by Beth Boswell Jacks
200 people changed their religion." - Fred Allen
The other night at choir practice, while the director drilled the basses and tenors on a particularly difficult passage, I began to reflect on my "choir career." When I later put pen to paper, I estimated I've spent around 6,000 hours of my life in musical rehearsals and performances, more or less - probably more - and I've loved it, obviously.
Once upon a time, I was an exalted soprano. They are the women in the female section who sing louder and higher than the rest, thus enjoying a sort of celebrity, if you will. One critic accuses sopranos of wearing more jewelry, more make-up, and "swishier skirts" than the poor altos, who are generally the double-chinned good ol' girls in jeans and sneakers.
Over the years, most noticeably after the births of each of my four babies, my vocal range fell to the lower reaches, and I now sit with the humble altos. (We like to think we're just sopranos who can sightread.) There in the alto section, I warble a happy tune (or not) and there are few who realize when I hit a bad note because the sopranos are singing so loud.
My daughters are also altos, as was my mother, proving something, I suppose.
My son-in-law once pronounced altos as bad news, saying his experience has been that altos actually resent sopranos and hold a sort of grudge.
"I have noticed," he said, "that most sopranos are blond, while altos tend to be dark haired. I think the sopranos are the cheerleaders out in front of the football crowd, performing cheers, and the altos are the ones sitting in the stands talking bad about the sopranos. All I know for sure is that after a few minutes with those altos my wife suddenly transforms into Dirty Harriet with a hymnal."
Frankly, I don't know where he gets that. I rarely talk bad about the sopranos, even when they sing too loud. I admit, sometimes I do wish I were back in their ranks, most often blaring out the simple melodies (which requires little skill and practice), hitting those high A's, B's and C's and getting all the attention, but I do well to get an octave over middle C, and that's stretching it.
(You know how many altos are required to change a light bulb, don't you? All of them. One to change the bulb and the rest to complain about how high it is.)
And there are definite perks to choir membership. Choir robes cover a multitude of sins on those Sunday mornings when I oversleep and have to rush around getting dressed. Plus, at our church the ushers never pass the collection plate in the choir loft. Sweet! And we're prone to throw a choir party together at the drop of a hat with terrific food and even more terrific fellowship.
So, look, I'll take my inferior alto membership, sitting on the second row, joining the tenors and basses as back-ups to a soprano section spilling over with smiling ladies in swishy skirts and earrings.
After all, as my old auntie once commented, "It's the effect you want." The total sound. The combined effort of a dedicated group.
Paul McCartney said it well: "I love to hear a choir. I love the humanity, to see the faces of real people devoting themselves . . . I like the teamwork. It makes me feel optimistic about the human race."
Me, too, Paul - especially the altos, who carry on in spite of our musical burdens. But never fear, we add the harmony, if not in our bitter regrets, at least in our supportive, mellow notes . . . way over there in the back.
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For stories at USADS by columnist Beth Boswell Jacks, click here: SNIPPETS
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