Ah, HumanityAlzheimer's diseaseChoir SingingTeaching

October 18, 2015

Choir Season

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My two choirs began last week. I’m not sure what prescience caused me to be more than usually prepared with the music, the schedule and the quarter routine but I shudder to think what the first rehearsals would have been like if I hadn’t been.

The OK Chorale has been singing for 23 years. It’s still a University of Washington Experimental College class but there is a core of 20-25 people who come back quarter after quarter so that it functions more like a community choir. However to keep my catalog listing, not to mention my monopoly on 4-part choirs in the Experimental College, everyone has to register with the University every quarter. Two weeks before the beginning of the quarter I send out emails begging everyone to register early so that I will know how many copies of the music we’ll need.

It used to be that the location of classes was a dark secret. You found out where the class was held after your registration fee had been paid. The internet makes that impossible now. As a result, there were fifteen more people than I expected at the first rehearsal, most of them first timers. One man who didn’t read music was clearly worried that I wouldn’t be able to accommodate him. Several women said they had never sung in a choir before. Someone else wasn’t sure whether he sang high or low. I directed traffic like an old fashioned cop, a smile pasted on my face, sweat forming at my hairline.

When we got everyone settled down, I abandoned my original plan to start with an unknown piece—so that everyone would get hopelessly lost together instead of the recidivists out-singing the new people and the new people having flashbacks to when they weren’t in the most popular clique at school. Instead we started with an arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” which involved a lot of unison singing.

I thought this would be easy. But first I found I had to make sure that the non-music readers knew they were not alone and that many in the group learn their part by hearing it since I go over things –god help me-what feels like a hundred times a week. Then I had to explain to people who weren’t used to choir music which line was their line. Then I made my little joke about not assuming anyone, including me, actually knew what we were doing. (I think only other teachers in the Chorale realize how much I fly by the seat of my pants.)

This particular arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” begins with typed music but then morphs into handwritten music. I do this a lot. I know what my group (and I) can manage and what we can’t so I am forever truncating and re-writing things. One gentleman was completely thrown when the visual look of the music changed from typed to printed music. When we finished reading through the piece he was turning his pages over and over and looking not at all merry. He looked overwhelmed and well, angry. When I tried to smooth things over he more or less barked at me.

That was the point I stopped babying people and decided that for the rest of the rehearsal—ah geez, 45 minutes left—everyone would have to cope on his own. My clothes were almost soaked through.

I went home that night and had a Scotch. The next morning something told me to take it easy and not do anything taxing—like calling Comcast or Premera–before leaving for All Present, my song circle for people with ESML (early stage memory loss) which began at 10:30. I made a cup of coffee and watched a couple of episodes of Frasier.

I arrived early at the Greenwood Senior Center. Copies of new songs had been printed and punched and were waiting to be inserted into the songbooks. There were six new standards and four new musical comedy songs. (I add new songs mostly for myself and my assistants. The people in All Present could sing “You are my Sunshine” and “Goodnight, Irene” over and over for an hour and half every week and be perfectly happy.) The sheets had mostly been printed correctly, but I had gotten something wrong so now we had “14.Mr.Sandman” after “13.Anything Goes” in Standards and after and “27. Doin’ What Comes Naturally” in Musicals.

My lovely assistants, Susan and Mike were stuck in traffic. Susan is the brains behind the notebooks. She can figure out how to fix any glitch. She can organize anything. She could organize a 1200 page manuscript underwater if she had to. She’d use clams as paper clips. But she was stuck in traffic.

My other lovely assistants, The Other Susan and Linda with her dog Lucy were also there early. We folded up tables, set out chairs, moved the piano, and got water pitchers. The Other Susan started in trying to figure out where to insert the new song pages. “Mr.Sandman” seemed to be on the back of every page.

Our singers started arriving and it was peculiar feature of the morning that they continued to arrive as late as 45 minutes into the session. Every time someone new showed up, we had to re-arrange the circle to accommodate them: Vivian with her lovely smile that we hadn’t seen since the spring, Jane, the wanderer who always tries to walk off with my tote bag, Jim with the golden voice, Bill who in his younger days as a night club singer opened for Tony Bennett, Violet who at age 90 went to Croatia over the summer and saw her family for the last time, John whose harmonizing tenor wafts over the top of so many of our songs.

There were lots of familiar faces, but there were a lot I had never seen before. And still they kept coming, all with entourages of spouses, caregivers, walkers, and wheelchairs. Susan and Mike finally arrived just in time for Mike to move Violet over three feet because she had sat down just before we needed to expand the circle. Once we get Violet settled no one wants to disturb her.

The group had doubled. There 17 singers and seven caregivers and three spouses that had to stay either next to or close to their charges. There were three wheelchairs and five walkers. There was an extra dog. There was chaos. The room was shrinking. The room was growing hotter and hotter. Someone farted. A big one. We ran out of song sheets. Jane started to wander and had to be seduced back to her chair. During “Easter Parade” someone danced with her. Bob, a center volunteer, came in to ask how many were staying for lunch. When I said I didn’t know, he asked if he could go around and asked everyone.

I wanted to scream, “Can’t you see what I’m dealing with here?”

But I said, “Oh what the hell, sure, go ahead.”

He clearly could see what I was dealing with because he called out,

“Anyone staying for lunch?”

“No,” everyone chorused whether they were or not.

“That’s all I needed to know,” he said cheerfully and exited.

When I went to bed that night I felt like I had been put through the washing machine and the dryer and even then had hung on the line for a time. But two large groups with more singers than I expected: that’s a nice problem to have. It’s good to be back.

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