Choirs in the time of COVID

I often participate in Linda Hill‘s Stream of Consciousness Saturdays. Her last prompt was “song.” The instruction was to “find a picture–the closest one to you. Your prompt is the title and/or the lyrics of the first song that comes to mind when you look at the picture.”

I couldn’t manage to follow the instruction – my brain doesn’t work that way – but thoughts about song have been flooding my consciousness for the last couple of days.

I can’t remember the first song I sang, but singing has been an important part of my life, especially choral singing. Decades of it. Most of it has been associated with schools or church. It has been my privilege to sing some of the great choral works of Western music. I love singing Bach; my background as an organist probably influences that. My favorite large work to sing is Brahms’ Requiem, in German, of course.

I’ve written sorrowfully of the probable demise of University Chorus due to a re-organization of the choral program at Binghamton. At the time, I never dreamed that choral singing itself would be on indefinite pause.

It turns out that singing is a high-risk activity to spread coronavirus. A choir rehearsal, with lots of people singing in close quarters indoors, can easily become a super-spreader event. While some churches have begun re-opening, they cannot safely have their choirs sing. They can’t even have their congregations sing. The thought of returning to church but having to stay silent is more than I can bear.

Nine years ago, I made my first trip to Europe as part of the Smith College Alumnae Chorus. We sang the Mozart Requiem in Sicily. I have sung with the SCAC in several on-campus events, as well as last year’s tour of Slovenia. Any planning for future events is on hold, not knowing what conditions we will be facing over the next couple of years.

Someday, some year, there will be widespread vaccine and/or effective treatment for COVID-19 and singing in groups will again be reasonably safe. I hope that choral organizations manage to survive so that they can reconvene and make music together again. I hope that I, then in my sixties, will be considered young enough, healthy enough, and mellifluous enough to join in.

Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday tribute

Last night, my family had hoped to watch a livestream of a special birthday celebration for composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim in honor of his 90th birthday. The performers were all in their own homes and there were pretty massive technical difficulties which delayed the start for two hours. It was too late for us to watch live, but T and I were able to watch it on youtube today:

I loved it!

There are performances from generations of Broadway stars, some jaw-droppingly amazing given the unusual circumstances, all heartfelt. Most of the songs were well-known, but several were less so. It was a tribute to Sondheim’s incredible range as a composer. While a few were more light-hearted selections, most were poignant, which is a quality I notice often in his songs.

The first Sondheim musical I saw was a community performance of Company when I was in high school, which seemed very adult and sophisticated to my small-town teenage self. I most associate Sondheim, though, with my daughters.

We had a video recording of Into the Woods, which was a favorite of E’s when she was young. She especially liked singing Little Red’s “I Know Things Now.” When T was old enough to watch with her, we would only let her watch the first act. (If you know the show, the first act ends with what could be construed as “happily ever after”; the second act gets dark pretty quickly.) This worked for a little while, until E told T the rest of the story and we relented and let her watch the whole thing, which she did not find upsetting. I guess that the non-bowdlerized Grimm version of fairy tales, which involve quite a lot of mayhem, endure for a reason that I had not hitherto fully appreciated.

T’s favorite Sondheim musical became Sunday in the Park with George. She and E would often break into Sondheim songs around the house, just for the joy of singing. And they sang them very well, which is an accomplishment, because Sondheim is very difficult to sing accurately. T and I especially liked a video clip in the tribute of a young Iain Armitage singing “Finishing the Hat.”

E and T often did summer workshops at our local playhouse, some of which involved singing. Sometimes, Sondheim worked his way into those performances. I especially remember that in summer of 2001, E sang “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd. A few weeks later, when the 9/11 attacks occurred, I found the memory of her singing that song oddly comforting. “Nothing’s gonna harm you, Not while I’m around.” Not that I thought her singing would protect us from terrorists, but that sense of caring and sheltering resonated in those circumstances.

“Not While I’m Around” was part of last night’s concert, too. It and several other selections that have that same poignancy of love, protection, and care brought tears to my eyes.

The power of music.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sondheim, and thank you.

the later verses

For some reason, yesterday the topic of the later verses of songs to which many know only the first verse well came up a couple of times. In a Binghamton Poetry Project session, we read Ada Limón’s poem “A New National Anthem” which quotes from and asks why we don’t sing the third verse of the “Star-Spangled Banner”. Last night, I was discussing the hymn “Amazing Grace” with a friend; I relate much better theologically with the ending verses than the opening ones, which are the ones most people recognize.

Although I am Catholic, much of my training as an organist was in a Protestant context. Unlike most Catholic churches, which often sing only two or three verses of a hymn, Protestant churches usually sing all the verses, which, as a poet and a liturgist, I find more proper. I sometimes choose a hymn specifically for a message in a later verse. I did this in choosing hymns for my father-in-law’s funeral, only to have the substitute organist truncate the hymn so we never got to verses that were connected to the occasion. I noticed the pastor giving a sidelong glance at the organist, but he didn’t take the hint.

Some of my favorite verses of hymns are later ones. In Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, I especially like the end of the second verse/stanza: 
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
We could really use some of that self-control these days. Interestingly, in researching the poem, I found that the version most of us know is the 1911 revision. The original 1893 version ends the third stanza with:
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!
We could really use that message now, too.

Sometimes, later verses are just fun because you get to sing words that your would not otherwise. For example, the second verse of the standard version of the United Kingdom National Anthem “God Save the Queen” which deals with the Queen’s enemies contains the lines “Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks”. It’s not often one gets to sing about “knavish tricks”!

Sometimes, especially in folk/protest songs, verses are included, excluded, or altered due to political circumstances or the audience. Woodie Guthrie’s original lyric of “The Land Is Your Land” contains a verse about private property and ends with a verse about hunger that closes “As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if this land was made for you and me.” Most people are familiar only with the verses that are a US travelogue, not these more challenging ones.

There are some hymns, such as “Sing a New Church” by Delores Dufner, OSB, that I love all the verses so much that I will sing omitted verses to myself if we don’t get to sing them all during the service.

My first college choral conductor, Rob Kolb, taught us that the hymn is the poem which is the text, as opposed to the tune, which is interchangeable with another of the same metric form. Because the hymn is the poem, you sing it as you would recite it, with its punctuation and word emphasis intact. You also honor the hymn as an entity, so you sing all the verses, as you would read or recite all the stanzas of a poem.

Some lessons stick with you for life.

SoCS: E-I-E-I-O

When my granddaughter ABC was living with us, we sang a lot of songs with her, but one of her favorites was “Old McDonald”.

I would often sing it to her when we were trying to get her to sleep. Using it for that purpose, I would try to sing as many verses as possible, and would extend each verse by singing the animals sounds backward in succession.

This was a challenge when you were doing 15 verses or so. In order to keep things, well, in order, I would group the animals and then remember the order within each subgroup.

I’d start with barnyard animals, cows first because she had a book where Old McDonald had a cow. (It was a board book, so only cows.) Then, horse, sheep, pig, sometimes goat, ending with dog and cat, which could be pets or work animals.

Next, I would go on to fowl. Chicken, duck, goose, turkey, sometimes chicks and doves.

E-I-E-I-O!

Then, I would go on to animals that could be wild animals or ones that were part of the farm. Frogs, bees, and sometimes animals that don’t make sounds, like rabbits. (FYI: rabbits go hop, hop here and hop, hop there.)

I could sing continuously for about fifteen minutes, which was usually enough for ABC to drift off to sleep. I’d sometimes back out of the room and close the door still singing.

Ending very quietly e-i-e-i-o…

ABC, who is now living in London, is now heavily into dinosaurs and making what she thinks are dinosaur sounds.

I don’t think Old McDonald had one of those…

E-I-E-I-O!
*****
Please join us for Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturdays! This week’s prompt was animal sounds. You can find more info here.

2019-2020 SoCS Badge by Shelley! https://www.quaintrevival.com/

 

singalong

Yesterday, I attended an event of the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton. They presented a Handel Messiah Parts II & III sing with soloists from the choir and orchestra volunteers from the Binghamton Community Orchestra. The director, Bruce Borton, is an emeritus from Binghamton University. I sang in the University Chorus under his leadership for over 25 years.

There were a lot of people there, including a good number who had sung with UC. We were sitting in mixed formation and I sat with three good friends whose participation with UC was even longer than mine.

I had performed part one of the Messiah, but not the rest, except for a scattered chorus here and there. It’s hard to have sung for as many decades as I have without having sung the “Hallelujah Chorus”! Admittedly, there were some sections that I could not keep up with, given that I was sightreading with text at tempo, but I am so familiar with Baroque style that I could manage to re-orient myself harmonically, at least in time to cadence.

It was fun to have a chance to sing with my friends again and to watch Bruce conduct, but it was sad, too. I have no idea when I will have the opportunity to do choral singing again.

Bittersweet.

 

SoCS: this time of year…

Stream of Consciousness Saturday works like this. Linda puts up the prompt on Friday for us to write without editing and post on Saturday. (Confession – sometimes I write on Friday and schedule the post for Saturday.) Linda’s prompt for this week was to write about a word that has “ingle” in it any way we like. As soon as I saw the prompt, I thought of this word that I am about to use and my (very stuffy) head hasn’t been able to think of anything else since – and, yea, verily, it is Saturday morning where I am right now.

When we were visiting in the UK, our granddaughter ABC sang long bouts of continuous choruses of “Jingle Bells”.  Often, she would also be dancing/running around, unless, of course, we were on the bus or train. Anyone who has been around a two-and-a-half-year-old knows that it is possible for a child that age to do, well, just about any activity repetitively, but it was revealed that Lolo, her paternal grandfather, had been encouraging this particular activity. Given that ABC, our daughter E, her spouse L, and L’s parents, whom I will call Lolo and Lola here as ABC does, all live together, there was a lot of time for encouragement. (Lolo and Lola are the common names for grandparents and those other family members of that generation among Filipinos, which is ABC’s heritage from her father’s side.)

We have been back in the US for almost a week, so I’m not sure if the “Jingle Bells” loop is still continuing with ABC or if she has tired of it, but I’m sure her little voice and legs and brain are busy with something!
*****
Join in the fun of Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2019/12/20/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-dec-21-19/

2019-2020 SoCS Badge by Shelley! https://www.quaintrevival.com/

snow day

There have been a lot of big storms in the United States in recent weeks. Our region hadn’t had too much bad weather – until yesterday and today.

The storm started Sunday morning with an extended period of freezing rain, which made driving inadvisable. Sunday evening, it changed to a heavy, wet snow and it has snowed nearly all day today (Monday). The trees and utility lines are all weighted down with snow. We have lost some limbs from the trees in our yard.

The roads are impossible to keep clear and all the schools, including the University, cancelled classes. Lots of businesses decided to close, as well, for the safety of their employees and customers. Our museum and science center closed. Even our doctors’ office is closed.

B and most of his colleagues are working from home.

As I was contemplating all the closings, I remembered snow days when E and T were young. One of them had learned a song in elementary chorus and we used to sing it sometimes when there are snow days. “There’ll be no school tomorrow, no school tomorrow, no school tomorrow, if it snows.”

And because YouTube exists now, I can search and find recordings! The words and music are by Jay Althouse.

writing, singing, etc.

I had been trying to post more regularly – and have now proceeded not to post for a week and a half. I’m sure that isn’t a shock to regular readers. As much as I hope to create a even a semblance of a schedule, I haven’t managed to get there yet.

Even though I haven’t been posting here, I’ve been doing a bit of writing. A letter to the editor at NCR online. A short piece that may appear as a Small Earth Story at NCR. A bio to accompany a poem that is going to be published soon. This will be in the mini-anthology that will be a companion to the winning chapbook from QuillsEdge Press; all the finalists will have a poem printed. This was also exciting because I had to approve the proof and sign a contract. It was a needed reminder that I am still a poet, even though I haven’t published much lately – or even submitted. Maybe, after the first of the year, I can concentrate on a revised version of the chapbook to send out…

I don’t have a choir with which to sing on a regular basis this fall, but have sung with the combined music ministry at church for three funerals over the last three weeks. All the funerals have been for family members of music ministers, the last being the brother of my friend, who has been director of music for decades. Sadly, she has had to play and direct for the funerals of both her parents and, now, her eldest brother. Another staff member described it as “her last gift to him.” Perhaps that, along with her professionalism and faith, is the way she can manage to keep her focus in such difficult circumstances.

At the luncheon after the funeral, I was sitting with people who I met years ago at our former parish. It’s been fourteen years since we were all together there. Even after so much time belonging to other parishes, we still miss it.

That our sense of connection remains strong is a testament to how special and loving the community was. It had a part in forming our identities and that is a lasting gift.

What’s missing?

There are a lot of things I miss about our two-year-old granddaughter ABC not living with us anymore. Here are a few:

  • Her imagination. She would jump up and down, usually on the couch, pretending she was splashing in puddles. She would accompany this by saying (loudly) “Muddy puddles!” over and over, but the sound of the letter P is sometimes hard to get out, so it would sound like “Muddy cuddles!” Or she would stand behind the ottoman and say (loudly) “Ding, Ding! Ice cream!” She would then ask everyone in the room what kind of ice cream they wanted, repeat whatever we told her – it was fun naming exotic flavors – and pretend to hand it to us, saying, “Thank you!”
  • The extra trips to the ice cream stand, because she and the rest of us were often thinking about ice cream.
  • Having someone handy to sing to or with. I would sing hymns or folk songs to her as she was trying to fall asleep. We would do long renditions of “Old MacDonald” with all the farm animals and some more unusual animals thrown in. Sesame Street songs and “The Wheels on the Bus” and the alphabet and nursery rhymes. I even learned a new song, “Sleeping Bunnies.” She would act it out, starting out pretend-sleeping, with snoring added in for good measure, and then wake up and hop. The song does end with “hop and stop” so she didn’t hop forever, although she would ask for several renditions in a row.
  • Unexpected dance breaks: She was fond of the theme from “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and, for some reason, the music they play on the local news while they show the stock market report. Most of the television we watch is recorded on our DVR and we would often back up and watch the stock report multiple times to allow for dancing. Okay, we would be watching the dancing more than the stocks.
  • Toy nostalgia: When E and T were little, they played with Little Tikes toys. Little Tikes no longer makes small toys, so it was nice see ABC playing with and loving the ones we had stored away. Her favorite was the school bus, which, like most US school buses, is yellow. She would get excited when she would see a school bus driving by, although she called every bus a school bus, whether it was or not. On the first videochat we did with them in London after the move, ABC was playing with a new, red, double-decker bus. London doesn’t have school buses; students walk or take public transport. I wonder how long it will take for “school bus” to drop out of ABC’s vocabulary.
  • ABC’s hugs and cuddles. Curling up on the couch with her for naptime, even when she would only sleep if she was lying on top of you, pinning you to the couch for the duration of the nap.
  • Perhaps what I miss most is having ABC’s mom, our daughter E, living here with us. She is great to talk with, as well as being thoughtful and knowledgeable. I would often ask her about current trends and understanding of words, so that I wouldn’t use words in a way that would be considered disrespectful by young adults. I learned about up-to-date baby and child care. E was able to take over a lot of the meal planning and preparing when I was needing to be with my parents over the months of Nana’s illness and was then busy with all the tasks that follow when someone passes away. I probably should have had her teach me to use the Instant Pot before she left, though…

Two-year-old ABC

Having our granddaughter ABC living in our home has been a privilege.

Now 26 months old, she is energetic and tall enough to climb onto furniture that used to be out of reach. She is still petite for her age, but she is similar to her mom in that regard.

Her bangs are almost long enough to tuck behind her ears.

She loves imaginative play. Lately, she has been running a pretend ice cream shop. She also has been loving eating ice cream, sometimes with sprinkles on top!

She is adding more and more words to her vocabulary and making longer sentences. She will also now address each person in the room when she is saying hello or good-bye.

It’s still a wonderful feeling when she snuggles near you, although if she suspects you are trying to get her to settle down to sleep, she is more likely to squirm to get down and starting running and jumping around in order to stay awake. Her mother used to do the same thing!

She has a new appreciation for books and will sit long enough for you to read each page, instead of just zooming through looking at pictures.

She loves to sing. She takes after her parents, who are both accomplished musicians. She sometimes devises her own codas to songs that she knows or comes up with her own little tunes. It is incredibly cute!

Among her new obsessions this summer, besides the aforementioned ice cream, are sidewalk chalk, bubbles, and riding the carousels. Our county has several historic – and free – carousels in our parks. Sometimes she will ask for dog – pig – cow, because one of her favorite carousels has a dog and a boar among the horses. The “cow” is actually a black and white paint horse that does resemble the dairy cows around here. Another park has all horses, but still has its original organ rather than using recorded music all the time as the other carousels do. This park also has a more accessible playground, which is easier for a small 2-year-old to navigate. Her favorite horse there is a palomino she has dubbed “yellow horse.”  When she asks for dog-pig-cow-yellow-horse, we take it to mean that any carousel will do!

And this will all end soon, and not just because summer will come to an end.

Some time in the coming weeks, E’s spousal visa will finally come through and she and ABC will move permanently to London to join their spouse and father L.

We know they will be happy to finally live together full-time, instead of just transoceanic visits.

But it will be so hard to have them so far away after having them so close for so long.