terms to my parents, or to the school board. On the other hand, I managed to avoid killing myself after the incident (I thought about it seriously) and was even able to bring myself to sing in church again after a couple of weeks had passed. (I didn’t want to. I made myself, because I didn’t want her to win.) I began to focus on collecting and writing songs, using tape and memory to supplement for the composition skills I didn’t have. I became a filker, and spent countless nights in freezing hotel ballrooms, trading songs both old and written-out-in-the-hallway new. But though I did join the church musical group in college, I was never able to bring myself to audition for any choirs. I never joined another until last year.
The Stocks run our church choir. We sang after September 11th; we sang after we learned one of our parish priests had once done things he shouldn’t. We sing for God and our parish and the joy of music. I like to kid the Stocks, and sometimes I complain about the music. (I’m a songwriter. I can tell when a song stinks.) But though they make us sing on key, they’d never try to make us puppets to dance to their tune.
I wonder why it took me so long, despite being pressured to join the church choir by so many people since that first summer after 7th grade. I think maybe it was that I distrusted people and their judgements. I knew that they were wrong about so many things (popularity, etc) that I couldn’t bring myself to realize that they were also God’s voice, trying to tell me to get back on the horse. (And at that age, of course you never listen to your parents.)
One thing I did learn from filking that I don’t think I would ever have learned either in church or in public school; I learned to harmonize on the fly. I don’t know why Catholics (white Catholics, anyway) don’t do this. It’s immensely simple once you get the trick, and it’s both fun and beautiful when people do it in large numbers. (It’s also a wonderful metaphor for the many and different gifts of the members of the Body.)
My dad’s a Methodist and he’s always done it (usually half under his breath) when we sing hymns at church. (He comes to Mass with the rest of us, as I think I explained below.) But it never occurred to me, as a kid, to ask him how he did it or how I could; it was just one of those mysterious Dad-powers, like being able to open a jar lid. Now sometimes we do it together.
I also learned from filking that if you can get people to sing, they will eventually make beautiful music. Catholics seem to be convinced that only a few people have beautiful voices and that everybody else should shut up. I hate that.
All I know about singing is this: No singer can totally control what sound comes out. All the technique in the world can be thwarted by a bad day. You have to open your mouth and sing, and leave the rest to God.