“Sketching the Rose” in the September issue of Wordgathering!

Today the September issue of Wordgathering is live, and my essay, ‘Sketching the Rose,” is the sole piece in the Music section! Here’s how the piece begins:

Summer can be a slow season for my barbershop chorus. We enter regional competition in April, and if our scores are good enough, we’ll compete on the international stage in October of the following year. Because we have eighteen months to perfect our competition music, we spend the summer months expanding our repertoire and just having fun–which is barbershop code for learning “tags.”

Tags are the last few lines of a song, stretched out and embellished with lush harmonies. At our regional competitions, the hotel corridors are filled with quartets singing tags. Established quartets and pickup quartets–groups that have competed for years and foursomes who have just met by the elevator. Because tags are short and catchy, most people teach and learn them by ear.

When we see “tag singing” on the rehearsal agenda, my fellow singers and I find our respective sections on the risers: lead, bass, baritone, and tenor. Even in an all-female ensemble, we still use the traditional part names from men’s barbershop–we can’t help that the male tradition was established first. As I step up next to the other baritones, our section managers form a quartet in front.

Read the entire piece here.

Designing the Parachorus—Or Why I Sing with a Dog

In his 2011 TED Talk, British conductor Charles Hazlewood insists that music-making depends not on skill, but on trust. Describing past and present musical projects, Hazlewood emphasizes how trust grows through collaboration. “Where there is trust,” says Hazlewood, “there is music—by extension life.”

One of Hazlewood’s remarkable projects is the British Paraorchestra, an ensemble of disabled musicians. Paraorchestra, which debuted at TED in November, 2011, is Hazlewood’s attempt to provide a space for professional musicians with disabilities—often overlooked by professional musical organizations.

Though disabled musicians may be more prominent in 2015, the prevailing question is always, “How will they cope?” How will the blind doctoral piano student handle complicated printed music? How will the paraplegic horn player keep up with the orchestra?

Guesses made by nondisabled authorities can outweigh the actual circumstances of a disabled person’s life – as an employer, a graduate advisor, or a teacher attempts to foresee every pitfall. This preemptive troubleshooting –regularly  performed without the disabled person’s input, despite their closeness to the situation – is an example of what Benjamin Zander calls “the world of measurement.” Zander, another influential British conductor, describes two worlds: the world of measurement and the universe of possibility. (Find out more here.) In the world of measurement, every “what-if” is a potential snag, a hiccup in the smooth machinery of organizations. Every deviation is an error, and all errors are preventable, as long as we never let our guard down. In the universe of possibility, every “what-if” is a chance to learn, to imagine.

Paraorchestra is a project in the universe of possibility, a chance to re-imagine the kinds of people we expect musicians to be—and the kinds of instruments we expect them to play. It’s a chance to reinvent how we judge our bodies and our instruments – where one ends and the other begins. By establishing Paraorchestra, Hazlewood helps us question the traditions of musical performance—norms set by nondisabled musicians. If every musician onstage is disabled, “disability” can no longer be imagined as a barrier to music-making. The troublesome “what-ifs” are banished by the most effective brand of activism: people sharing their passion with others.

Though I’m not an orchestral musician, I want to bring Hazlewood and Zander’s ideas into my musical endeavors. In my 15 years of choral experience, I have always been the only singer onstage with dark glasses, my white cane tucked between the folds of a black chorus dress. No director has ever taken issue with my onstage needs, but I feel a pressure to conform every time the chorus receives a speech about “visual unity.” Even when I have mastered the choreography, body angles, entrances, and exits, I am aware of my sense of difference on the risers.

But awareness is not shame. Now, when I think about the singers who stand beside me, I ask myself, Where are the other blind musicians? Why aren’t they here with me, forging trust and performing a message of inclusion? For each time I stand on the risers with my dark glasses, I am offering a message of what it means to live a life. I want my presence to show the audience that there is nothing exceptional or extraordinary about a blind singer fully participating in a musical organization. There is no magical “overcoming” here. I carry my disability into rehearsals and onstage. Performing on the risers doesn’t make me nondisabled; it makes me human.

Two new developments are allowing me to extend my musical activism to new audiences: my guide dog and my new quartet. Though York has been to several chorus rehearsals, he and I shared our first chorus performance earlier this week. The informal setting was an ideal place for York to practice his performance training:  I placed him in a down-stay at my feet and kept one foot on his leash.

When I tell people that York will not be on the competition stage with my chorus in April, they laugh and say, “Of course not!” Because our contest songs are accompanied by vigorous choreography and because I am placed in the center of the chorus, I have chosen to leave York backstage with a friend. As I acknowledge the logic of this choice, I drift into the universe of possibility. Will all ensemble musicians be forced to leave their service dogs in the wings forever? What would happen to a guide dog in a Parachorus?

While I rehearse and perform with my quartet, I can conduct my own Parachorus experiments. With advice and encouragement, my quartet members have helped me develop York’s performance etiquette. He lies at my feet throughout every three-hour rehearsal and transfers this behavior to our live performances. We are perfecting his position because he will accompany us on the competition stage in April. When we sing with York, my quartet and I can redesign the performance space and create new expectations.

No one should be surprised to see a disabled musician waiting to audition or perform. If disabled and nondisabled musicians can make music together onstage, they can make lives together offstage. I want to replace the skepticism of measurement with an invitation to imagine, to collaborate.

Article: Introducing my guide dog to the world of classical music

Today Minnesota Public Radio published my piece about York’s presence in my musical life:

“JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s Tuesday evening, and after a four-week hiatus, I’m finally attending chorus rehearsal again — but I haven’t assumed my usual place on the risers. I’m seated toward the back of the hall, awaiting a cue from my director and trying to curtail the explorations of my new companion: an 18-month-old black Labrador.”

Read the full article here.

Music Lessons

Eleven years ago, I sat in a cold, hard folding chair, ready to meet my high school chorus director and fellow singers for the first time. Arranged in three concentric semicircles, the chairs faced a creaky metal music stand, a sturdy conducting platform, and a white board, designed to resemble a giant sheet of staff paper. Though I could not distinguish the neat black lines on the board, I knew they were there. My mobility instructor had described them when she oriented me to the room.

With two resounding thuds, a petite, compact person stepped onto the conducting platform. I could distinguish a dark blouse, and black pants. White cuffs and collar helped me find her hands and face. Her mouth resided somewhere beneath a head of bobbed gray-blond hair, but her voice could not be confined to that petite frame. It was huge, powerful, with a touch of gravel.

In a friendly, no-nonsense manner, she introduced herself as Mrs. B. She was prepared to teach us how to sing and read music. She was adamant to correct the school myth that her chorus class was an “easy A.”

“This may be an elective,” she declared, her voice intense and serious. “But you will work hard.”

Then she asked us about our previous musical experience. We were instructed to raise our hands if we’d had piano or voice lessons or played in a middle school band. At the mention of piano, my hand shot up. I was excited to prove myself, to show her that I was one step ahead of my peers.

“Well, forget all of that,” she insisted, waving a dismissive hand at our collective experience. “We’re all equals in this room. You may have had previous training, but your present dedication will earn my respect.”

In the next weeks, Mrs. B. introduced us to the basics of singing – posture, breathing, resonance, placement – all new concepts for me. Though I had years of experience singing in church and school choirs and performing in school musicals, I had never received formal training. Mrs. B. taught us to identify our vocal registers: head voice, mid-voice, and chest voice. She guided us through the dizzying stage of using our head voice for the first time. Because the head voice is a region of the voice where the air you breathe meets no resistance, your first tentative notes will make you lightheaded. It’s a new frontier for the novice singer.

Alongside vocal training, Mrs. B. led us through the rudiments of musical literacy. With my nose pressed against the pages of my thick chorus textbook, I learned to identify lines, spaces, measure lines, time signatures, and the other elements of musical notation. Mrs. B promised that we would become excellent sight-readers – able to glance at a piece of music and sing it with surprising accuracy.

I had my doubts about sight-reading. When I was learning piano, I was unable to visually track the musical line. If the music rested on the piano, I couldn’t read it. If I held the music close enough to read, I could only play piano one-handed. Luckily for me, using the voice left both hands free to hold the music – an inch from my face. I squinted at the bright white paper, where dark squat ovals of melody curved along the staff like tendrils of jasmine.

After months of sight-reading drills in class and furtive annotations at home, I began to parse the visual elements of written music with ease. I no longer had to count lines and spaces with a tentative finger or guess whether I was staring at a half rest or whole rest. I could not only read music – I could understand its theory, its rules of composition.

The musical instruction that Mrs. B. provided grew more valuable with time. I moved on to other choruses: an a cappella group (where I was required to read the bass line) and a fast-paced university chorale (where several soprano lines and foreign languages complicated the musical landscape). Her rigorous preparations ensured my success in these groups.

However, the most meaningful lessons I took from Mrs. B. were not related to music, though they occurred in a musician’s environment. They stand as bookends to my high school experience.

The first occurred within the early months of my freshman year. Our school was holding auditions for the musical Godspell, and, like any eager, hopeful freshman, I wanted to try out. With a few other friends from chorus, I practiced excerpts from the musical. I filled out the small audition form with my contact information and selected what kind of part I’d prefer. I stepped onstage in the cafeteria (this was well before my high school received a fully functioning theatre) and sang my excerpt.

After all the participants had done a little singing, the judging committee taught us a brief choreography routine. We were placed onstage in lines while a female teacher demonstrated the routine before us. I fumbled terribly, listening hard for my friends’ instructions. I felt ashamed and inadequate. Without individual instruction, I would never master a routine like this.

We took a short break before small groups of potential stars went onstage to perform the dance routine. During the break, I sat at a round cafeteria table with friends, feeling low. The judges – Mrs. B. and two other faculty – sat nearby, a few tables away, just within earshot. Hearing my name, I tuned in to their conversation.

“Are you sure Emily can do this?” asked one of the judges – her voice was unfamiliar to me.

Mrs. B. replied, “I’m sure she can, if we teach her the routine one-on-one. She just needs someone to show it to her.”

The third judge disagreed, “I don’t know. That seems like a lot of work. And she might not get it.”

Here, Mrs. B. said a line that I have often replayed in my head: “I have total confidence in her.”

When I think back on this scenario, I ask myself, How did she know I was worth it? Mrs. B. had only known me for a month or so, only seen me for a few hours each week. What made her believe in me?

I’ve never quizzed her about it. At the time, the line was too good to be true, but it was also exactly what I needed. I learned the routine. I did my best. I didn’t get a part in Godspell, but I felt empowered.

Mrs. B’s other lesson came three years later, when I was a senior. On my way to chorus, I had to walk down a crowded hallway in Building 3. With high ceilings and metal lockers along the walls, Building 3 was a loud, echoing space – amplifying all hallway conversations, especially the ones about me.

As the only blind girl at a school whose visibly disabled students could be counted on the fingers of one hand, I was often the target of unfriendly gossip. Since I had gone to elementary and middle school with the same group of classmates – a group who felt that mocking my poor vision was taboo – I wasn’t prepared for this negative reaction to my blindness. I walked into our chorus room, blinking back tears.

Mrs. B called her usual friendly greeting as I found my seat. I was the only student in the room, and she came to stand by me. I told her how hard it was to be the subject of constant gossip, to be around people who always underestimated and judged me. I said that I wished I couldn’t hear what others were saying as I walked to class.

She responded with practical wisdom: You don’t judge yourself by their opinion of you. You are so much more than they can understand. They don’t get to decide who you are. You decide that.

And she walked away, presumably to prepare for class. Maybe to give me a few moments to collect myself and process her words.

When I measure my experience of Mrs. B against other conductors, I find that the others always fall short. I think it’s because Mrs. B believed in something more than a power struggle between one person holding a baton and a group of musicians. Mrs. B wanted us to be empowered individuals and hardworking musicians. She stepped off the platform to check on us, and her reassurances were filled with strength and passionate belief.

Mrs. B was tough and honest. She didn’t sugarcoat the truth – she freely expressed her disappointment as readily as her joy. When she believed in us, we could believe in ourselves.

With her actions, Mrs. B. defined the teaching role for me.

A teacher believes in the subject and the students.

In the Care of a Chorus

At 6:45 on Tuesday night, Sherry and I enter the rehearsal space. We are among the first to arrive. We thread our way through the round tables toward the front of the room and deposit our bags. Internally, I’m bouncing with excitement. After six long years of absence, I finally get to sing with these ladies again! Freshly graduated from college, I now have the time to commit to three hours of singing every Tuesday night, plus the hours spent outside rehearsal learning new music.

Several members of the chorus recognize me; they remember me from all those years ago. I can’t even imagine what kind of person I was back then. I remember I was eighteen, a senior in high school. My fellow singers ask me about family, career goals, and more generally – what I’ve been up to! I beam each time I say, “I just graduated with my Master’s in English,” and I tell them about my plans to work toward a Ph.D.. None of them seem surprised. Their confidence in me feels so natural, effortless.

After a brief conversation with our director, during which she assures me that I don’t need to be voice-tested again, I learn that I’ll be singing the same part I sang before – baritone. In barbershop music, the baritone part is a quirky mid-range part; it’s the harmony that contains all the notes that make the chords complete. If you hear a bari singing her version of a popular barbershop tune, you probably won’t recognize the tune. It’s the ideal part for obsessive musical analysts and music theory nerds like me!

The other three options are bass, lead, and tenor. If these names sound masculine, it’s because the female barbershop style is modeled on the male style. People singing lead often have the melody; they sing the version of the tune that you recognize. Basses have a very harmonious, melodious harmony as well. You wouldn’t recognize the tune, but you’d probably enjoy singing it. And the tenor part is harmonically similar to an alto part in an SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) chorus, except that it’s placed in a higher octave. What I’m getting at is that these other three parts are pretty tuneful – not just notes jumping around. The bari part is sporadic, odd, a mess of notes hopping all over the staff. And it’s ridiculously fun to sing!

Once it’s decided that I’ll be singing baritone again, Sherry finds me a place on the risers next to an experienced bari so that I can hear my part among the group. Unlike many SATB choruses, we don’t stand in sections. We stand in “mixed” position, which means that we’re randomly assembled. The leads aren’t with the leads; the tenors aren’t near the tenors. We’re a hodgepodge, which makes for a neat, balanced sound and a well-exercised ear.

Our director places me on the right side of the risers, near Robin and Faye, two baris with great voices. After 30 minutes of aerobics and stretching, the chorus completes 30 minutes of rigorous vocal warmups. I remember many of the vocal exercises from before, but they’ve added some new ones—notably one where, after 5 seconds of breathing in, you try to sustain a mid-range note at the lowest possible volume for as long as you can. It’s more challenging than it sounds. Some ladies can hold the note for up to 65 seconds! I can only hold mine for 25-30, but I plan to practice every day to improve this time.

After an hour of exercise and warmup, it’s 8pm and we’re ready to start singing repertoire. We begin with some pieces that I heard at their March concert, and I lean toward Faye and Robin to catch those elusive baritone notes. The ladies have this music memorized, and our director coaches us on feelings, facial expressions, and breath. So much of singing is about your mental state and the state of your whole body; it’s an activity that far exceeds the voice alone.

We break into sections and conduct a short rehearsal. Robin offers me her arm and we trot off with the other baritones to rehearse two relatively new tunes. I don’t have the sheet music for these, so I just listen and try to sing along. I am amazed at how quickly I get a feel for where the harmony is headed! It’s all coming back to me, I think. Like riding a bicycle. Except I’ve never ridden a bicycle.

When all four sections rendezvous on the risers, we rehearse the tunes we’ve been working on. I’m delighted that I’ve learned most of one already. This harmonic intuition helps me feel that I’m right where I need to be, singing with the right people. When we first step up onto the risers, we’re still in our respective sections, four disparate little groups each singing their own part. Then our director asks us to assume our usual positions and I have to slide to the right. As we reconfigure ourselves, someone asks, “Who’s in charge of Emily?”

Quickly, another singer responds, “Robin and Faye are helping her,” and kind hands grip my shoulders, guiding me to the right spot. Later, I’m guided to a new place on the risers in the same manner, and I find myself standing beside Sarah, whose rich bass voice is easy for me to identify. She reaches for my hand and squeezes it, saying, “I’m so happy you’re singing with us again.”

Only after rehearsal has ended and I’m sitting in my room, checking email and preparing for bed, do I reflect on the question Who’s in charge of Emily. This is the kind of question that would irk the hell out of most disability rights activists. “In charge of Emily” – as if I need someone to be “in charge” of me, as if I can’t go through my life independently without assistance! The nerve!

However, the question did not irk me at the time, and it doesn’t irk me now. There was something so natural, so fitting, about it.

I think this is because being a member of a chorus isn’t about proving your independence. Yes, you have to know your part and hold your melody despite the harmonies around you, but you are never meant to stand alone. A chorus holds you aloft, melodically; each voice carries another voice. So as someone is “in charge” of me, I may be in charge of several others, carrying members I never even realized I was carrying. Standing in mixed position emphasizes the feeling that my voice helps innumerable, unknowable others. I do not just strengthen the baritone section. My voice provides the musical context against which other voices assert themselves. I know this, not from an inflated musical ego, but from hearing what my voice does for others in the way their voices help me. The voices surrounding me aurally reflect my own efforts and accomplishments as a singer. I hear myself in them, and, because of the context of their notes, I understand where I am.

I think that understanding choral life provides a powerful framework for understanding life beyond the musical space. I don’t believe any of us are meant to travel alone and carry all of our own luggage. Someone should help pull your voice into the chord, guide you to your proper place among the group. And while one hand pulls you into the tribe, offers you your music, or adjusts your posture, your hands are outstretched to pass on the loving attention.

I think this is what drives the production of music. A chorus is nothing more than a group of people, lovingly attending to one another and bringing all their skills to bear on a common goal.

*This entry was published in the July 2012 edition of The Pitch Pipe, the Sweet Adelines International magazine.