A few weeks ago I was making coffee when I heard what sounded like a stunned owl hoo-ing for help. Sounded as if he might be trapped behind a storm door or in a room on the other side of the house. As I got closer to a closed door, I realized the sound was emanating from my soulful wife, sitting in her office, chanting along with some psalm playing on her laptop, ear buds blocking out the world. Paula was practicing for the Island Community Chorus — her first time as a participant.
Soon our house became a repository of the stuff that haunts the poems of Poe and the books of Oliver Sacks. Ghostly vocalizings up and down in volume, coasting along the scales, seeped from behind closed doors. Most of the time they sounded stifled. But that was because Paula was saving herself for the actual performance. She was not doing a full Ave Maria while practicing. What I think I was hearing was a one quarter Ave with a half twist. No point in throwing out her vocal chords.
The Island Community Chorus concerts were last weekend. Yes, every December, before the minnesingers come the maxi-singers, all 110 of them. Community is their middle name.
It was not the easiest program, but it proved to be quite a rewarding one. They sang in English, in Hebrew, in German, in Latin. They sang sprightly. They sang hymnally.
What a joyful noise! Actually it wasn’t noise but rather smooth, blended sounds, the coming together of 110 voices, many untrained, under the inspirational direction of Peter Boak. How does he do it? Volume! Plus courage and practice. The man is a magician. By way of some sort of alchemy, he produced harmony from well-meaning folks who just walked in off the street, self-identified their vocal ranges and announced their participation without due process of auditions. They simply agreed to a commitment of 14 days of practice. They simply agreed to make themselves and all the rest of us feel good by singing.
And there’s a goodly number of the rest of us when you consider there are more than 100 people in the chorus and all each of them has to do is tell a few friends and family members and — voila! — you have a filled Whaling Church at concert time. Making sure the audience outnumbers the stage performers is certainly one definition of community spirit.
There is an obvious, primal attraction for the Island Community Chorus. When you break into song, most people think you must be in a good mood, unless, of course, you’ve been cast in Tosca or Il Trovatore or you’re Edwin Starr belting out “War! Huah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” But generally, singing is life-affirming. The mood becomes one of good will. It becomes infectious; hence, the concept of catchy tune. Wait! I hear a haiku coming.
A verge of voices
The lift that keeps on living
Our six towns in tune
For these concerts, Peter Boak is the master of ceremonies in every sense of the term. He instills confidence and commands respect, all the time with a sense of good-heartedness. According to Paula, “he shows no doubts. He only shows he believes in you and you want to reciprocate by giving him your all.”
My wife can actually sing. She’s good enough to have once thought of embarking on a career in music. But she didn’t want to starve, so she became a television consumer-investigative reporter who helped others starving for justice while caught in the webs woven by scam artists. This job, which she had for 25 years, did not satisfy the need to sing. But half the battle was won, because it satisfied her desire to perform.
I, on the other hand, have a tin ear. Lucky for me my other one is made of stainless steel. This means I know I can’t carry a tune. Not even if I were handed the latest in luggage and shown how to fold the melody nicely into it. Or, put another way — if I indeed started singing, I would be handed the latest in luggage and shown the door.
I know my limitations. This means if I were in the chorus, when the real singing starts, I would have to defer to the ventriloquism of faith. With mouth wide open, I’d be doing nothing but paying lip service to the passion of music. But in my heart I’d be raising my voice in harmony, raising it with the passion of community. I am at best a shower singer, knowing full well that a tile or glass enclosure can even make Bob Dylan soar sonorously, morphing into Placido Domingo.
One of the pieces at last weekend’s concert was A Hope Carol, a lyrical poem by the Victorian Age’s Christina Rossetti, set to music by David Dickau. One of the verses reads: “Below the stars, beyond the moon,/Between the night and day,/I heard a rising falling tune/Calling me…” There is no question Paula also heard that tune. She is now committed to the Island Community Chorus.
Come next spring there will be another concert and I will be smiling, knowing that the hoo-ing is not an owl trapped in our storm door.
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.