I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read music. I must have learned at about the same time I learned to read words, around three years old. It has always been a part of my life. I took piano lessons and then oboe lessons, but the thing I always liked the best was singing. My family sang all the time. Campfire classics, Broadway musicals, Tom Lehrer political satire songs. At holidays or other family gatherings, we would all gather around the piano and sing out of the numerous songbooks we had. If you didn’t know the words, or the tune, no matter, you could just read it over the pianist’s shoulder. Whenever we went on a long car trip, we never played the radio, we sang. And we harmonized. My sisters and I had to take turns singing the harmonies, because we all thought it was more fun than the melody, but SOMEBODY had to sing the melody or else the harmonies wouldn’t sound good.
So it was only natural that I wanted to sing in any chorus or choir that was available. First at National Music Camp, later at my high school. When I arrived at college I sang in the Freshman Chorus (with John Zussman). Then, at the end of freshman year, I auditioned for the highly selective Radcliffe Choral Society. Up until that time I had always sung soprano, but I somehow learned that there was an abundance of sopranos and they were short on altos, so I promptly became an alto. Much more fun anyway, because sopranos generally just sing the melody, and altos get to do interesting harmonies. (Classic choir joke: What is the definition of an alto? A female singer who can read music!) I made some of my best college friends in Choral Society, and we still sing together at reunions.
The summer after sophomore year, the Choral Society, along with our male counterpart, the Harvard Glee Club, had the incredible opportunity to sing at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We were going to perform two different pieces, in different concerts, and we worked on the music all spring, in addition to everything we needed to learn for our spring concerts. We were doing Chichester Psalms, by Leonard Bernstein, under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, a 34-year-old wunderkind whose name was on everyone’s lips at the time. And we were also doing Mahler’s Second Symphony, under the direction of . . . OMG . . . Leonard Bernstein himself!
Our two concerts were on Friday July 3rd and Sunday July 5th. We had a week at Tanglewood before the performances to rehearse, and to enjoy the wonderful ambiance. It was heavenly. And more than one romance began that week between Glee men and Choral women. One Tanglewood couple actually stayed together for the rest of college and ended up getting married. For the rest of us, it was more transient, but still pretty magical. And the music was incredible! I had not liked the Mahler very much when we were learning it in Cambridge, but once we started rehearsing it with Bernstein it became enthralling. And the performances of both pieces were electrifying.
I continued to sing for the rest of my time in Cambridge. Choral Society was my anchor in those crazy times, along with the Lowell House Opera Society (I sang in the chorus of several operas, I hasten to add — I am not an operatic soloist). After I moved to California I sang with the Masterworks Chorale and the Sacramento Symphony Chorus. I have performed with many wonderful conductors, but nobody who was quite as exciting as Ozawa and Bernstein. I feel very lucky to have had that Tanglewood experience.
Currently I am singing only with my synagogue choir, which is rewarding in a different way. There is no applause, but the congregants are deeply moved by our music, as are the choir members. And the other altos in the choir have become some of my dearest friends. Tonight and tomorrow, for Yom Kippur, we will be singing at five different services, one tonight, and four throughout the day tomorrow. I mostly don’t believe in God, but the music transports me to another place that feels very close to divine.
What a wonderful love song to music, Suzy! I loved your characterization of the lines the altos have to sing as “interesting harmonies;” this is the same usage of the word “interesting” as in the well-known Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.”
Thank you Nick. While your comment about “interesting” made me laugh, I don’t think I agree. I love alto parts!
A beautiful account of singing to the gods (who/whatever they may be). I can only imagine the thrill, the rush of natural power that comes from singing in ensembles that large. Your family competition to sing harmonies also enlightened me: I’ve always preferred to sing harmony, never quite understood why until now. You also led me to be thrilled by the notion of watching a piece of music come alive in the hands of a great conductor. Thanks for bringing us on your musical journeys so gracefully.
Glad you liked it and that it brought you enlightenment. From one musician to another.
Ah, Suzy, our kinship continues. How TOTALLY thrilling to have actually sung under the batons of Ozawa and Bernstein! I can only imagine. Your description of the thrill you feel while singing is visceral, one that I totally understand. I chanted the candle blessings at my services on Tuesday night (I go to Brandeis, as we don’t belong to a congregation). I sang the Chichester Psalms a few years ago, along with part of Bernstein’s Mass, but of course, the Maestro was long gone. I remember hearing of his passing on the radio and crying at the time. He was larger than life for me (I watched his “Young People’s Concerts” on black and white TV as a kid). How lucky you were to have been with him at Tanglewood.
I enjoyed your description of your transition from soprano to alto, though I had a somewhat different experience. In 10th grade, we had to audition into Girl’s Choir, up from Girl’s Glee Club (one of the three places where I overlapped with Patti that year). I had been singing since I was 7 and probably reading music since I was about 10. I was a high soprano, but the conductor needed a strong voice and someone who could read music, just as you described, so he made me an alto. It gave me vocal challenges for years, as women’s voices change too and I never really learned to manage my break well. I was happy the next year when I could audition for A Cappella Choir (the top choir in school, and a four part, mixed choir) and become a soprano again, which I remain to this day, though I have definitely lost the notes off the top.
Sing on, friend!
Thanks Betsy, I love hearing about your choral experiences as well. I also watched all of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts as a kid, and cried when he died.
Suzy, I find so many commonalities with your story (besides the obvious that we sang together in college), it’s hard to pick one to comment on. When I was young, my temple had wonderful choirs (children’s, youth, and adult), and their uplifting music was a major factor in my enjoying services, feeling fulfilled in my faith, and even wanting to be a rabbi. I was therefore disappointed to learn that, though some of members of the adult choir were members of the congregation, others were paid “ringers” from the community and weren’t even Jewish! Now, when I go back to my old temple, the choirs have been replaced by a cantor. More traditional, perhaps, but those gorgeous harmonies are gone. More’s the pity.
John, no need to limit yourself to one commonality. 🙂
Sorry to hear that your old temple no longer has a choir. I don’t think choir/cantor is an either/or thing, since my Sacramento temple has always had both.
This is just a terrific homage to a life in music — and specifically choral music. That you could sustain and enjoy it in all periods of your life, right down to today, is a testament both to your love of it and your obvious vocal abilities. And you make it clear how many of your friendships have also blossomed as a result of your music associations.
I found particularly intriguing your discussion of your synagogue choir the final paragraph. It so clearly expresses the message that the music itself can transport you spiritually, even if the underlying religious beliefs are not themselves totally embraced.
And both Bernstein and Ozawa, wow!
Finally, you confirmed something that I had casually observed in high school watching the girls’ chorus. All the really smart girls — i.e., the ones in the honors and AP classes – – were altos.
Thanks for your comments, John. Yes, choral music has seen me through every period of my life since Interlochen in the early ’60s. I can’t imagine what I would do without it. I sure hope Betsy doesn’t see your comment about all the smart girls being altos – she is one of the rare smart sopranos!
No offense intended to brilliant Betsy! There are always those soprano outliers who are well above the bell curve. And, on the other side of the chorus, I am advised that not all tenors are Irish.
Suzy, thanks for the trip down your musical memory lane. It resonates with my own experience as well as my wife Anne’s. I’m the amateur musician in the family, but she’s the pro. And, like you, she is involved in the choir at our church where she is music director. Also like you, the music gets her closer to a faith she sometimes struggles with as well. Truth be told, so do I. Anyway, you’ve crafted another story that hit a lot of the right keys for me.
Thanks for your comment, Jim. I think we have a new prompt coming up that is specifically about singing, so I hope you will give us a story there.
So glad you told me to read this story Suzy, and it’s so enviable that you sing, and obviously so very well! I can’t carry a tune altho I can fake it.
Keep singing Suzy!