Cumberland Times-News

Columns

November 17, 2012

Singing in a choir is like no other hobby

Here’s the best advice I can give you this week.

Go out and join a choir.

It’s not like you’d be lonely. Choral singing is the most popular arts-related participatory activity in the United States. About 28.5 million people sing in one or more of some 250,000 choral groups in the country. And, believe me, it’s not just because the choir never gets the collection plate passed to them, either.

I’ve been singing in choirs myself for more than 75 years, and there is nothing else like it. Now I’m not talking about the “Glee” experience which pretty quickly got off the point, and ended up where everything else on TV ends up these days — mired in adolescence and sex.

Not that there isn’t some of that in the classic choir experience, specifically college choirs, which specialize in youth and thus naturally in the concerns of your average college kids. I have to admit it was a part of my college choir experience too, in that I had a crush on the director, and good friendships with a lot of the guys as well as the girls. One of them evolved, in the healthiest way possible, into a relationship that lasted for over 50 years. (MHTB was a baritone.)

But in the best choirs there is so much more to the experience even than that. To begin with there is — guess what — the music! And I am turning old-fashioned here to some extent because you can’t sing in a good community choir without occasionally tripping over Bach or Handel, and there is nothing like getting on a personal basis with the giants of the genre to reach heights and depths of expression that are simply not available in any other amateur undertakings. I have sung even in church choirs that took on the hard stuff — and it was worth it. (Well, to the singers, maybe not the audience.)

And if B and H are too high-falutin’ for you, try some modern music — in Cumberland Choral Society recently I have sung music that was written in the last 20 years, and has exalted my spirit in ways that are difficult to explain — with more to come this year! I am getting too old to sing in a choir, but I can’t tear myself away!

For me, it all started when I was five or six, and I have sung steadily in choirs ever since. Most of all, from my early years, I remember singing in Christmas Eve services. I have come to pity little children who do not have an uplifting Christmas candlelight music experience in their lives, preferably with them singing in one of the choirs.

The whole story and promise of Christmas for me is a package wound about with glittering strands of tinsel and candlelight in darkness, organ thundering and voices soaring. We made a big thing out of Christmas Eve at our church when I was little, because both the pastor and the choir director were on the same page. (Which was “Knock the ball out of the park!”) It made for unforgettable Christmases, as you can tell, and being an active part of all the noise and color made it even more thrilling.

But the best thing about all this is that it doesn’t have to be Christmas for you to get that glorious feeling. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to imply that spiritual exaltation is a regular part of the choral experience. You do have other things to think about. Just getting the notes right — all the time! — can be a challenge in itself.

In the College Choir, we sang every night for a couple of weeks at a time, over choir tour, and it was a great experience. Even the concert when all the tenors suddenly stopped singing and slowly sank to sitting positions on the risers. (Every single one of them!). It turned out that one tenor had uncorked smelling salts when he felt faint, and they made all the other tenors sick to the stomach. (Tenors are very suggestible. ) Even the night we couldn’t find our way off stage and milled around in front of the audience looking for the door. Even the night, at one of my childhood experiences, when one girl (not me, honest. Mom!) caught another girl’s hair on fire with her Christmas candle.

But soaring happens. I have sung in many church choirs, in the University of Maryland Chorus, in the Pittsburgh Mendelssohn Choir, and in the Cumberland Choral Society, and with every group I have had moments of exaltation, completely without benefit of drugs or any dangerous after-effects.

But maybe I’m asking too much. It’s stupid to demand a life experience in each and every rehearsal and concert, and I know good and well it doesn’t happen a whole lot.

But there’s gotta be a reason some 28.5 million people sing in choirs, and I asked several folks at Choral Society rehearsal on Monday night why they sang. I was hoping someone would come up with some remarkable, insightful, (preferably humorous) take on the matter, that would end this column with a bang. . But each and every one ended up with the same dull reason: “Because it makes me feel good.”

What it is apparently is a feeling of hours of earnest personal satisfaction, interspersed with a rare moment here and there of gut emotion. You can’t ask anything more than that for a hobby, now, can you?

Model trains just don’t compare. (Sorry, Bro.)

Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.

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