Every year as Christmas begins to look more and more inevitable, I go out in search of a Sing-Your-Own-Messiah. It’s not as daunting as it sounds; generally a whole lot of other people show up to help. A Lutheran church within walking distance has been pretty reliable about throwing this particular party for a while now. Folks converge on the place and there’s an attempt to group us into the component voices as though we were a regular choir, but people want to sit next to their spouses and friends, and the balcony is a total catch-all for the latecomers, and what with this and that, we resemble less a force of standing armies than a rag-tag assortment of conscripts. This does dilute the sopranos somewhat, which is helpful, because otherwise they would totally kick everyone’s asses.
Most of the people who show up are either in choirs now or they used to be, like me. And everyone who is now or ever was in a choir has sung Messiah. The choir director perched herself on a big box where we and the organist could keep an eye on her. This was meant to be an ecumenical outing, but just for fun, she started out by saying “the Lord be with you.” Whereupon the 400 assembled bellowed “and also with you” while I antiquely hollered “and with thy spirit.” She smiled. “I thought there were probably some Lutherans here,” she said, to chuckles.
Well. And one fossil Lutheran.
Then it was down to business. Anyone interested in glory to God was in the right place. We thundered. We roared. If goodwill toward men was in short supply elsewhere, it was not our fault. We sounded awesome. Everyone was in spittle-flinging distance of at least one knot of sopranos, which meant there was no reason not to give it everything you’ve got, because no one is going to hear you anyway. The effect was electric. We were very pleased with ourselves. It could be said we were in need of a cleansing dose of humility, and that was not long coming: for He shall purify.
The challenge is a little greater if your voice, like mine, is no longer the one you learned Messiah with. This means you have to sight-read your part, and that works fine for a whole lot of it, but sometimes your sheep go astray, and you have to sideline yourself and figure out where to hop back in, like a kid doing double-Dutch jump rope. And the sad truth is, it’s not as much fun being an alto. No one can hear you. Your glory is less glorious. So, once my vocal cords got as stretched out as they were likely to get, I occasionally jumped the curb over to the soprano line to see if I could hold on.
I might as well have had an amputation. There’s only so far this valley will be exalted. I reared back and prepared to bellow but all I got was phantom notes: I could feel where they used to be, but they weren’t there anymore.
It was a different phantom I experienced when I went to my first Sing-Your-Own-Messiah, some thirty years ago. I’d read about it in the paper and thought, what the hell. I’ll just hold it down to two beers and go give it a whirl. Sounds like fun. I used to know this. And off I went. I slotted myself optimistically in with the sopranos and we let ‘er rip. Before long I was weeping. I felt the phantom: it was what used to be my life. It was everything that was missing now.
I’d had unanticipated trouble in college. I was buffeted by panic attacks for which I had no name. By my junior year my self-confidence had sheared off in sections and tumbled away. I couldn’t come up with a reason anyone would love me. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, but beer magically made it all better. Every night for fifteen years I drank enough to muffle both pain and joy, and then Handel went and tilted his wigged head at me and said, you know? Here. It’s right here. Here’s the joy you used to feel.
I didn’t go home and take a hatchet to the keg. But I started to remember things. I remembered beauty. I remembered gladness. I started to do some of the things that used to thump my heart. I drew. I played piano. I read books. I couldn’t do them very well if I was drinking, so gradually that fell away. The spontaneous ecstasies of my childhood came back. Not religion, but beauty and joy that sometimes share its path. There is more than one way to be born again.
I don’t mind settling for the alto part. Handel, that other fossil Lutheran, is still winking at me from three hundred years away. He says I can still have beer.
*Nods* It's wonderful how doing something you love can divert you from a bad habit. I, too, used to drink too much, but for a different reason: I was taking care of my mother during the end stages of her life (she had Alzheimer's). I used to drink just enough beer to feel better, but not enough to be totally smashed — all day long. When she died, it was ingrained enough that it stayed with me.
Then I took up drawing. It was something I had time to do in the evening, but I drew better when I didn't drink. So I stopped drinking early enough in the day so that I would be completely sober at night. The hardest part was letting go of drinking while preparing lunch. For some reason, that was the most difficult part of the habit to break. (And it was a habit, not an "addiction". Had I been "addicted", I wouldn't have been able to quit so readily.) I managed to do it by substituting sparkling mineral water for alcohol — something I do when I go out to dinner or to parties in the evening, when I don't want to drink, but want something "festive".
I occasionally have a -single- drink, and can stop at that single drink. But I never drink at parties or when I'm out to dinner. It's too easy to say, "What the hell! I'm having fun!" and get smashed. In my case, it's something better done at home, away from a social setting.
I would say I never had an addiction either, but it sure looked that way from the outside. Hey! I'll have your drink FOR you! Yeah!
Clear-eyed and clear-throated for the holidays.
Attagirl! Let 'er rip!
My voice has tumbled to tenor so I sing my dad's old songs but would have difficulty with The Messiah now as I learned both soprano and alto so the hopping around would be hard on the throat and the feet.
As to drinking, yeah me too, plastered was my ongoing state until the awareness kicked in.
Truth be told, I jumped the curb to tenor a few times also. Hey, it's beginning to sound like a lot of us wasted a nice slab of our youth, huh?
I love this. You hit a resonating chord beautifully.
Strings are vibrating in your house? Excellent.
I only had a half bottle of wine with dinner and 8 or 10 fingers of scotch at night, but just to help me sleep. Some how after someone left me, I sleep just fine without the wine and scotch.
I only sing well in church…especially if i am next to several Sopranos (singers, not mobsters…this is New Jersey.)
There is no way to tell how well you are singing if you're next to several sopranos. Merry Christmas, joeh!
Thanks Murr. I needed this very much today.
Proud to be of service.
What a wonderful piece of writing, my talented friend. I've always loved to sing, but cannot hit a note — any note — to save my sorry (size 4) ass. Alas, I've been relegated to a life of lip-syncing. Merry Christmas, Murr.
You too! I can hear you lip-syncing from here. I was wondering who that was.
That was lovely, Murr, and somewhat applicable to me as well.
Peace, my friend.
Somewhat. Hmm! Are we both confining ourselves to medicinal quantities of beer?
I have a voice (alto) which could shatter a paper cup. Loved this post. And your youth wasn't wasted. It laid the groundwork for the singing, writing, caring star you are.
Happy Christmas. And thank you.
One would like to have some of that time back, though, right?
Seeing as I have both sinus and bronchial issues and need to clear my throat before every line, I confine my singing to fifteen minutes in the car each way to my dad's nursing home each evening. Everyone's happier this way. Except the deer and porcupines and skunks in the wooded portion of that road in the summer when my windows are open.
I would totally go listen to you and your choir mates sing if I lived there, though! This was a beautiful piece of writing. Happy Holidays.
I remember pulling up to a mailbox in my mail truck one day when I'd been cheering myself up by belting–BELTING, I say–out "Over The Rainbow" in full Judy Garland wobble, and when I leaned out the window, there was a lady standing right there with the biggest grin on her face.
"I used to know this." That is almost like a theme song for me. As a young Lutheran I could put on a nice harmony, but I always wanted to be a rock singer. As a baritone it was difficult and my falsetto gave out years ago. After hearing Tiny Tim I was happy to wave it good bye.
More beer doesn't even help me to THINK I can still sing. I just do it alone in the car now and save the beer for later.
I don't even do it in the car. If I did, I could probably manage the soprano parts still. I used to sing in the shower but that's fallen away too. And now my range is about five notes. Sad, sad, sad!
PS My shower songs of choice are "Someone to watch over me" and "All of me."
Nice to know that we are both Sisters of the Fossil Lutheran Altos. And with thy spirit! Merry Christmas, Murr!
Let's you and me go down to the basement for tuna hot dish and green bean bake!
I smoked my soprano into submission. I still sound pretty good backing up Smokey Robinson after one glass of Sauvignon Blanc, though. It doesn't help my voice, but it puts rose-colored glasses on my hearing. Merry Christmas to Dave, Pootie, and Harjle!
You're still sticking with the wine but ditched the tobacco, right, Nance? Tell me it's so.
Did. Many years ago.
I'm a decent alto now, but I can't decide which pair of glasses I need to read the notes.
24 years ago this month I decided I'd had enough wine to last a lifetime. Fortunately. And though I'm no longer a chlld filled with the the wonder of the season, I still get a chill when I hear the valleys being exalted.
Music'll slay you every time, if you give it half a chance.
I think the crystal is pretty safe from me. Sometimes (to my surprise!) I actually land on the note, but it's never a high one.
I fear I'd be lethal in a choir with my odd notes whizzing around like stray shot…
Honey, just find yourself some sopranos. Nothing you can do will matter much.
Thanks, Murr. Merry Christmas to you and Dave and Pootie. I'm wishing you all the very best.
The Lord be with you…and with thy bear.
Oh darn it all. Back to you tube for Handel's Messiah, because I don't remember what that is (if I ever knew). This Lutheran is not a church goer.
It's a shame you lost yourself through college, but I'm glad you found your way back. The world would be a sorrier place if you hadn't.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and Dave.
I'll bet you'd recognize a lot of it. It's hard to imagine how it could pass someone by altogether.
I haven't listened to the whole thing, just the Hallelujah Chorus, but that is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard. I'll listen to the full song when I finish reading all the blogs on my list.
Prepare yourself for about an hour and a quarter!
I always sang alto in my school choirs. Nowadays I'd have to hang out with the baritones.
I'll tell you right now, I'm no great shakes as a singer now if I ever was, but I could totally kill on the tenor solos.
Laughing and sniffling. Me too, me too, me too
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Dear Murr. I had hundreds of reasons to love you. Still do. I guess I wish I'd done a better job of letting you know.
You do just a fine job of that. Always have. Mwah.
We Lutherans love to sing.
That's the theory, anyway.
"The spontaneous ecstasies of my childhood came back. Not religion, but beauty and joy that sometimes share its path. There is more than one way to be born again." Thank you, Murr.
There are at least two!
Wonderful post, Murr, and you've struch a chord with everyone, it seems. I can't sing any more unless I'm in the car… Probably sounds dreadful but it makes me happy. Happy New Year to you and Dave and Pootie!
"And also with you."
What a beautiful piece of writing. During the run up to Christmas I listen to our 30 hours of recorded Christmas music. It ranges all over the place in style and age. Much of it classical, including The Messiah, and we sing along in the privacy of home or car. It takes me back to all kinds of younger times. On Christmas Eve I even watched part of the Mass from Vatican City because I could sing along with the Gregorian chant and remember when churches and choirs were a big part of my life. Wait, not just remember, but get that feeling back. Thanks for expressing this so well, Murr.
I'm always surprised Vatican City is a real place. On the map. Seems like it should only be accessible by tornado-blown house or by running at Platform 9-3/4.