It seems that I’m becoming more comfortable with embracing challenges these days. With that in mind, I’m embracing the A-to-Z Blogging challenge, by writing about the things that I most closely associate with being alive, when I show up and engage with life as fully as possible.
And with that, I give you:
Oh joy of my heart! Another topic that I could write volumes on. I need music in my life the way I need food or water or sleep. Beyond inspiration, beyond relaxation, beyond strength, music courses through my body as surely as does blood. Dad taught me to read music when I was about eight or nine. I was learning to play recorder and Dad, himself a sax player in high school, taught me how to read a staff and how to interpret those really weird squiggly things that occasionally had dots and sometimes were straight and sometimes had flags, or parts of flags. I think they call them “notes” and “rests.”
Some of my most favourite memories are linked inextricably to music. Singing in a salt cave that had been carved into the form of a chapel, complete with choir loft, altar and “flagstone” floor. There was even a carving of DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” along one of the walls. We were fifteen or so in number at that time, members of a community chorale on a concert tour of Eastern Europe. Our guide had brought us into the very center of the chapel so we could admire the salt crystal chandelier hanging in the center. One of our members, a wonderfully cheerful and enthusiastic woman from Leadville, looked at each of us in turn and said “We should sing.” And so we did. “Dona Nobis Pacem.” There were two other groups in the chapel. They paused to listen to us sing. The chills that ran up and down my spine had nothing to do with the relative chill of being hundreds of feet underground. It was perfectly sublime.
I think, though, that my most favourite musical memory came almost two years ago during another concert tour.
Our founding director, Dr. Edward*, was retiring and this tour was his swan song. We had cruised down the Rhine from Amsterdam and our final concert was to be part of a week-long celebration of American culture. At first, I was a little puzzled by the choice of venue. Now, in saying this, please understand. I don’t care about venue. I never have. Give me some music and a place to sing it and I am happy beyond comprehension. But it seemed odd that Dr. Edward’s final concert was to be in a nursing home for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Edward seldom gave inspirational speeches but this afternoon he told us: “It doesn’t matter what kind of an audience we have. You are all artists and that’s what we do. We make art even if no one remembers.”
I will never forget.
Our repertoire was built around American folk and gospel songs, and selections from American musical theater, “Oklahoma” in particular, but we did have a couple of more classical pieces. You just never know when you might be invited to sing in a cathedral.
Our hosts arrived, some not looking up, some looking at us with a mixture of hostility and confusion. There were some who seemed nearly catatonic and were guided to seats near the front of the room. Others were more “with” us but still, their eyes held a haunted quality that broke my heart. Still, we were there to sing, to share the music and the love.
I can’t tell you when it happened. I can’t tell you how it happened. All I can tell you is that little by little, heads that had been bowed began to lift. Confusion and hostility gave way to something softer and more peaceful. Even our hosts who were more present than their peers began to lose the haunted, lost cast to their gaze.
And then we started on the Schubert Mass, and the Kyrie, in particular. More heads lifted, more minds beginning to return from whatever past still held them captive, more softening, more peace. Becky* began to sing the solo in the “Kyrie”. Julliard-trained, she has an almost effortless way with phrasing. Smiles from our hosts. I could see some foreheads at the very least. A couple of people swayed with the music and Becky’s phrasing. We sang through all the folk songs, and then came to the selections from “Oklahoma.” More smiles. Feet tapping. Swaying in time to the music, and for a moment, clarity.
At the reception afterwards, one of our hosts approached Becky and spoke with her about the Kyrie. She had been a resident of the nursing home for a long time but she remembered music and she remembered that she used to sing that solo when she was younger. Everywhere we turned, someone thanked us for helping them remember. Some of our audience remembered “Oklahoma”, remembered how much they liked Rogers and Hammerstein. Others started to talk about their favourite Western movies (John Wayne was very popular amongst our hosts).
As we loaded the buses to return to the boat, I couldn’t help but think “Perfect.” There was no better way for Dr. Edward to end his choral conducting career than to transform, if only for a little while, the lives of people most of society have written off and forgotten.
I can never forget.
*Names have been changed to maintain the privacy of the people involved.