The Faces of Artistry

District Elementary Honors Choir Concert (Jan. 2015)

District Elementary Honors Choir Concert (Jan. 2015) ~ Mrs. Stella Hastings, Clinician

This past weekend it took the simple act of attending what I assumed would be just an ordinary district elementary honor choir concert to remind me of a deeper level of artistry and beauty in this world that I had completely forgotten about.

As I was casually sipping my morning tea and having breakfast with a friend of mine, she suddenly suggested that we could show our support to a mutual friend’s daughter who was going to be singing in the district elementary honor choir concert that afternoon under the baton of a guest clinician. I immediately said yes because this daughter of our friend is very intelligent, creative, well mannered, and deserving of encouragement and support. However, I simultaneously dismissed the possibility of enjoying the music on an artistic or soulfully moving level. It wasn’t that I didn’t think the choir could have a few moments of beautiful sound and musical expression; for several reasons, I just didn’t think I would find the concert particularly meaningful – spiritually or artistically. First of all, sometimes the texts in music literature selected for children’s choirs tend to be “fluffy” or geared toward their interests, for example, Disney arrangements. Next, the possibilities and availability of musical repertoire for children’s choirs can seem very limited because it has some natural confines such as a child’s tessitura. Furthermore, because children learn to sing through imitation and, sadly, most of the examples they are constantly bombarded with are pop artists from television and radio, they learn to sing with a forced tone that can be sharp or fall flat. It takes a very special teacher/conductor working consistently and tirelessly to correct them of that bad habit while at the same time keeping them interested, making it fun, and getting them to appreciate why they are working so hard at it. My final thought was that while I’m thankful that children’s choir directors are facilitating a child’s introduction to choir, I know they are limited by the artistic challenges with which they can present the choir. But the concert I experienced made me take a deep breath and examine myself again.

I have always tried my best to make a point of admitting when I am in the wrong or haven’t given someone (or some group) the benefit of the doubt. So let me begin by saying how ashamed I was at myself this weekend when I realized that I had become such an artistic snob. When I went to graduate school to get my master’s degree in Choral Conducting, I wanted to get into the best program, work with the best conductors, and study the most challenging and difficult choral works – all so that I could eventually conduct a choir that would be considered one of the best in academia. That is exactly the training I received. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way I lost focus on the human element of choral music. I got so wrapped up in technique that I lost touch with how some of the best choral artistry is created – which is through the very souls that produce it. James Jordan in his book The Musician’s Soul says that “soulful human beings create profound music, regardless of their level of musical achievement.” How could I have ever lost that! Especially since choir is where I discovered more about myself and my place in the world. Simultaneously, I learned from those early experiences that a conductor doesn’t simply conduct; his role is also to bring new meaning to each person in the choir while helping each one reflect some part of his or her soul or life experiences into the songs they are performing. Looking back now on the district elementary honor choir concert, I have to ask how I could have doubted that this concert would be any less artistic or meaningful than any other.

The beautiful children in the district elementary honor choir did, in fact, create great art, and it was obvious from the very first selection in the program, Ajuba, a spirited and rhythmic Swahili greeting call. I listened and watched while they took ownership of it. They came alive both physically and vocally. I was very pleased with their pronunciation and diction because that is most often the first thing to go in a performance if a choir doesn’t really understand or believe in the text they are singing. And while the diction wasn’t perfect, it was obvious that they not only understood what they were singing about, but that they were also able to relate it to their own lives. Although it would have been very easy for them to have rushed the tempo because of the syncopation and rhythmic style, they did a very good job of holding it back, no doubt the result of excellent guidance and encouragement from the clinician Mrs. Stella Hastings. As she took a moment to speak to the audience about the song, their big grins mirrored her delight in their achievement.

However, the artistry these kids demonstrated wasn’t limited just to singing; it was also demonstrated in the sacred birth that all artists hold dear – an original creative work. A contest was held for students in the choir to submit poems, with the winning poem to be featured in a choral composition commissioned specifically for the honor choir. The poem selected, “The Musical House” by Corin Cooper, describes a home where music is pursued, encouraged, and nurtured. The composer, Earlene Rentz, says of Corin’s poem: “When I read her words, I felt as if I were on a musical safari in her home. I could almost see it. In other words, she took me there.” I myself found the text to be unique, charming, very insightful for a poet of her age, and extremely adorable! And I can easily see why Rentz selected Corin’s poem; it inspired her to create music that is fun, peppy, memorable, and would appeal to audiences of any age. Now while only that one poem was selected for the composition, the competition offered a rare opportunity for artistic involvement that hopefully sparked the creative imaginations of those children for a lifetime of other possibilities. That level of artistic involvement needs to be provided more often by teachers, conductors, and other arts leaders.

Furthermore, I had forgotten how beautiful and moving simplicity in music can be. Way too often I have found myself thinking that the more challenging the choral repertoire is, the more artistic merit it has and the more likely it is to spiritually move the choir, the audience, and myself. When I come across a new and unique choral composition that has thick, challenging harmonies, textures, and rhythms, I think, “Wow! Now that will really grab an audience’s attention.” However, during this concert I found myself hearing beautiful musical moments in some of the simplest parts of the music. For example, there were many moments when the choir would sing a unison phrase with beautiful tone quality, blended vowels, and demonstrated artistic sensitivity to volume. Ironically, each time the children’s honor choir had those beautiful phrases, I recalled experiences when even some of the older, more seasoned choirs I’ve worked with became lazy when singing in unison because they had the misguided notion that good tone quality is easier to maintain during those types of phrases. While the children’s performance wasn’t perfect and yes one could have made a list of things for them to improve on, what’s more important to point out, is that they were really enjoying listening to one another as a group and loving what they were accomplishing. They knew they had to continue to work hard throughout the concert to keep the level of artistry they had achieved as a result of the many hours of rehearsal they had given. When a choir works together like that, it is a good sign that they are experiencing a meaningful (and possibly spiritually moving) moment together. Shouldn’t that be just as important as getting the “ideal choral sound!”

I really did want to kick myself at the end of the concert for having been so dismissive about the artistic capabilities of a children’s choir. This may be an over-generalization, but I think choral conducting pedagogy currently focuses way too much on technique and not enough on the connection of humanity and personal experiences that choral music can create. Because of the over-emphasis on technique, I believe conductors put so much pressure on themselves to get the perfect sound that they forget that artistic quality is in the eye of the beholder. I also believe that the majority of singers come into rehearsals with so many other things on their minds from the busyness of the day, that even before the rehearsal has begun they have closed themselves off to experiencing any soulful or meaningful opportunity that may present itself. They come, convinced that the rehearsal will focus only on learning the notes or fixing techniques. But what if we are all shortchanging ourselves? Perhaps if we begin each rehearsal in a way that permits us to open up to soulful and meaningful moments, it will allow everyone to fully commit to the music at hand. That could very well mean that we start rehearsals unashamedly acknowledging that mistakes will be made during rehearsals (yes, even the conductor) and that’s okay. Why shouldn’t mistakes be meaningful and soulful in their own right? After all isn’t that one of the ways we learn? If we take away that fear of being vulnerable because of our mistakes, will that finally allow the singers’ inner ears to relax and identify what needs fixing before the conductor even mentions it? Think of how fast rehearsals might go and how much more we could accomplish. We all, conductors and singers alike, need to be less afraid of being vulnerable. We need to be able to say, “I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect, and that’s okay.” Only when we can admit that – will we achieve true artistry!

Here is a link to the Joplin Globe article that mentions the District Elementary Honor Choir concert and the composition commissioned for the performance:

http://www.joplinglobe.com/news/local_news/the-musical-house-fifth-grader-becomes-lyricist-for-compositionthe-inspiration/article_358030ce-f24d-543b-8b94-f63e09a82c7e.html?mode=jqm

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GMCLA: Angels among us

There are angels here among us working miracles. Well, maybe not really angels. I recently discovered that one gay men’s chorus sometimes steps outside the expected norm, while bringing together two seemingly opposing communities, which in my book qualifies as a miracle. In searching for my next blog topic I ran across two items on the same day that simply amazed me and gave me a reason to pause.

The first item I discovered was an article from the Los Angeles Times about two straight men who had joined the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA). Yes, you heard me correctly: Two straight men joined a gay men’s chorus! I had to read it three times just to make sure I wasn’t making up the entire article in my head. There are several reasons I find this story to be completely miraculous. First of all, I grew up being tortured by most of my straight male peers. The hatred they spewed at me left no doubt that friendships between straight men and gay men were impossible.  With this stereotype firmly in place, I questioned, as I read the article, how on earth a straight man could think of joining a gay men’s chorus. Second, I imagine some of the conversations and choral literature would make these straight men highly uncomfortable.  After all, conversations before and after rehearsals, and sometimes during lulls, that I can recall from my days in the Heartlands Men’s Chorus would have been about anything from boyfriends (or spouses) to the catty remark about that “first tenor slut” who was throwing himself at the new guy. Furthermore, text of the choral music is often very clearly about passionate love between two men. For example:

We two boys together clinging (Walt Whitman 1819–1892)

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving.

I couldn’t help but think that straight men would be entirely uncomfortable reading that text, let alone singing it. Third, I imagine that it would be really difficult for a straight man to get his friends and family to believe that joining a gay men’s chorus doesn’t classify him as gay. Finally, because the choir is called the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA), it literally means that it’s a singing group for gay men; otherwise, it would just be “Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.”

As I reflected upon those four reasons that I found two straight men joining a gay men’s chorus a miracle, a tiny voice in the back of my conscience said “Isn’t this an example of something that needs to happen to bring about change and healing?” let your conscience be your guideMy conscience knows me way too well, so I had to answer with a reluctant (and muffled) yes. Now I don’t want you to go away from reading this post thinking I’m crazy but, the conversation with my conscience continued and it asked me “why are you so hesitant to admit that this needs to happen?” I thought, WOW, my conscience is right! As a choir director, I have seen time and time again that music brings diverse groups of people together. Different religions, ages, generations, nations, and races have all been able to come to a closer understanding of one another because choral music is a tool that can help achieve that. The two straight men who joined the GMCLA admitted in the article that their desire to join the chorus wasn’t socially or politically motivated, but rather a desire to join a men’s choral group with an incredible reputation and high musical standards and to further their musical abilities. Of course the two men also said that they were nervous about auditioning and joining because they weren’t sure they would be accepted into the group due to being straight. And, I thought, I do know without a doubt that it takes a lot of courage to put oneself into a situation with a risk of not being accepted. The GMCLA members at first were very surprised (just as I was) with the two new straight members, but being a marginalized group, they quickly realized how important it was to accept them into the group and make them feel welcome.

The lesson I believe that my conscience wanted me to get from this article: In order to be a better conductor and musician I must step out of my comfort zone; otherwise, I am not allowing music to open hearts and minds.

The second item I discovered was a YouTube video of the same chorus, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, that featured them in a miraculous 1999 performance of the David Maddux arrangement of “We Shall Overcome” in Moscow, Russia, with updated captions from January 2014. Who would have imagined that a gay men’s chorus would have performed openly in Russia fifteen years ago? I admit that I was very surprised to discover this video, especially considering the recent news of LGBT oppression and implementation of the Anti-LGBT law in Russia. I immediately recognized the arrangement as one I have performed with the Heartland Men’s Chorus of Kansas City. Two of the captions on the video really got my attention: first that “[the performance was] one of the largest gatherings of LGBT people in Russian history” and second that it was “broadcast live on Russian television.” As the captions pause, the music continues but the video shifts to actual scenes of violence that the LGBT community in Russia is experiencing under the current government and social prejudices. It was of course difficult watching and trying not to get emotional, especially having suffered through similar physical abuse throughout my adolescence. It is truly horrible that Russia has moved backwards with regard to LGBT/Human Rights in the time since this groundbreaking performance by the GMCLA. While watching the violence, it was quite easy for me to feel hopeless while assuming that things won’t be changing in Russia anytime soon. However, as the music begins to swell toward its conclusion, the video returns to the GMCLA and the following caption: “The worldwide LGBT community has suffered oppression before. WE SHALL OVERCOME!”

After the video had finished, I realized I needed to share with my readers that this music video serves as a perfect illustration of the need for the LGBT community to have a pride month each June. Many straight people are mistaken when they think that gay pride month is simply about celebrating our sexuality or that we are “shoving our sexuality” in their faces. The truth is that it was brought about to help fight physical and mental oppression and to help eradicate the ignorance of gay/lesbian stereotypes.

“We Shall Overcome” was an important anthem in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Attributed to Pete Seeger, it is actually derived from “I’ll Overcome Someday” by the African-American composer Charles Tindley. This particular song is significant because of the peaceful, non-violent message, and I believe the text also works well for the LGBT Equal Rights Movement.

One choir, two items, both discovered on the same day, both lessons about stereotypes and prejudices. Finding items like these about the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles gives me hope as a choir director that choirs have the ability to unlock paralysis of spirit and move humanity forward to an accepting and peaceful existence. I thank the GMCLA for the work they have done. Truly, there are angels among us.

 

Links to the L. A. Times article and the YouTube performance of “We Shall Overcome” are provided below:

http://articles.latimes.com/2011/apr/26/entertainment/la-et-straight-gay-mens-chorus-20110426

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLzXIIyqtB0

Click on the angel to see the GMCLA website. www.gmcla.org

Click on the angel to see the GMCLA website. http://www.gmcla.org

For the Fallen

The Iwo Jima Stained Glass Panel located in the Western Military Academy Memorial Chapel (located in Alton, IL)

The Iwo Jima Stained Glass Panel located in the Western Military Academy Memorial Chapel (located in Alton, IL)

Every year on Memorial Day (and Veterans Day) I pick a few movies from my rather large library of historical war dramas and watch them in honor of the soldiers who died to protect the lives and freedom of all Americans. My friends and family members can fully attest that I hardly need to wait for these holidays to occur in order to watch them. In fact, some friends say I’m obsessed with them. Inevitably, I end up crying throughout various points during the film and at its conclusion – even having watched the film a million times (humorously, this is an exaggeration that my friends and family would agree with). In truth I have watched some of these movies at least fifteen to twenty times a year, and so I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessed, but rather passionate.

Cue…the puzzled look from friends and perhaps even some of you readers. I know what some of you are thinking; that watching these heart wrenching war movies once a year would be enough to respectfully demonstrate an appropriate level of patriotic and spiritual responsibility. While the stories from these movies do the best they can (but never completely) to show us what our military service men and women endured for our country, they provide far more than that for me and perhaps once I have explained why, you too might find more meaning in them.

Truthfully, I’ll admit that when I first began watching historical war dramas, my interest was based on the fact that I’m a life-long learner and a history buff. I desperately yearned to understand how humanity’s past ideas, attitudes, and beliefs influenced their actions. What motivated the people, ideas, and events throughout history? How did each of those events affect the next set of historical events? However, as I continued to watch them, I began to spiritually feel different. So I had to ask myself, why is it that each time I watch one of these movies I still cry and become overwhelmingly moved by these stories? And then one day the answer came to me. Right at the end of the Japanese attack scene from the movie Pearl Harbor I found myself really listening to the musical underscore. The music transitions from instruments into a simple and yet utterly poignant a cappella choral composition. The same scene in which I had heard the music multiple times before was now moving me to a place spiritually I hadn’t ventured into before.

As a choral conductor, composer, and history buff I stand resolved that choral music remains a gateway into the soul and spirituality of an individual. As history has demonstrated – choral music has been significantly connected with religion and spirituality. Choral music, because the voice is its medium, is a very personal, exposed, and vulnerable art form. Sometimes I think that when we are connected with something spiritually we are at our most vulnerable, so I can easily make a connection between choral music and spirituality. In fact, I believe life is so very precious and vulnerable (at least for me) that choral music is one of the best artistic mediums to portray how exposed it is.

Death occurs throughout the scene and I think the producers were very wise in using choral music as the musical selection there. What happens to us after we die is one of life’s big mysteries and thinking about it can be very scary. Many religions say that those who depart the mortal world will be greeted by a singing heavenly chorus as they start a new beginning in an afterlife.  So as the movie depicts these horrible deaths, viewers who make that spiritual connection between choral music and death are moved by the underscored music, and I was no exception.

Another (and perhaps less significant) parallel that I made from this scene was that all those who were experiencing the suffering and tragedy together were forming a spiritual bond like no other. I have heard many war veterans discuss how when they came back from service that sometimes only fellow veterans could understand what they went through and felt. And they are absolutely correct! What they endured together is something that only they truly know. Choirs, although not in the same tragic way, form a spiritual bond. To be successful they are required to work together and when they do, it can be very spiritual.

Since that epiphany during the movie Pearl Harbor, I have found that almost every historical war drama I have watched since contains choral music somewhere in the musical underscore. Choral music eloquently expresses so many spiritual feelings and emotions. So while it can be sad watching these movies it also remains one of the few genres that accurately captures the nature of events in history, demonstrates opportunities for heroism, and utilizes choral music as a way for the audience to spiritually connect with the events.

 

The following link will take you to the short clip which contains a portion of the Japanese attack scene from the movie Pearl Harbor that I referred to earlier. The beautiful and poignant choral music begins approximately eight minutes into the clip.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjyMSQNpS8w

Hail, Mary: Motherly Sacrifice

Today as Mother’s Day is celebrated in homes all across America, I reflect on my feelings of sadness because the woman I consider my mother passed away in June 2010 and I miss her very much. Her name was Virginia and she also happened to be my grandmother. Because my mother and father divorced when I was very young and because my mother was an alcoholic and my father was in the military and never stationed close to home, his parents agreed to raise me. And if you read my last blog post, you know she was not only the one who introduced me to music; she was also my biggest fan.

I was so very fortunate to have my grandmother raise me.  She was an amazing woman who always believed in me and my talents, passed on knowledge and wisdom, and loved me unconditionally.  Before she passed away, I had the opportunity to tell her how deeply appreciative I was that she sacrificed her retirement and to promise that in the future I would try to do the same for someone else. Ever so wise, she smiled and lovingly said, “I never once thought it was a sacrifice or a duty, but a joyful opportunity!” Instead of seeing it as giving something up, she thought of it as opening her heart to more love and experiences that she might not have had otherwise.

Because both my grandfather and father had passed away back in 2001, her passing in 2010 left me without any parental figure to whom I could turn for comfort, wisdom, and love.  Without them, I struggle with emotions of loss, loneliness, and sometimes even jealousy on these holidays.

Interestingly enough, this week as Mother’s Day loomed ahead, I was going through some of my choral scores and stumbled upon Brahms’ Marienlieder (Songs of Mary), Op. 22, and took some time reading through them. While each of the seven motets is lovely, number five “Ruf zur Maria (Prayer to Mary)” is the one that touched me the most. Originally written for women’s chorus, the alto parts were too difficult because of the low range Brahms used so he adapted it for mixed chorus. As I listened to a recording and read through the translation, it occurred to me that when Catholics seek comfort from Mary as their spiritual mother by asking her to pray for them, it is very similar to a person seeking comfort from his or her own mother. The motet is written in 6-4 Meter Sign which plays into the mother-child connection often heard in a lullaby. Each vocal part is very expressive, but the tenor (see example below) is the most florid and the wide leaps in intervals give it a yearning quality. Eventually the motet builds up with several chromatic notes and half-steps culminating in dramatic pauses, all of which clearly indicate supplication.

I don’t know how any of my Catholic readers will feel about this, but I see a parallel between the Virgin Mary and my grandmother. Although both women lived with sacrifice, they graciously did it for love. For my grandmother it was her love for me (although she wouldn’t call it sacrifice); for Mary it was for the love of humankind. Regardless of any parallels, and even though I’m not Catholic, I felt comforted listening to the Marienlieder. Perhaps those who don’t have their mothers will also find some comfort in this motet.

* To listen to “Ruf zur Maria (Prayer to Mary)” click the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITPPsvy0GGM

Musical Example:

Marienlieder (tenor) example

 

Ruf zur Maria (Prayer to Mary)  TRANSLATION:

To you, mother of God, we call,
Pray for us, Mary!
Don’t leave us alone in our sorrows,
do remind Jesus, your son, of the agony he went through
On behalf of mankind.
Pray for us, Mary!

In our strivings for perfection,
Pray for us, Mary!
Save our body, honour and earthly goods
So that we, after many good years
Can live together with the angels,
Pray for us, Mary!

You are the well that never runs dry,
Pray for us, Mary!
That the Holy Spirit may enlighten us
to true repentance and complete confession!
Jesus, your son would want you to
Pray for us, Mary!

Hanging on by a Thread: What Kept Me Alive

Having been brought up as a “good little Episcopal choir boy,” I grew up learning and loving everything about choral music. I was raised by my grandparents who shared with me their faith and love of music. My grandmother, whom I really consider to be more of a mother, started giving me piano lessons when I turned eight years old and introduced me to stage and screen musicals. My grandfather loved sacred music (especially organ music) and as a result he helped get me into the boys’ choir at our Episcopal Cathedral (which is affiliated with the Royal School of Church Music in America).

Singing in the boys’ choir allowed me to feel deeper levels of spiritual understanding that I hadn’t previously gained from the spoken portions of the continuous line of masses we faithfully attended. And so it was my participation in that choir which opened the door to having a relationship with God. It allowed me to understand what my grandfather and the parishioners believed and treasured. To me, choir became the foundation of my faith.

Like many gay men, throughout my childhood I had always felt different from all the other kids but couldn’t ever really define or establish what the difference was. But it didn’t seem to matter because I was being raised as a gentlemen and a Christian. Then very suddenly during my last year in middle school there was an enormous surge in the noticeable difference between me and my peers. I found myself attracted to one of my male classmates and it became very clear to me why I was so different. That was the moment I realized: I’m gay. Oddly enough I just automatically knew as a young gay man that it wasn’t a phase, that I wouldn’t be able to “pass for straight,” and that it was something impossible to change. In fact, many classmates and family members were dismayed by my complete confidence in those truths. Sadly, now all those horrible names I had been called in elementary school, like “sissy” and “fag” began to have a far more personal and painful meaning. In my reflections, it became quite easy to sum up my own self-worth as worth-less. Unfortunately, when one is constantly bombarded with demeaning and derogatory labels like those, self-hatred becomes a person’s oxygen.

Utterly frightened at knowing the truth about my sexuality, I scrambled to make sure that my classmates didn’t discover the “full truth.” I had to make sure the only things about me they could use against me were their suspicions. So I placed myself into a routine of silence and separation, wondering if I was ever to have a voice in the world again. I dropped out of everything — Boy Scouts, track team, even my piano lessons — and continued deeper and further into a depressive state of existence until one afternoon at school a concerned classmate noticed that I was having a very rough day and asked me what was wrong and if she could help. I debated in my head and heart (for what seemed like an eternity) if I should trust her and tell her. Her persistent pleas and her assurances that “it would stay between us,” along with the fact that she was a girl (and therefore presumably compassionate and trustworthy), blindly convinced me to tell her I was gay and had a crush on the fellow male classmate. Stunned, she didn’t say anything at first, but gradually forced herself to nervously say that she “understood, wouldn’t tell anyone and would keep it a secret.” Predictably, by the very next day everyone in the school already knew, and I became both ostracized and a target for daily mental and physical abuse. As time passed I knew I would have to tell my grandparents. What I hadn’t anticipated was that members of my church would also find out. Shortly after they did, I was asked to leave the Cathedral Choir because the church leaders didn’t want me to be a “negative influence” on the other choristers. Thus, the very foundation of faith and my connection with God were pulled out from under me, leaving me hanging by a single thread, voiceless above an empty abyss, my heart and soul ripped out of me. After having taught me that “God was love,” my own church who claimed to be the final authority on the matter had become oppressive. Now, the only option I had left was to leave.

Things continued to get progressively worse when I entered my freshmen year of high school. I was physically and mentally abused daily, losing blood, teeth and dignity consistently for three months before finally deciding to cut that little thread keeping me alive. I attempted suicide my freshmen year of high school; however, something somehow intervened, and the thread of my life remained unsevered though stretched to its limits. Some of my friends who have heard this story say it was God; others who are non-believers say it was fate. At this point in my life I still can’t say what that something was, but as part of my spiritual journey (not religious, mind you), I want to know.

After a brief period of intervention and recovery at the hospital, I returned to high school with the same fear and low self-worth that I had before I left. Still feeling abandoned by God, my church, and the world, I floundered through the rest of the fall semester not knowing how I would survive high school. I absolutely hated everything about it, and I just didn’t want to go back. At the beginning of the next semester, I was struggling to schedule enough courses that would fulfill the school’s requirements, keep me somewhat safe from the hateful jocks who wanted to use my head as a punching bag, and find a subject matter that might be interesting enough that I wouldn’t fail. When I explained my dilemma to the guidance counselor, she asked me what activities I had done in my youth that I really enjoyed. Of course the first thing that came to mind was the boys’ choir at church. She abruptly perked up and said, “Perfect! The choir teacher is having auditions this week. I will enroll you and all you have to do is sign up for an audition.” I felt elated and scared at the same time. I wanted so much to sing in a choir once more but assumed I would be rejected again because of my past experience at my church. It took the persistent and loving support of my grandmother and all the courage I had left inside of me to audition.

Although half convinced that I couldn’t be both gay and sing in choir, I must have demonstrated some modicum of vocal talent because I was accepted into the group. Although I risk sounding like a “Gleek” (as popularized by the TV show Glee), that acceptance went beyond admission; I was offered mutual respect, human compassion, and the freedom to be different. Being a part of high school choir was a miracle! The choir room was a sanctuary of safety, and choir was the only subject I was any good at. Choir turned out to be the thread that kept me alive!  I discovered that music in all its forms took me out of the tortured time and place I was in. That does not mean, however, that I could easily dust off my religion and return it to the same important place it once held. Often times when my high school choir began discussing the meaning of texts in sacred repertoire, I would become uncomfortable and resentful because of having been rejected by my church. The pain of this hurt led me to blame all religions for the loss of self-worth and my place in the larger community. Nevertheless, I came to understand that choral music brings a light into my soul, allowing me to experience the divine here on earth.

Eventually, with the encouragement and guidance of my high school choir director and my love for the choral arts, I made the decision during my senior year of high school to pursue a career as a choral director. Through my years of choral conducting I have continued on this spiritual journey toward understanding the relationship between choral music and the divine. This blog is my quest. I hope you will be my companions along the continued journey.

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