Seventh grade choir changed my life.
Thanks to our instructor Keith Fleshman and accompanist Fran Alexander, my life was given direction. I had begun taking piano lessons that year. I was in a brand new school district, with brand new friends, in the big city of Gold Beach. I was always vaguely interested in music, but for the first year, I sat in the back row of the choir, goofing off with the kids from Agness, who would have rather been doing just about anything than singing in a choir–it was considered an exceptionally girly thing to do. So we traded fart jokes and stories of our seventh-grade sexual conquests (all lies, to be sure) and generally lazed about. Still, I felt guilty because I knew there was a part of me that needed music. Eventually I volunteered for a solo or two. Mr. Fleshman didn’t like me at first: he knew me as one of the back row goof-offs. Mrs. Alexander eventually persuaded him to reevaluate me because she had noticed I was making an honest effort to do something more than sneak gum into choir.
Mr. Fleshman was rather progressive as a director, even though he seemed like an old guy when I was in seventh grade. I knew he had taught at the High School even when my dad was there, and some years before him. However, looking back on our setlists, I realize today he often provided us with songs that were far less than 10 years old. His idea was to teach kids to appreciate music, and to find their voice within a group; not necessarily to learn all about music itself (although plenty of that happened as well). Seventh grade graduated the kids to three part harmony. Mr. Fleshman said our eighth grade choir was one his the firsts to attempt SATB (Soprano Alto Tenor Bass) arrangements with kids as young as us. Apparently we had a strong enough bass section, and a decent enough musicality that we could pull it off. We went to one choral contest, that I remember: Marshfield High School at Coos Bay. We sang “Build Thee More Stately Mansions”–lyrics by Oliver Wendell Holmes–in four part harmony, and were criticized by the judges because we didn’t sound like eighth graders. I think that was a higher compliment than anything else they could have said. A brief editorial comment: I learned today, while looking for the reference to this song, that it comes from a stanza in a larger Holmes poem about, of all things, the “Chambered Nautilus” (cousin to the octopus/squid/snail), and has nothing to do with actual mansions.
Not that it could have changed our choral delivery of the piece at all. The good thing about Junior High kids singing: we sang just as happily about Santa Claus as we did about 1930s Chicago gang riots, as loving baby ducks, and ocean critters that look like nothing so much as the demon face of Chthulu. He wouldn’t, however, allow me to do a solo performance of “Joy to the World,” by Three Dog Night, at the choral concert. I realize now that a twelve year old performing a song that proclaimed “I’d throw away the bars and the cars and the wars, make sweet love to you” probably went beyond the bounds of public good taste for most of Gold Beach.
I spent my high school years in two, and sometimes three different choir classes, depending on the semester. I was even a member of the girls’ choir for a year (playing piano bass).
I unabashedly picked up a few scat solos in jazz pieces for the Swing Choir. This enthusiasm performance set me on a trajectory that ultimately led me to a bachelor’s degree in music, with a desire to become a choir director, so I could repay, to new students, the joy that choral music had given me. It happened that my life would take a different path, but I don’t think I’d be the person I am today without the hundreds of hours I focused my efforts toward creating vocal music within a group.
Recently I attended the first holiday choir concert of my youngest son Alex. He is in seventh grade. Choir is one of his favorite classes too. I hope he is learning the same things I did: how to work in a group and produce something beautiful, how to behave on stage, how to lose your fear of crowds. The musicianship of his choir (and his lazy instructor) is quite frustratingly low, but his persistence will ultimately payoff, I hope. In this day of fiscal budget cuts, and the erosion of the truly important things in a well-rounded public education, I only can hope that high schools will still have choirs when he leaves eighth grade. I hope music will change his life the way it did mine.
Below, I added YouTube clips to a few of the songs we sang in 1980-1982. When I could, I added a choral group singing an arrangement similar to the ones we performed. These may prove to be of more interest to my Gold Beach readers than anyone else (a trip down memory lane); nevertheless, I urge anyone (if you are possessed of a strong enough constitution) to listen to the clips.
The Night Chicago Died (Paper Lace)
Ships (Barry Manilow)
Arthur’s Theme (Christopher Cross)
I Love (Tom T. Hall)
Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me (Billy Joel)
Out Here On My Own (Fame–Irene Cara)
Longer (Dan Fogelberg)
Happy Just to Dance with You (The Beatles)
Bill Grogan’s Goat (traditional)