Okay, a short break from the memoir stuff. I had a great experience over the weekend and I just have to write about it. It was That. Awesome.
From 7th grade through my senior year in high school, Christmas had a soundtrack.
The holidays began each year when my chorus teacher passed out old paperback books of traditional Christmas carols and had us brush the dust off of the harmonies so we could go caroling. I had the same teacher every year, and sang with the same core group of fellow students. Every December, we gave a string of performances in venues large and small; there was the big concert in the band room for all our parents and teachers and friends, but then there were the elementary schools, the mall, sometimes a nursing home.
Once I got into chamber choir my junior year, the smaller, elite group consisting of people who were flat-out good singers (plus me, who just worked hard and had a good attitude despite a mediocre voice), we went to even more caroling gigs. Sometimes paying gigs, even, which our teacher used to line the chorus budget coffers so we could have something resembling a set for our annual musical. We sang at the local convention center, we sang at the department store formerly known as Lazarus, we even were featured performers once at a hoity-toity dinner at a country club.
The applause never got old. But more fulfilling than the applause were the quieter moments when you knew your singing had made someone's day a little brighter or touched a listener in a way that didn't inspire clapping. At one caroling outing to a nursing home, a lady got up from her seat while we were singing and came up to my friend Michelle and grabbed her hand. This lady had dementia, and she thought Michelle was her daughter. She just wanted to hear her sing. Michelle kept it together and just let her stand there holding her hand and smiled later when the lady said, "Thank you, Katie. That was beautiful." Then she lost it in the parking lot, as anyone with a heart would.
The annual caroling ended when I graduated. Oh, my college choir tried to get it together once and sent a small group to the hospital and to the nursing home, but it wasn't the same. Since we went my senior year during finals week, our director couldn't make it a requirement and it was entirely on a volunteer basis; not many volunteered. The ones that did show started looking at their watches while we were still at our first stop and acted as though it was a chore rather than a joy. The magic I'd had with my high-school chamber choir was gone, and I remember going back to my dorm and having a good cry because I knew something had just officially ended. A time in my life where the very seasons were dictated to me by the pieces of music in a black folder in a choir room was over.
I don't think it's a coincidence that my shaky relationship with the Christmas season started roughly around the time I said goodbye to those paper-bound books of carols. All those years I took for granted the pleasure of putting a jaunty red scarf around my neck and belting out an alto part in front of a group of shoppers, or children, or the elderly, all of whom needed to hear us as badly as we needed to be heard. Music can be healing for the body and the soul, both for the singer and the listener.
Last night some of that long-missing magic came back in to my life.
Thank God for Facebook. Really. It allowed my former chorus teacher's daughter, herself a chamber choir alum, to organize a group to relive the good old days and go out and carol. Three of us, Jason included, showed up from my graduating class. We were the oldest, and we had never sung with the others that showed who were from later classes. It didn't matter. We were all there because we missed the tradition and wanted to once again sing in harmony for people who needed some cheer.
I didn't think it would come back so easily. My voice is not what it once was, and it was never great to begin with. But it knew the way on "The First Noel" and "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World." There were 13 of us, and everyone there knew their way around a Christmas carol. When we warmed up with a lush arrangement of "Away in a Manger" we all used to love because it's not the shrill melody we all sang as kids, the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up. That used to happen all the time when we sang particularly well, and I didn't realize how much I'd missed that sensation.
I also didn't realize how much I miss applause. I blushed the first time a group of shoppers at the Borders coffee shop clapped; I'm 36, and I haven't sung in front of people since I was 22, and it almost felt wrong.
"Where are you from?" someone asked. "You all sound beautiful."
"These are alumni," said our teacher. "I'm retired, and some of these guys have been out of school for 20 years, but we wanted to get together and sing today."
"You mean, you're not part of a regular group?" she asked. "You sound so good! I thought you must be a church choir or a community group or something."
"No, we're just doing this today for fun. It shows you what kind of kids these were."
"Shows you what kind of teacher we had," one of us said.
Our last stop was at a truck stop where one of our alums works as a mechanic. He told us the truckers could certainly use some cheer; it's hard being on the road this time of year. The restaurant area didn't have much room, so we all stood in a circle. We could all see our teacher for the first time as he had mostly been staying in the back row being a bass. He was still our director, though; throughout the day he had called the altos out for not singing out enough, and let someone know when they had jumped from one bass to tenor. Some things never change.
On that gorgeous version of "Away In a Manger", we watched him and got all of his signals and my oh my, we killed that thing. We smiled after the last chord.
"We actually did some phrasing there. Nice job. And by the way," he leaned in to us. "When we sang 'Silent Night', I think you got to some of the drivers. I could hear what they were saying and see the looks on their faces. You touched them. That for me is what this is all about."
No encore was necessary. We hugged, and passed back our borrowed copies of those little paperback carol books, and said our goodbyes as we stepped out into the starlight and the leftover snow from our first snowfall of the year the night before.
And suddenly, just like that...it was Christmas.