Since I started teaching, I’ve referred to summer as my “time to get to know Kristine again.” Being Ms. Napper is pretty all-consuming. But the last couple years, I’ve made steps toward holding onto Kristine during the rest of the year. This year’s New Year’s thing–not exactly a resolution, just a thing–was starting this blog. I needed writing back in my life. Putting my thoughts into tangible words helps keep my feet on the ground.
In 2015, my back-to-Kristine thing was joining a choir. And I’m still thanking 2015-me for being smart enough and brave enough to make that leap! I needed music back in my life. So badly.
I was a choir kid throughout middle and high school. Started in 6th grade, and fell instantly in love with everything about the music-making process. Instantly idolized Ms. Duck, who expected us to comport ourselves like professionals at all times and accepted nothing less than our best. I also idolized the older students who’d been in choir longer, and were doing cool things with leadership positions, small groups, solos, musical theater, etc. I wanted to do everything they were doing!
I did get a little taste of all that when I was in 8th grade. I was choir vice president. (And I honestly still don’t know how I got nominated or elected….) I sang baritone in the girls’ barbershop group. I got a teensy, tiny little part in the school musical.
At the end of 8th grade, I was thrilled when our teacher announced that she was also moving to the high school the next year. Being the kind of person that hates change, I was a big fan of something staying the same when I started high school. I still remember that first day of 9th grade, when everything was crazy and overwhelming, and I couldn’t even get to half my classes because of a broken elevator. Choir was my last class of the day, and it was such a relief and boost to my spirits to walk into a room where everything just felt right! New room, a handful of new faces. But it was the same energy, the same routines, the same musical journey. Only better! We got to pick up where we left off, and keep moving forward, excited about what our slightly more mature voices could do.
I stayed with it throughout high school, and I loved it. I really did. Even during The Dark Year, my senior year, when Ms. Duck had to abandon us for the year and everything in the choir room was terrible, I never considered quitting. (I don’t even know why, because I don’t remember actually enjoying choir that year… Pure loyalty to the program, I guess.) But the truth is, it was also hard for me. As much as I loved singing, I always knew I wasn’t a very strong singer. All the hard work and dedication in the world wasn’t going to do more than marginally change that. I got 8/10 on every “voice test” I was ever given–not a bad score, but so frustrating to never break the ceiling! High school is a bigger pond than middle school, and I was a small fish. I was never chosen for anything I tried out for. Rejection always hurts, no matter how much we pretend that it’s rolling off our thick skin. And it was hard to watch everyone else (at least, it felt like everyone else) bonding over shared groups, shows, and events that I couldn’t be a part of. I spent so much time on the periphery, wishing I were one of them, that I can still tell stories from trips I never went on, recite quotes from shows I was never a part of, and sing lines from songs I’ve never sung. (Have I mentioned what a cool kid I was? Goodness….)
By the time I went away to college, I couldn’t do it anymore. If the high school pond was already too big for this little fish, then BYU was an ocean I’d surely drown in. I didn’t want to sing in the “no audition necessary” group, because I knew I’d be bored. I needed more challenge than that. But there was no way I’d be accepted to any audition groups. So I declared the choir chapter of my life over. I tried to sing in church choir on-and-off over the years, but most of those groups at BYU tended to practice in places that were upstairs with no elevators. The directors would shrug helplessly and tell me “I wish you could come.” But I knew they didn’t wish it that badly. It was BYU, home to a gazillion pianos! The campus had plenty of accessible spaces where they could have held practice. Inaccessibility was a choice, and I wasn’t going to beg to be included.
Adult life had been pretty much the same. I’d sing in church choir now and then, but accessibility issues got in the way a lot. And even during the periods when I was actively participating and even enjoying, church choir is only church choir. It has its place, but it doesn’t come close to meeting my musical needs.
At age 30, I finally recognized that there was a giant choir-shaped hole in my life, and it wasn’t going away. I always figured I’d stop missing it eventually, but I was wrong. I needed singing back in my life.
I spent a while exploring the internets, looking for local opportunities, and not finding much that fit. This group looked too intense. That group looked too sing-alongy. These groups practiced in inaccessible spaces. Those groups were too much time commitment. I’m too old for that group, and too young for that other one.
Until I finally stumbled across PDX Vox! The locations weren’t ideal for me in my westside suburb (a fact that has since changed), but everything else looked like exactly what my soul was craving. When my “is it wheelchair friendly” inquiry was answered with the most thorough, detailed, thoughtful response I’ve ever received to an accessibility question–decision made.
And it was such a good decision. I nervously showed up by myself to a place I’d never been, with a hundred people I’d never met, and immediately felt I’d come home. It was like 6th period on the first day of 9th grade, all over again! It was amazing to be with “my people” again, speaking a language I hadn’t used in years, exercising parts of my body and brain that had been neglected, but still mostly knew what to do. When I was 18, I’d been so afraid of the too-big pond, that I’d taken myself completely out of the water! I don’t know how I even survived like that until 30. But it felt fantastic to slip back into the water and start swimming again.
Choir really does feed my mind, body, and spirit. I’m one of those nerds who loves every step of the process. I love getting new sheet music, reading the notes on the page, figuring out my part, and how it fits into the song. I love letting go of the sheet music, finding out how much of it lives inside me now, and moving from the mechanics to the artistry. I love interpreting, shaping, and playing with the song. I love the performance piece, where we invite a room full of people to feel something with us–to feel lots of somethings with us, actually.
And I love the group dynamics. It’s truly magical when a group of people come together, blending their different voices, to create something as one. Everyone breathing together, feeling the same rhythm, shaping their mouths the same way, listening to each other so the harmonies are tight, bringing the volume up and down, creating a mood, telling a story… Is there anything but music that can bring people together on that level?
I’ve only been part of Vox for a little over a year (three sessions), but I’ve already heard Andrea say many times, “I came for the music. I stay for the people.” Andrea’s not wrong. (Ever.:)) It turns out that the world’s warmest, friendliest, kindest, funniest, most genuine people all live in the Portland metro area and have a passion for singing a cappella. (Who knew, right?) I was overwhelmed with welcome the first time I showed up, and I feel so lucky to now be part of a such a great group of people. These aren’t the kind of people who make you beg for accommodation or inclusion. They’re the kind of people who naturally accommodate, not just for me, but for everyone and their unique needs. Because of course. That’s just what you do. They’re the kind of people who make a space feel safe. It’s safe to take risks. It’s safe to choose not to take a risk. It’s safe to laugh or cry or both; you’ll be encouraged in whatever ways you need.
The magic of Voxers being such high quality humans is probably the trickle down effect from our director. Maybe I still have the childhood habit of idolizing choir directors. But I’m pretty convinced they don’t come better than Marie Schumacher. I have endless admiration for her as a musician (look up her stuff, and thank me later), as a teacher, and just as a person. I know she’s always juggling a million things at once in her life, head, and heart, but she still speaks and listens to you as if you were the most important person in the world. I think we all want to be a little more like Marie, and maybe that’s why we bring our best selves to Vox. Or at least we try to!
Every week, I have to talk myself into going to rehearsal. I’m always so tired, and surely I could just skip it this once… But then I suck it up and go, because I’m always crazy-glad I did! I leave reinvigorated. Tired, but fed. My soul needs this. Choir needs to stay a priority in my life.