In January 1991, I decided that I wanted to be in a talent show. So I got two friends together and we learned a 3 part a capella song and did it.
It was a blast.
After that first song, two of the three of us decided we had to do it again. Three other choir friends decided that they had to join us. We were five: two classically trained sopranos, a mellow voiced alto and then two of us that hopped between alto and soprano parts–K had an alto timbre and a soprano range, and I was the opposite.
We quickly acquired a name, two more songs and a plan. We accepted a standing gig singing at the local hospital, for a women’s oncology floor. These recurring commitments would keep us going between talent show performances.
With the new academic year, we added a sixth–a talented new student with a capella group experience, and a lower range to die for. She brought music with her from her undergraduate group–music we quickly co-opted. We were six, two to a part. In addition to V’s music, several members arranged other pieces for us. For my part, I brought in recordings of cool songs and typed lyrics. We made up harmonies on the spot. And by we, I mean they. I managed to get the melody part on all of those made up pieces!
My final year, one graduated, and we added three more women. That year, in addition to the hospital and talent shows, we picked up a little bit of sacred music in order to perform for chapel. Our secular repertoire increased, and we ultimately held a full length concert to benefit a local charity. My last performance with the group was at a wedding for one of the members, shortly after my graduation. We sang from the balcony, most of the group, minus the one in the white dress. Her missing voice was sad to me. I heard it in the crystalline chords, though she was not there. A few months later, the group made the 7 hour trip out to my new job, where they sang for the installation service. I was the missing voice then.
These women–these 5, then 6, then 8–they were not necessarily all my closest friends from theological school (though some were), but they were very good friends. Years later, they are the ones with whom I am in the most contact. We were together then. We had a reason to get together once a week and just sing. Later incarnations of the group were intentional about praying together, about holding a time to share together. We did none of that.
We rehearsed every week, singing through pieces, changing them, offering each other solos, loving and rejecting songs. We sang the songs we hated because someone else loved them. We waded through tricky harmonies, coasted through sweet descants, supported melodies with monotonous bass parts, sang an awful lot of nonsense syllables.
There was something magic in that. For me. For others. There was something magic in just singing, without an expectation of perfection, without the hope of a high grade or a contract, or a job offer. . We had no long range plan, mission statement, director, or dues structure. There was no system of selecting new members, no agreed upon organizational structure. We didn’t even own a pitch pipe. We made no arrangements to reserve rehearsal space. We just showed up each week and if someone was in room we were thinking about, we tried another until we found an open piano. It was chaos, in some ways. Blessed chaos, though. It didn’t feel chaotic.
All of us kept complicated schedules. There were internships and part-time jobs and classes and volunteering and denominational hoop-jumping to do. We had friends and lovers and families vying for our time. And yet, every week, we found our way there, around a piano, where we sang through broken hearts and failures and joys.We sang through academic anxiety, and family sickness. We sang through interviews and first dates and first sermons and broken down cars. We sang through all of it. We talked about the joys and sorrows, I guess, in a chit-chatty kind of way. Many of us were close friends outside of the singing, too. But it was the singing that mattered. Augustine solved it by walking. We solved it by 3 part harmony and a be-bop accompaniment.
We were so young then, though we didn’t realize it at the time. We had plans and dreams, some of which were realized and some of which were not. Most of us did what we had intended to do career-wise for a while at least, and most of us are currently doing something that was not ever in the plans back in the singing days.
This week we celebrated 20 years of this particular group. Alumnae from various eras came back and we combined for a short concert. The full group sang four songs. Some of the more recent grads sang two numbers, and we –the original grapes–sang two as well (our name, which I don’t want to put here for googling reasons is a wine related pun, so the original group are referred to as the original grapes). I should say that we, four of the original grapes, sang. I’m surprised to have so many and it made me miss those that weren’t there even more.
We had just about 45 minutes to prepare, which was crazy. We rifled through piles of music that we had not sung together for 18 years. found the easiest of those pieces and just tried to sing. We were rusty, to say the least. There were spots where nobody could remember what was supposed to happen. We changed a few things from the way we’d done them before. Then eventually the muscle memory kicked in and we more or less knew the songs again. Well, probably less than more, but it was as good as it was going to get.
Then on Tuesday night, we sang.
We weren’t perfect. I know that I personally missed many things, but it was just so fun to sing together again. It was just so fun to sing songs for the purpose of making people laugh–and getting your desired result.
On Wednesday morning, we got together for breakfast and stayed for 3 hours, as is fitting for a div school breakfast. We caught up on lives, on the disappointments and defeats and triumphs and serendipities that got each of us to the place we are now. It was sweet and sad and funny and beautiful. One blinks in the face of her father’s serious illness, another pieces together two exciting positions with finite and worrisome time limits. One works on a graduate degree, and is dating someone that she first met in high school. One is me. There are children (two) and husbands (two) and boyfriends (one) that have shown up in the intervening years. We all still look like we’re 22 of course, but there may be a bit more gravitas in our faces; our words are more measured–but our laughs bigger. I have missed those days of three hour breakfasts and unspoken words, but more than that I have missed the music.
I have missed the shimmery moment when a chord locks into place, perfectly tuned and round and gracious. I have missed the unique and indescribable thrill of roaring to a full belt, of that place where voices are wild and woolly. I have missed knowing the voices around me, missing the ones not there, but hearing them in the spaces. I have missed that way of knowing people that only comes when each part has to be there in order for everything to work. I have missed that.
It was a homecoming of sorts, though my license says I actually live here.
I sometimes think that home is a chord, D Major most likely, bright and shimmery and sung by the voices that I most love.