Newton Community Chorus by
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(207 Stories)

Prompted By Finding Your Tribe

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As I wrote in Gotta Sing, I have loved to sing my whole life and did so in some fashion during my first 18 years of life. After marrying, going to work full-time, then having children, I no longer had opportunities, beyond the occasional lullaby or shower singing to exercise that love. I sang with a group from the Brandeis National Women’s Committee when my children were young, but that was short-lived, as our director passed away.

I own a beautiful piano and at least used to vocalize and sing for my own pleasure until my younger child howled in protest. I thought he was just giving me a difficult time until the diagnoses were slowly revealed, including Asperger’s Syndrome which included various forms of sensory integration issues. He, literally, couldn’t stand the timbre of my high-pitched voice, so I stopped singing in the house altogether. I missed singing.

In elementary school, David began taking piano lessons from a lovely woman in the neighborhood. She was kind and patient with her student charges and served them hot fudge Sundaes as a special treat, particularly after their June recitals. We became good friends, even inviting non-Jewish Nancy to our Passover seders. Here she is in 1999, though David no longer took lessons from her.

Nancy told me about a wonderful local chorus she sang with and she was sure I’d enjoy as well, but they rehearsed every Monday night. Dan traveled constantly and I couldn’t imaging finding a babysitter that consistently.

A year after Dan retired in 2002, I called Nancy for information. She invited me to come to the first rehearsal. They met at a local Catholic girl’s school, a few miles from my house and rehearsed every Monday night during the school year. She also told me there would be no auditions, which reassured me, since it had been YEARS since I had sung with any sort of organized group, or had to read a musical score. She gave me some background on the officers of the group (since the Newton Community Chorus is technically a non-profit) and the director, Rick Travers, who at the time, was the conductor of the top choirs at Newton North High School. He has since retired from the public school, but remains active performing (he is an accomplished jazz pianist) and conducting. Rick is patient but exacting with us and constantly teaching us.

Rick at a recent rehearsal, listening to the basses.

I showed up that first Monday to learn we would be singing the Brahms German Requiem in German that semester, a difficult but gorgeous piece of music. And there WERE auditions! I was sort of freaked out. We spent that first rehearsal working on the fourth movement (in English: “How Lovely is They Dwelling Place”, which I had sung many times at camp years ago, but NEVER in German). Our audition would be a few measures from that movement. I was confident of the music but not the German. I received a call the next day from an officer welcoming me to the chorus. I was elated and have felt at home ever since.

We worked very hard on that particular work that semester. I easily made friends among my fellow sopranos. We didn’t have assigned seats, but tended to sit in the same spot every week, so chatted with the women on either side of me. Through the years, as the chorus has expanded and contracted, the two women on either side of me have remained constant and become dear to me, supports in times of sickness and joy.

We do all sorts of fundraising to support our chorus, as we pay for our director, rehearsal accompanist, professional soloists and full orchestra for our performances. We perform our piece once in the winter, then learn new music to perform in the spring. Our performance space is a local church.

The Brahms German Requiem went extremely well. I was buzzing with excitement for days after. I called my dear friend Patti the next day. I met Patti in Girl’s Choir in 10th grade. She and husband John (founders of MyRetrospect) had sung under the baton of Michael Tilson-Thomas with the San Francisco Orchestra for some serious concerts. (They have Grammy awards for Carmina Burana. I listened to their performance while practicing for my own performance many years ago.) She understood. I just wanted to talk about the experience, as she could relate. We talked for hours. It was like I had the proverbial “runner’s high”. I knew I was on to something important.

During my 16 years with the chorus, we have sung the Brahms German Requiem twice, the Mozart Requiem twice, both favorites of mine. We’ve done several sections of Handel’s Messiah, but long ago. Finally, last semester, we sang the Fauré Requiem, another long-time favorite. We’ve sung masses, requiems, oratorios (The Elijah, The Creation; glorious), more contemporary works; we are currently working on Stravinsky and Dovrak masses. Our group tends to be larger in the fall semester, as big as 90 voices (sometimes dependent on the music we are singing), then dip to perhaps 60 voices in the spring. Springtime seems to be a difficult time for lots of people, with weddings, graduations and the like, so fewer people can sing at that time of year. I will not be able to perform at this concert, due to a long-planned European trip, but am still going to rehearsals and learning the music, for the fun, camaraderie and to keep my brain alive.

A particular favorite work we sang, that is not among the well-known in the choral repretoire was Dona Nobis Pacem by Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Vaughn Williams, a British composer, was deeply affected by his service during WWI. As he saw the storm clouds gathering over Europe in 1936, he wrote this cantata as an anti-war warning. It combines a bit of the Latin mass with poems by Walt Whitman from the Civil War, a bit of a sermon from a British anti-war minister and passages from the Old Testament. I found it incredibly moving when we performed it in 2007. I listened to the recording recently and found it still had the same impact (we do record our concerts and get CDs months later). I am particularly moved by Movement IV, “Dirge For Two Veterans”, a Whitman poem about the burial of two soldiers, a dead father and son. The music sounds military with bugles blaring and the rat-a-tat of the drums, beating, louder and louder as the procession approaches to the new-made graves. “For the son is brought with the father…Two veterans, son and father, dropped together.” The music is percussive and stops on the words “dropped together” for added emphasis. The music dims as the procession marches on. The last words of the movement are; “My heart gives your love.” The chord does not resolve. It tore me apart to sing it.

February of 2007 had been a tough month in our household. I had rotator cuff surgery, with Jeffrey coughing and coughing. A day later he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Then I caught it. We both thought we were OK (though I had a long recovery from my surgery, as I developed a frozen shoulder and did months of PT), when suddenly, Jeffrey noticed a numbness in his left leg; within hours it crept up his trunk into his arm, then his face. I called his doctor who told us to take him to the ER STAT! I was still too sick to go, but Dan spent an excruciating 11 hours at Children’s Hospital while they ran test after test. They couldn’t find any explanation and finally sent him home and told us to wait. He lay in bed, frightened. I sat with him. He cried, “I got into Brown, early decision. Will I be able to go?” I tried to comfort him, attempting to hide my own anxiety. Eventually they thought he had some weird brain virus, triggered by the pneumonia, that resolved on its own.

With this going on at home, I went back to my chorus rehearsals. We sit in a horse-shoe formation, the sopranos facing the altos. Sometimes we make funny faces at one another to try to elicit smiles. But while rehearsing Movement IV, I found myself in tears. Judith, who comes all the way from Fall River, perhaps an hour’s drive, is a therapist. She noticed my distress and during our break (we take a 10 minute break for snack and chat about half way through our two hour rehearsal), came and put her hand on my back, “What’s going on?” I explained that I had a sick child at home. Judith is an older woman, I’m not sure how old, but certainly in her 70s. She told me that she had lost her only daughter many years ago. She could empathize. She comforted me.

Rick always says the most important word in the name of our group is COMMUNITY. It has been so for me.

In 2018, my birthday fell on a Monday. I let it be known that I wanted a cake as part of snack that evening and of course, the chorus sang to me. I was delighted, and my chorus buddy, who has sat next to me all these years made a delicious cake (she is a wonderful baker. She also has a son who lives on Martha’s Vineyard, so sometimes we get to visit in the summer).

We wear name tags so any new person can know who we are and can always feel welcome. And I recently snapped a photo of Nancy, who first brought the Newton Community Chorus to my attention all those years ago. As an alto, she sits across from me. She is still at it after all these years. She never fails to ask about her former student, my David.

A year ago, he came in for Thanksgiving. Since he came all the way from London, he came in early and worked from the Cambridge Google office earlier in the week. I asked if he’d come to chorus practice to surprise Nancy. I texted him the directions and he showed up in time for snack. She was THRILLED to see him again after so many years. He’s a grown-up man now, well into his 30s. He was an elementary school child when she first met him. It was a lovely reunion and I even got bragging rights to introduce him to Rick, who could see the sweet scene playing out in front of him.

I have definitely found a fulfilling tribe with my chorus.

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Update: 36 hours before this story went live we received two emails, one from our chorus president, one from Rick, our director, informing us that, due to the coronavirus and State of Emergency declared by the Governor, all rehearsals and our May concert were postponed until further notice. While this is disappointing, it is the correct decision, as we sit close to one another in rehearsal and stand VERY close on the stage for performance (the tiny photo at the end of the story, lifted from the chorus website, newtoncommunitychorus.org). We don’t know what conditions will be like by May 9, the date of our concert, but if we can’t rehearse, we would not be ready to perform and we could not reasonably hope to have an audience, sitting next to each other, as they do in the historic church in Newton Centre where we perform. We can only hope that conditions will improve by the time next season begins after Labor Day. Stay safe, everyone!

 

Dan and I had already canceled our cruise though Spain, Portugal, France, ending in London to visit David, who is working from home for the foreseeable future anyway and expects to be in lockdown soon. This was scheduled to conflict with the concert, so I WAS now planning to perform with the chorus, as I informed Rick this past Monday. Everything is changing rapidly. But I can still write.

 

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: singing, soprano, Nancy O'Brien, Newton Community Chorus
Characterizations: funny, moving, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    Wow, Betsy, when you and Suzy kid about having been twins separated at birth, you really mean it! You both write so movingly about your respective adult choirs being your loving “tribe” for the past two decades.

    I really enjoyed both the descriptions of the music you have sung — I’m currently streaming some classical music courses and actually learning about this stuff — and, perhaps even more so, how important the choir experience has been to you and your family even beyond the music. In short, the choir has truly been for you a tribe and not just a fun “extracurricular” activity. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    And, not surprisingly, like Suzy, you also share the current sadness as the choir — and most everything else that is communal — shuts down for the coronavirus. While this no doubt makes for a realization of just how important a part of one’s life this tribe is, let us fervently hope this hiatus is brief. Let’s also hope for a baseball season soon, too. (Sorry — my own $.02.)

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks for the understanding, John. Both of the music part and the communal part of the choral experience. And I’m totally with you in hoping that we get back to normal as quickly as possible!

  2. Suzy says:

    Betsy, as you commented on my story, we are in the same tribe! Where would we be if we didn’t sing! I love your choir story. It looks like a much larger group than mine (so no wonder that you wear nametags), but it sounds like it gives you the same kind of support that I get from mine. And I absolutely adore the Brahms Requiem! We sang it in college – in German – and I actually have the record (you know, one of those 12″ black discs with grooves in it) of our performance. I think it might have been my first time singing in German. But I can’t imagine singing it in English, because then you have to deal with the very Christian subject matter, whereas in German it is just a bunch of sounds set to beautiful music. That’s my view, anyway. Thanks for a great story.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      At camp we only sang the fourth movement, “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place”, not the whole requiem, so I wasn’t singing the whole text in English, and as I’m sure you know, it is unlike most requiems. It almost didn’t get approved by the church, since it doesn’t follow the standard format and is much more about love and forgiveness than about damnation, so very soothing, all in all. And yes, very beautiful!

      I love that you still have the record of your college performance! I still have my camp choir records (Intermediate and High School), but they were a pastiche of the whole summer, sort of “greatest hits”. I’ll have to go back and look and see if this made the cut.

  3. Betsy, how fortunate you are, not only that when you open your mouth, beautiful sounds come out, but that you’re able to sing in a choir, and that your choir became your beloved tribe. Singing is such a special gift. Some of my favorite memories are of my mother singing while she did the housework, and she had a lovely voice . . . she always dreamed of becoming a “real” singer but raising five children took precedence. When I tried to sing lullabies to my small daughter, she would put her little hand over my mouth — I guess she didn’t like my voice. But that didn’t stop me from singing “Devoted to You” to Garth on our wedding day about 10 years ago. Some people cried — I like to think it was because they were moved . . . in a good way. 😉

    I’m so sorry about your plans being dashed, but glad you can still write as I always enjoy your stories!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I’m glad you sang to Garth on your wedding day. Good for you! My husband can’t carry a tune; neither can my children. No one got my family’s musicianship (my brother has perfect pitch and is a better singer than I am). Yes, it is a gift and I am fortunate to be able to enjoy it. Thanks for the acknowledgement.

  4. Your story uplifted me, recalling the magnificent choral works my Dad played on our hifi. (I immediately went to my Spotify account and entered the works you mentioned. ) I love to sing, but my voice will only take me as far as the senior citizens chorus in my Florida community where they sing some standards, but very, very few classical pieces. But singing with a group is a special feeling of togetherness. There’s very little competition and much joy.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      “Uplifted”; a wonderful word, Sara. Thank you! Don’t sell yourself short. You can get all the same benefits that I’ve described from singing in your senior citizens chorus, singing the standards. It can be great fun and the sense of community is awesome! Enjoy every moment of it. I’m finding that as I age, I lose my top notes, and other aspects of musicianship that I’ve had all my life. But I can still enjoy the act of singing and being with the group. That’s what counts.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Your featured image is beautiful, Betsy. What a lovely community the chorus has been for you. It’s sad that the COVID-19 shutdowns impacted both your May concert and your trip. But once this has passed, I know you will go on. I’m impressed by your attitude in the face of these disappointments.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you for all your comments, Laurie. Yes, the chorus has been a wonderful community, and yes, we will all get through this (g-d willing). Just last night, our Governor shut down restaurants, limited gyms in such a way that mine had to shut down (but I was strenuously warned by several health care professionals that they couldn’t be adequately cleaned, no matter what precautions were taken, so I shouldn’t go, and that was another huge blow to my community, as I went 6 times a week), and now, canceling the European cruise, and another trip to CA, a few weeks earlier in April, I won’t see either of my children for a long period of time. But we will marshal on! Writing for Retrospect will be my salvation.

  6. Beautiful accounting of a basic tribal activity. Your description also prompted me to dig out Dona Nobis Pachem from Spotify’s labyrinthian archives. I’m listening as I write. You sound very well nourished in your musical tribe, and I know we will all be back out there soon! Just don’t drop by the pub for the next few weeks if you can avoid it ;-)!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, Charlie. What did you think of Dona Nobis Pacem ? Did it move you? Or perhaps it just hit me at a that certain point in my life. I talked about you to my London son last week (we are doing a lot of FaceTime in these days of plague); about your SDS affiliation. Now I have to go back and find some of your writings that describe that era. He’s interested. We are all liberal in this family, but he trends more progressive/radical than I and is very interested in learning firsthand about your era.

      • My novel, Gates of Eden, is set in SDS’s breeding and battlegrounds — the civil rights and anti-Viet war movements. He might find it a good overview of how the New Left came to be.

        I listened to Dona Nobis Pacem, but, given how deeply ensconced I am in our current situation, I had to set it aside for some musica Cubana caliente.

  7. From someone who cannot carry a tune, I’m envious of you Betsy and Suzy and Sara!
    And again Betsy I’m awed by your recall of dates and chronology.
    Is it unrealistic to think your May 9 concert might happen after all?
    Goodness, what a world.

    As I write my husband is calling me to watch the Biden-Sanders debate, but how much political and corona stuff can one take in, and who would want that job they are vying for!
    (But don’t get me wrong, one of them betta win in November or we’re really doomed.)

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      On behalf of the singers of this group, I thank you, Dana. My husband is tone-deaf; literally cannot pitch match, so used to love it when I sang “There’s a Place For Us” to him in bed when we were first dating at Brandeis, some 47 years ago. Now when I break out into song, he rolls his eyes and says, “Not again”. So it goes.

      Officially, Chorus rehearsals and the concert are suspended (like the political campaigns), not cancelled, but with each passing week that we miss, it would be more difficult to hold the concert. The Stravinsky Mass, though only 20 minutes long, is tonally unlike anything we have ever sung; quite challenging. We are about 2/3 of the way through learning it (also that far along with the Dvorak), but still need to get through the rest, then need to POLISH, get the dynamics (grow louder, softer, emphasize certain phrases, etc) and feel confident with it. Practice, practice, practice. So I doubt we would have enough time to do all that, even if we could resume sometime in April and right now, everything is closed for several weeks, and that is likely to be extended. We just will have missed too many rehearsals to catch up. Also, the demographic of our group skews old, almost everyone is older than 60, some MUCH older, so we are almost all in the high risk group and many have underlying conditions, so that is another worry and factor. Even if we could resume, would many feel safe to come back? Several other groups also use the church that we use to hold concerts, so we can’t get another, later date to hold ours. We are all in this boat together, but thanks for asking.

      When we canceled our cruise, I thought, “At least now I’ll be able to come to Danny’s Brandeis Fellows hooding”. Then I started thinking about Brandeis and Commencement (this, obviously, was before they shut down and sent everyone home), and just couldn’t see how they could pull it off with the necessary social distancing. But the 3rd weekend of May is a lifetime away, given how rapidly the situation changes, so we’ll sit tight and see what the next few weeks bring.

      Stay safe and YES, VOTE BLUE in NOV!

  8. Wow Betsy, man plans and God laughs!
    I’m sure there’ll be no Brandeis hooding this year, and we’ve cancelled more than one planned trip ourselves..

    It’s scary, I was in tears today.
    Wash your hands and keep singing!

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