When I tried to picture the logistics of the recent Summer Musicale featuring both The OK Chorale and All Present my mind tended to shut down. Working with either group can feel like trying to juggle Jell-O cubes. For this event we sang at the Community Hall at the Phinney Neighborhood Center. It has great acoustics but a small stage made smaller by the presence of the upright piano, which I wanted to use. Both groups couldn’t be up there at the same time and I needed a certain amount of room to maneuver without falling off the stage.
My non-negotiables for this event were that 1) Once All Present was up on the stage, they had to stay for the duration and 2) The Chorale needed to sing on-stage since the whole point of using a hall with a stage is to be on it, not to be on the floor with the lumpen proletariat.
I decided to have the Chorale sing first. It’s always a smaller group in the summer but they had worked hard and they sounded like 40 voices instead of 20. The altos were smallest in number but they held their own with the basses, the strongest section. The sopranos positively wafted and –if you’re a choir director you’ll appreciate this—I always get reliable tenors. They deserved the stage. They sang “Java Jive” (flourishing coffee pots and mugs), “Isn’t it Romantic,” and “Under the Boardwalk” (with sun-glasses on).
Then there was a deployment of Chorale members to sit on the edge of the stage (the “danglers”), or to stand behind All Present, once we got them up there. Another group was to sing on the floor amongst the audience. All Present slowly, inexorably moved onstage with walkers before them and caregivers in tow. Susan and Mike, my lovely assistants, and several of the Chorale tenors and basses helped maneuver twelve dressed-up and excited elderly people with short term memory loss into place on the stage. Several of them grabbed my arm to tell me they didn’t have their music.
“I’ve got the song sheets,” I said over and over, sometimes to the same person. “We’ll pass them out in a sec.”
The two groups sang “It Had to be You” with harmonies both planned and spontaneous. Several of the All Present men had been professional singers and Barber Shop singers in their earlier days, and they either remember the harmonies or have never forgotten how to make harmony. After our first number it was brought to my attention that Violet and Vivian and Bill couldn’t be seen by their families and friends because Jim and Dennis, both quite large men, were sitting in the front row.
There was very little room to maneuver on stage. A discussion ensued in which advice was poured on me. One idea was to have a few people of All Present sit on the edge of the stage with some of the Chorale “danglers.” Jim, who is over six feet tall with a large frame, volunteered enthusiastically. He shuffled to the edge of the stage, clearly preparing to lower himself to the floor and swing his legs over the edge. There was a gasp from the audience followed by the silence of suspense. I looked across the hall and caught the expression on his wife’s face and knew this was an accident about to happen. The silence was filled by a rush of “No” coming from the social worker and director of the Greenwood Senior Center. I put my hand on Jim’s back and turned him around to the stage door. He and Dennis were helped around to the front where they could hitch themselves up on stage and let their legs dangle.
Then we had to get the back row up to the front row. Bill and Vivian are mobile but Violet needs her walker, which was god knows where. I helped her to her feet and then got behind her. With my arms under her arms, sweating and thinking about my own back, I inched her into a chair in the front. Why hadn’t I asked someone else to do this?
She beamed into my face. “This is so much fun!” she said.
I went to the microphone. “When we were trying to plan the logistics of this event, someone memorably asked me if it couldn’t just arrange itself organically,” I said to the audience.
“Kind of like a slow growth,” piped up Susan from the front row. Susan was, by special request, our guest soloist.
Finally we were ready to continue. The two groups sang “Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little/Goodnight Ladies” and “Lida Rose/Dream of Now” from The Music Man. Then we commissioned the audience to join us for “Goodnight, Irene.” Susan came on stage to sing the verse she had taught us last quarter when we sang “Goodnight, Irene” in our tribute to Pete Seeger:
Sometimes Irene wears pajamas.
Some Irene wears a gown,
But when they’re both in the laundry,
Irene is the talk of the town.
The audience of fifty had been given song sheets. The entire hall sang “Oh, Susanna,” “Home on the Range,” “Sloop John B,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
By chance I had discovered that “How Much Is that Doggy in the Window?” and “Where, oh Where has my Little Dog Gone” can be sung at the same time. Here I am, trying to organize this duet with the audience and the group on stage while the tenors and basses in back had lost their stage presence and were acting like they were lounging around their own living rooms:
“The folks on stage are Group One,” I announced to the audience.
I faced the stage. “Forget what we did in rehearsal –you are group one–and hey! will you stop talking back there?”
Back to the audience. “The first two rows are part of Group One and the rest of the hall is Group Two,” I said waving my arms unnecessarily and thinking, “god, I hope this works.”
Gail, alto, moved in between rows and faced the audience. She led Group Two as we started to sing. Gail teaches kindergarten. She could see what needed to happen.
It worked beautifully. We got through the “Two Doggy Songs,” and finished the show with “White Cliffs of Dover” and “As Time Goes By.”
I don’t get nervous over OK Chorale events but I had never been been in charge of putting the two groups together. When it was all over I was so wound up I could not relax. I had one finger too much Scotch that evening. During the night I woke up six or seven times trying to catch Jim as he pitched over the edge of the stage.
The next day I joined everyone to do it all over again on the Edmonds ferry. Dennis and Jim, both former Barbershop singers, stood with the Chorale during “Java Jive” without quite knowing why except that it felt familiar. They had brought their harmonicas and spontaneously led some of the singing. One of the Chorale had recently had a death in her family. Another had family hurt by the recent California earthquake. There we were, a jumble of people with joys and sorrows, singing the old songs that everyone knows.