catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 18 :: 2012.10.12 — 2012.10.25


As one voice

Growing up, Wintersongs was my favorite time of year. In the second week of December, in my small town of 2,500 people, the high school auditorium fills to maximum capacity for the annual Wintersongs Concert. The event sells out every year. Students always get first dibs on tickets. People in the community without children find the nearest student connection, a nephew or a kid who mows their lawn, and order tickets through them.

From fourth grade through my senior year, my classmates and I sang songs about Santa, spinning dreidels, drinking gourds, a baby that came to save the world and more. The elementary kids always perform first and wear their own red and green clothing. The toothy fourth graders, girls in sparkly red dresses and boys in plain green shirts, sing cutesy songs about Santa and snow with gimmicky winter hats, sunglasses or fake snowballs to throw at the audience. In sixth grade, my best friend Karen and I sang, “Short, Glad to Be Short,” hovering over our classmates from the back row like the unused black and brown in an old box of crayons. It didn’t matter if we felt that the song didn’t apply to us because we were singing as an ensemble. And we had a good ensemble.

The choral director at the elementary school, Mrs. May, married the choral director at the high school, Mr. May. These teachers approached, and still approach, their work as artists. The quality of performance they draw out of their students earns them a great deal of respect and the music department has become a source of pride for the community. Under Mr. May’s direction, the class clown becomes a self-disciplined member of the ensemble. Our choirs have won awards at the state level and he has coached soloists who have been recognized at regional choir festivals. Mr. May plays the ensemble the way one would play an instrument. Each of us is an important piece of the music.

In the pursuit of excellence, Mr. May was not above speaking directly to someone in the audience if they interfered with the sound of the choir. Sometimes he even got sassy. With his back to the audience, face to the choir, he would roll his eyes at the sound of a cell phone ringing in the seats. Once, when a particular student I’ll call Dawn was not putting forth the effort he demanded, he stopped in the middle of our set of songs to approach her spot in the risers and command her attention. Dawn went to my church and I knew some of her family history. She came from a poor family, she was in special ed. and some of my peers would put her in the class they referred to as “scummers.” We weren’t friends, but I knew she had problems I couldn’t begin to tackle. I knew that Mr. May, as a teacher, had to call her out for her behavior, but for me, her public humiliation highlighted my own uncomfortable awareness of our differences.

This is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn: we need to blend and sing as a choir instead of a group of soloists. Every choir has its divas, and every choir has members who don’t take the work seriously.  Our ensemble had the added challenge of class distinctions. I’d like to say that when we learned to blend, we also learned how to love and respect each other. But that does not happen in high school. It does not necessarily happen in college, either. Artistic communities, like choirs or theatre ensembles, can give its members a shared sense of identity and purpose. But these groups feel empty without the support of deeper relationships among the members.

Growing up, my dad told me that God loves everyone, Jesus loves all the little children and I needed to love them, too. Attending a church with the most unpopular and poorest kids of my class drove that message home. I don’t think I was very good at loving them, and I didn’t have very much opportunity to be kind to them at school because we were in completely different classes. I left my hometown after graduating high school. Not all my classmates had that option, or could even envision the possibilities of a life existing outside the norms of our small town. When I go home, I think of Dawn and I feel a little guilty for leaving. She still lives there, as do a number of my classmates. We get older, but like Wintersongs, some things don’t change.

Year after year, they end with the same epic finale. All of the elementary school kids in their reds and greens fill the stage, the middle schoolers wearing white and black stand on risers on either side of the pit of the stage, and the senior high students wearing navy robes and silver stoles line up in the aisles of the auditorium. They hold little electric candles, which cast a soft glow in the aisles. With the seats packed full and the choir surrounding the audience, the room is beyond what the fire marshal would allow. He must realize that the tradition is worth it. After the masses file into the auditorium the choir sings an arrangement of “Silent Night,” in both German and English, devised by Mr. May. Then they sing “Climb to the Top of the Highest Mountain.” The final verse goes:

He will come in power and glory,
He will rule with mercy and truth,
Hope of the nations, light of all the world.
He will love the little children,
He will hold them in his arms.
Love him and trust him as a little child.
Behold, your Lord comes to you!

The elementary kids sing the two lines about loving and holding the children and then the whole chorus joins them for a resounding finish. Year after year, this was the moment I lived for. The emotional impact of seeing my community in the audience, lifting my small voice to become part of a grand ensemble, and singing (as a child) and hearing (in Senior High) the final profound final verse — it’s practically indescribable. But in the beauty of that moment, I always felt like a small piece of something much larger than myself. I was not the only one who took the music to heart. Inevitably, at church that weekend during our time of sharing and thanksgiving, someone would bless the Mays for offering their gifts and shaping our children.  We could see Christ in the presence of those angelic little voices.

To an outsider, a school concert may seem like a small thing. But in a small community without any art galleries, theaters, concert halls or even a bowling alley, the school becomes the cultural hub. People gather at school sporting events and student concerts. Growing up in that kind of place, you don’t feel much pride about your hometown and sometimes you internalize a feeling of inadequacy. In spite of all the things my town didn’t have, we were blessed by Wintersongs and tried to hold onto its spirit all year.

Note: All names in this essay have been changed for respect and privacy.

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