• Otter Views: The Choirmaster Departs

    The New Year’s arrival at midnight Wednesday prompted a last over-the-shoulder glance at the departing holidays. One of the season’s highlights for me was the youth chorale that accompanies the Jewell Park tree lighting ceremony.

    Teaching young people to sing together is a gift more lasting than most. It’s something I can’t imagine doing, but I sincerely respect those who take it on. Watching the kids singing so happily on the museum steps made me want to thank their teacher.

    I taught sixth graders for a time, and I remember the first year the school sent a team to the song contest. The glee club kids were buzzing like Pavarotti’s uvula. Not only would they and their friends skip a day’s classes, they’d ride the bus wearing snappy, midnight-blue shirts.

    “If you sound as good as you look, you’ll win,” I called. The singers waved happily and vanished into the pall of smoke that dogs all school buses. When they returned hours later, they seemed crestfallen.

    “How was it? Did you have fun?”
    “We finished fifth,” one girl lamented.
    “Fifth is good!” I said.
    “There were only five in our division,” her friend clarified.
    “It’s still good,” I insisted. “It’s good that you entered, and it’s good that you were there. You got to sing!”

    The girls shrugged at this transparent bit of adult buck-upman-ship, then hoisted their packs and trudged dolefully homeward. It was one of those “teachable moments” that calls for a wise response from the putative elder in the situation, but all I could come up with was: “See you tomorrow.”

    What I wanted to say was “Keep singing!”

    I was in a high school choir once, and it was big fun. I scarcely remember what else we learned that year – four thirds pi R cubed? Amo amas amat? But I still recall the lyrics and arrangements of two dozen songs we did.

    I recall our choirmaster, too. He was a stout, balding fellow with a sharp tongue, a sardonic sense of humor, and excellent pitch. He was also a linguist who could curse us in Greek, French, Spanish and Latin. During rehearsals he wore rubber slippers, baggy khaki pants and frayed Hawaiian shirts, the lower buttons of which would sometimes pop open as he swung vigorously at the podium. For concerts, he grudgingly donned a blue suit, scuffed loafers and a red tie.

    Although he dressed casually, there was nothing casual about his hearing. When he detected a sour note or a late entry, his hand would rise for silence. Then his bald, bespectacled head would swivel like a gun turret seeking its target. Soon the malefactor would be staring into the muzzle of his displeasure.

    I was often that person. Like many amateur choirs, ours had some great voices, some good voices, and some “filler” voices. As a filler, I was placed between two good bass singers and told to mimic them as best I could.

    Luckily, every section had at least one great voice. During unison passages, we fillers would try to pitch our voices near theirs, like golfers chipping up to a flag. Every once in a while, with a stern nod from the podium, the choirmaster would launch these skylarks into glorious solo ascents, while the rest of us thrummed along dutifully.

    I loved singing in the choir. When our voices finally blended and all the harmonies worked, I felt part of some powerful, finely tuned engine. As the choirmaster drove, we sped along the autobahn of song as smoothly as a vintage Mercedes. At the lift of his finger or the downturn of his palm, we would roar or race or whisper.

    Our choral calendar included several local concerts, but the most anticipated event was the annual Christmas trip to the state capital, where we got to sing in a cathedral. Our polyglot programme featured carols in five languages. The choirmaster even shined his shoes.

    I think we sang pretty well, but it’s hard to judge when you’re back in the fourth row behind the baritones. I know it felt good. For a little while, thanks to a sardonic choirmaster and the ineffable magic of the holiday season, we were more than the sum of our parts. We became a true choir.

    I’ve loved Christmas music ever since, and passers-by have learned to be wary. At any time during the holidays, I may burst tunelessly into some dimly remembered chorus in Spanish, French or Latin. Now that we’re in the new year, you’re all safe again.

    Sadly, this week also brought news from an old high school friend that our former choirmaster had passed away over Christmas at age 80. His name was David Kayner, and he kept us all singing.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 2, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views


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