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Chorister’s Confessions

Call this one: “Confessions of a Chorister Who Can’t Carry a Tune,” an ongoing tragicomedy in several acts.

My 11 regular readers will remember some of them. My first experience was in the boys choir of Christ’s Church Episcopal in Gary, Indiana. I joined at age 9, maybe 10.

We little ones made up the soprano section.

I loved it for many reasons: Sopranos sang the melody; easy that. I had a terrific prepubescent crush on Mrs. Gunn, the choir director.

And we sang from The Hymnal 1940. Ah, those soaring hymns: “Hail thee festival day, blessed day that is hallowed forever …”; “Jesu, Joy of man’s desiring …”; “Ten thousand times ten thousand, in sparkling raiment bright … ”

Then I turned 13, Mrs. Gunn gave up her choir directorship and my voice changed. The new director put me in the alto section. An alto.

Who wants to be an alto? In high school, I could have relaunched as a chorister. My high school offered three choral classes: girls’ chorus, boys’ chorus and mixed chorus. A couple of my buddies took both men’s chorus and mixed chorus.

Not me. No, not me.

By high school, I was a serious student, striding the hallways with a stack of books under my arm, a slide rule dangling from my belt and a schedule of six solid subjects.

Smugger than smug was I, and definitely looking down my nose at my classmates for singing their way to their diplomas.

But each spring the choral students did a full-on Broadway musical. I remember The King and I and Oklahoma. I watched, slack-jawed at how good they were, and envied the singers their talent.

I blame Auntie Jane Claffey for deluding me into thinking I could sing. At her annual Christmas party, we gather around Auntie’s piano and work our way through every piece of Christmas music she owns. Thanks to generous pours from Uncle Jim Claffey’s liquor cabinet, I confuse my volume and enthusiasm for a singing voice.

So … last semester, I joined the University of Hawaii-West Oahu’s chorus. No audition was required and they welcomed senior citizens.

This time, more than a half-century since my first go at choral music, I was a bass.

A truly blissful bass. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed singing in that chorus.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked my wife, having listened to yet another of my stories of what had happened in chorus that day. “You’ve never been a joiner of anything.”

True, and I can’t explain it. The kids? Their voices? The fellowship and camaraderie of a chorus? The process of mastering a piece of music, from rough, uneven start to … well, “as good as you can get it”? The gentle genius of choral directors like Jon Magnussen and Jeremy Wong?

A problem arose, however. I can’t carry a tune. I am pitch imperfect. A fellow bass, a young man named Royce, spent much of last semester pointing toward the ceiling and saying, “Higher, Dan. Higher.” So too did the choral directors — a veritable chorus of fingers urging me to find the tune.

Those upwardly pointing fingers and my desperate search for the right note almost kept me from coming back this semester.

But I couldn’t stay away. What can I say? It’s too much fun to let pitch imperfection get in the way.