Posted by: facetothewind | December 12, 2009

Longing for greatness

(Photo by Therese Bagshaw)

I estimate that on any given day, about 27% of my brain is occupied by thoughts that I have not done anything great with my life. Perhaps I’ve been wrong.

Last August I auditioned and was accepted in the Arizona Repertory Singers in Tucson – regarded as the best choral ensemble in Southern Arizona. At first I was jubilant for having been welcomed after my audition. Then the negative thoughts began…I’m not good enough for this chorus…I was just allowed to join because I can sing as far down as a low B – something that no one in the chorus can do. My inner critic went so far as to have me slamming down my music in my daily practice sessions at the piano declaring in exasperation that I can’t do this, it’s too challenging, too much music, everyone is far better than me. For crying out loud, I only began singing 2 years ago. Clearly I’m a goof at music. A hack. An impostor – like those folks who went to Obama’s state dinner – I didn’t belong but by accident was allowed in.

And so as an impostor, I nervously awaited our maiden voyage rolling out the Christmas concert at the Benedictine monastery here in Tucson. The dress rehearsal was a disaster for me. Some phlegmy frog inhabited my vocal folds the whole evening. I felt off and out of it. Most of the notes seemed out of my reach as a very low bass. It was 3 grueling hours of feeling like a flop in need of a bathroom break. I came home and poured myself a very stiff drink and fretted about the concert’s premiere the next evening.

The day of the big performance I was irritable and nervous. Sebastian and I even got cranky with each other which we hardly ever do. I sang obsessively at the piano all day, repeating the problem spots tagged in rehearsal. Over and over I tried to nail down how to sing in Haitian, how to get the chromatic flourishes in various pieces. I tested myself on the acapella bass intro to the Franz Biebl Ave Maria. It’s my one time to soar as my small bass section will sing in relief from the others. Unfortunately, the intro tiptoes right through my passagio (that ugly range between chest voice and head voice) sounding wavering and weak. Almost every time I practice, I end up a half-step off at the end, unless I sang with the piano. I declared myself defeated a couple hours before the show. But I donned my tuxedo and bow tie anyway and went to the monastery, trying to muster enthusiasm with the help of Angela (an alto friend) and Sebastian.

I sat quietly, trying not to talk before the concert in the loud green room. I was saving my voice for every last bit of strength I was going to need. I went to the men’s room twice to just pull it together, looking into the mirror and calming myself, splashing cold water on my face. The time finally came and the adrenaline kicked in as our conductor Jeffry called us to line up for procession into the hall.

As we walked up the aisle, I stumbled on the carpet with my hand-me-down shoes that are too big with cotton stuffed in the toes carrying about 5 pounds of sheet music. The audience was applauding. Really? It cheered me up a bit to hear that a crowd was actually appreciating our entrance, perhaps knowing of the chorus’ reputation. We arrived at our designated places in front of the crowd and began. To my surprise, I was able to sing fairly well. It’s hard to measure one’s own performance with any objective honesty, but I do know I didn’t sing in a rest, I didn’t hit more than a couple wrong notes and only once did I sing a gratias when I was supposed to sing a gloria. (At least I got the first letter and the right number of syllables.)

The concert FLEW by with me sweating like a pig and smelling like a sheep as my wool tuxedo dampened. In just a few minutes it seemed we were back in the green room sucking down water and lozenges and stretching like boxers waiting for round two.

The real test was indeed the second half…the Noel Ayisyen. Oh dear! It’s a very challenging piece with complex rhythms sung in a gibberishy pidgin that turns king of kings into wa de wa. (Sorry, Haitains for my insensitivity.) Then there is the Gloria by John Leavitt which really is just a bass torture device disguised as West Side Story goes Latin at Christmas. Then at last there is the Biebl…the piece we all die to sing. Here’s a video of us singing it (thanks, Sebastian for filming)…

And look what happened at the end! People jumped to their feet and applauded. Well, OK, they didn’t jump. But they did get up.

I made it through the concert and in fact I more than just made it. I did a damn good job. I earned my keep and the video confirmed it. I could see the ecstasy on Jeffry’s face as he conducted us through the piece – a blissful face I had not seen in rehearsal. I could clearly see the faces in the audience being transported…the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in the front section were indeed adoring, glowing even. I think I saw one nun flying up over the altar in our final gloria deo. Sister Anita, get down from there!

As I watched the video, even the critic in me silenced its ceaseless chatter to behold the goodness of our performance. Our bass intro sounded damn good. My low notes were solid and on-pitch. My singer songwriter friend Namoli was on hand for the performance – a musical genius in her own right – and here’s what she said said: “It was all I could do to not burst into tears during that piece. You sounded balanced and precise.” Really? Us? Me?

So perhaps I’m not a hack after all. By virtue of my hard work and a very meager bit of musical ability, I have earned a place at the musical table of the chorus I felt I didn’t deserve. I’m happy at 45 to just be one of the gang, singing my heart out and making nuns smile. Gloria! Gloria! Gloria! (And eggshells Deo.)

Now I just need to get some shoes that fit.



  1. One of the most beautiful choral pieces ever written! I play it over and over and over again at Christmas. How wonderful that you were able to sing it, in that beautiful space, after working so hard with all your colleagues. A triumph!

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