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Sing Out, Louise!

I have a friend from high school called Bill who decided that Stanley Tucci isn't the only one who can make a rocking cocktail video and started doing Friday evening videos from his home in Brooklyn. I loved them so much because they made me feel like I was spending a few minutes with Bill each week. I told him he has to promise to keep doing these even after his pandemic lockdown is over.

I sang with Bill in high school concert choir. He was part of a group of 10 or 12 of us over the classes of '83, '84 and '85 that formed a pretty tight bond. Most of us were also in Madrigals, which meant we were spending two hours a day together singing, as well as performances around the community and trips to competitions around the state. My junior year, we had a week-long choir trip to Mexico.

Then it occurred to me that we're all getting pretty good at online calls. And why can't a group of us get together on a Zoom call and spend some time together?

So I messaged a handful of the old group - some of whom I hadn't seen since graduation more than 30 years ago - and asked if anyone would be interested in a Zoom reune? I was delighted to get back very positive feedback. In just a few days time, we were able to bring together 8 members for an online reunion (+3 others who wanted in but had conflicts). One of us lives in Holland now; she stayed up til 2 a.m. to join us on the call.

I have written here before about how much choir, my choir director and my choir friends meant to me. I did not take choir in junior high. I was in band and I took journalism as my second elective instead. (Oh man...I think I just got an idea for another group reunion!). At the end of my freshman year (which was housed in my junior high), I tried out for choir. I had sung my whole life - starting out singing solos in church before I was even in school. I knew I had a good voice. I figured I'd make the choir.

What I didn't know before I tried out was that Mrs. Edwards - who directed both the junior high and the high school choirs - decided to add a high school girls choir that year. Previously, people in the junior choir were ushered into the high choir unless they chose not to continue. But the female voices had started to far outnumber the male voices, so Mrs. Edwards created a Girls Choir (the Mam'zels) to allow more girls to participate in the choral program. If I had known that, I probably would not have had the confidence to even try out. But I did try out. And I made the concert choir.

My sophomore year was probably the worst year of all my schooling. My parents had split up. My mom had sold our house and the two of us moved to a different neighborhood away from all my friends. I hated high school band. The girls who sat ahead of me were so mean to me. My best friend in band really flourished in high school band. Her friendship circle grew a lot and she became pretty popular among the band kids. Everything about the year was super unhappy for me. At the end of the year, knowing that I was going to drop band, I decided to try out for Madrigals, the choir's small ensemble group.

And once again, Mrs. Edwards tricked me into putting myself out there in a way I never would have knowingly done. Because we didn't actually "try out" for Madrigals, the way I had for choir the year before. Mrs. E already knew our voices and what we could do, how well we blended with others, how dedicated we were to working hard. So "trying out" for Madrigals consisted of putting your name on a list for consideration. I figured I had a good enough voice and Mrs. E seemed to like me. And I was going to need another elective. So I put my name on the list.

Turns out, Mrs. E basically let the upcoming Seniors in Madrigals select the upcoming juniors for Madrigals. She knew that this smaller group of choir members was going to spend a lot of time together, and it was important that we all get along and work well together. So she let the students decide who that would be.

(Looking back on this, it occurs to me that maybe she only made us feel like we were picking? Maybe she was playing her own hand all along? Okay, Mrs. E...I'm onto you now!)

So I get in Madrigals, and I'm thrilled! Up til this point in my life, I'd never been in an elite group of anything. I was so excited I used the band hall phone to call my mom and tell her I got in. That afternoon, as I walked down my street from my bus stop, my mom yelled out the front door, "Who is that I see coming? Is that a MADRIGAL??"

When I later found out how the selection process happened - that this elite group themselves picked ME! They wanted ME! - I was at first horrified because, again, I never would have had the confidence to put my name on that list if I'd known. But much like having made concert choir, I was so thrilled with the results that I couldn't stay retroactively aghast for very long.

And reader, I'm going to tell you what I told my Zoom call Friday night: My life turned around my junior year. This group of people became my chosen family. My mom moved to Louisiana (quite traumatically, as it happens) and I moved into an apartment with my dad (which I've written about here). For two full years, my life revolved around Choir & Madrigals. Four of the eight female voices in Madrigals my junior year were Homecoming maids. I mean, not me, but I was friends with popular people! I was popular adjacent! The depression and anxiety that had plagued me every day of my ninth and tenth grade years were gone.

Mrs. Edwards did that for me.

As we went around on the call, we each shared how Mrs. E had impacted our lives. I talked about how some of the parents (and some of the students too, tbh) thought she was too hard on us. That she demanded too much and worked us too hard. But what I learned from her is that if you are willing to be that dedicated and work that hard, you will be...superior - which is how we rated at every competition, including an international one in Mexico. You can half-ass your life and be mediocre, or you can go all-in and excel.

Also, I learned from her the beauty of head voice. (Several years ago, I heard an interview with Laura Benanti where she bemoaned the loss of head voice in young singers and I was all YESSS GIRLL YESSSSS) When I made this comment on the call, I did this hand motion that she used to do to illustrate head voice, where she would take her fingers pointed up by her temples and shoot them up and out to demonstrate the sound coming out the top of your head. It was so funny because at least half the people on the call did the same motion at the same time. We all remembered!

Some of the things the others shared were every bit as emotional as my own story. The baritone started to tear up as he shared that Mrs. E made him feel he was worth investing in. The tenor said, "She took this white trash boy and she taught me how to live. She taught me what silverware to use." Everyone had a memory that was not about singing but how we felt loved, and empowered, and worthy and how we learned actual life lessons from her.

At the end of the call, everyone got back on messenger and gushed about how wonderful it was, how much it lifted spirits in a time when we're all struggling, how much we loved each other.

There's a scene in The Big Chill where William Hurt insists the group of college friends aren't really as close as they liked to believe they were. When one of them asserts that they loved each other, he says, "Wrong. Once, a long time ago, we knew each other for a short period of time." But if seeing this group of friends again could make me feel such delight; if reading their messages, I could see that they were every bit as thrilled by the reconnection as I was, then I know that's not true.

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