Wednesday, November 5, 2008


In this morning's newspaper there was an obituary for a woman who was the choir director of the last choir I ever sang in, which was back in 1972-73. Reading this obit made me think about how much that choir meant to me, as it was what held me together during the time I was reeling from an unwanted divorce. But then it got me to thinking about how I became involved in choirs in the first place, and that, in turn, made me remember a couple of very funny things -- funny to me, but not to my former husband, who was the "perp" in these events.

I met Joe in the choir at George Pepperdine College in 1954. He had served in Korea as a Marine and though he entered college a year after I did, he was a few years older. He brought to the choir a beautiful baritone voice, probably the most polished voice of all of us. (This was before Pepperdine became the Pepperdine University of today; it was a tiny Christian college east of Inglewood with a student body of 900 and a choir of about 40 members.) Anyway, our choir director immediately recognized Joe's talents and Joe’s solo work became our showpieces. (And of course I immediately fell in love with him.)

However, his one problem turned out to be that when he was onstage and nervous, he often got lost vocally. The first time happened on our first choir tour up the central valley of California. One of the songs we sang was based on one of the Old Testament Psalms. The best way to describe it would be to say that Joe sang certain parts like a cantor would do and the choir had responsive parts. The song was not particularly intricate but since it was sung a cappella, it was a nice showcase for his beautiful voice.

Things had gone well with our performances until one day when we were in front of a large high school assembly in San Francisco. We were doing the cantorial thing when out of the blue, in the middle of this song, Joe modulated up a couple of notes. This meant that each choir member had to mentally find the right note to make our next chord, and come in on it in the same key as Joe was now singing in. Luckily we did a pretty fair job of making the right chord and managed to do well on our response. But Joe, realizing what he had done, decided he'd better get back where he belonged, so at his next cantorial line, he modulated back downward, though not to his original key but to another lower, and wrong, key. I can remember the horror of once again having to hope to God that we come in on the new key's chord. Although we fumbled a teeny bit, we managed to end up okay and we finished up the song. Sweat was pouring from our faces and under our choir robes. Joe was far less discombobulated about this than the rest of us. Admission of error was not one of his long suits (a trait he carried throughout his life) and he laughed it off. The officers of the choir, of which I was one, quietly asked the choir director to please remove that piece from future programs, which he gladly did. Since we were near the last performance of our scheduled tour, Joe never knew that we didn't sing it again because of him.

At the time, I was totally mortified. I had just started dating him and I wasn't sure I was ever going to be able to be comfortable singing with him again. Of course, love won out and we did make happy tunes together in a 16 year marriage.

However, he did have one other dreadful occurrence that happened when we were singing many years later in our church choir. We were doing one of Handel’s intricate things and Joe was soloing. Again, he got lost but he went on ad-libbing some notes that Handel never intended to be sung. The poor pianist was going crazy trying to help him find his place. It was undoubtedly the longest Handel piece that any choir has ever sung, but very honestly, I doubt if anyone but the choir realized what was happening, unless they paid particular attention to the our stunned faces. Finally the pianist got him back on track and the choir came in appropriately and we sang "AMEN" with more relief that we ever though possible.

The nice thing about these events is first, that they make for enjoyable memories of funny things that happened to us when we were young, and second, I wasn't the soloist!

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