Voices From The Heart
When my son was a baby I was blessed to see a Voices from the Heart spring concert. We sat high in the balcony and watched below us as 200 women dressed in black and a hundred shades of purple proceeded down the center aisle of the church, singing, "There's a river of birds in migration; a nation of women with wings!" At one point, they sang the song, Motherless Child and my baby screamed at the top of his lungs. Someday I will join this singing group, I told myself. And so, this past December, my son being thirteen and able to stay at home alone, it felt time for this dream seed to send out its shoots.
I contacted the director of Voices From The Heart, a 200-woman chorus that meets weekly at South Church in Portsmouth, NH, to see if there were any openings for new members. I was thrilled when a letter came through from the director, Joanne, letting me know I was welcomed to join!
There is not an easy way for me to describe my experiences with Voices From the Heart. When I sing with these women on Monday evenings, it feels like a midnight sky, morning light as I awaken, snow falling through sunlight. I feel my heart center opening up, my arms spreading to embrace love, my throat filling with song, emotions, hope, and all that is good and beautiful.
I have been challenged through this experience to stretch myself past comfort zones. I do not read music. I did not know whether I was considered an alto or a soprano. I didn't even know what those terms meant. But what I did know was that I was naturally rhythmic, I had a good ear for music, and I knew that the joy of singing it fills my heart. One of the many things I love about this experience is that I can be my fullest self. While we are a unified whole, a chorus of hundreds of voices blending to make beautiful music-magic, we have to let our individual joy and soul shine out as well.
We practice weekly on Monday evenings. As we approached our spring concert date, the director began announcing auditions. I certainly would not be doing that! I'm not a professional singer, I thought to myself. I can't even read music!
One night I went early into Portsmouth for an appointment. I had fun dilly-dallying, going to the cafe for soup and gourmet coffee, and visiting an independent bookstore I'd just discovered. I got to rehearsal early to watch the auditions from a church pew.
Joanne asked me if I was there to audition. I replied, "Oh God, no. I'm just here to have fun and sing! I'm not a professional singer like a lot of these women are." She smiled and asked me, "Well, would you be willing to just have fun and pretend to audition for me, so I can hear your voice separate from the larger group?" I thought this sounded reasonable so I agreed to audition.
When it was time, those auditioning circled the pianist like a crescent moon in the night sky. I had no choice, it seemed, but to shine as brightly as possible through the darkness of my fear.
I was the last to sing Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, and the first to sing Dance of the Nations. Joanne told us she would let us know who got the solos by the end of the night, however only the Joshua piece was filled. I suspected I'd be getting the Dance of the Nations solo. It was sort of like Yule Brenner fitting his role in The King and I, or Johnny Depp being perfect as a wild pirate. My archetype fit the Dance of the Nations solo, and I knew it.
The following week, Joanne called six of us up for a short meeting near the Piano. She addressed a group of five of the women, asking them to read lines from a poem by Wendell Berry. The youngest member would read the first line: "We clasp the hands of those that go before us," and the oldest, the next:
"And the hands of those who come after us." The other three women would enter between the two and then surround them as they recited the rest of the beautiful poem honoring the never-ending circle of life.
Wait a minute, I thought to myself. Why am I here? "Now Melissa, you can say no. I know you're new here. But I'd like to ask you if you would sing the opening solo, Dance of the Nations."
I said, Yes. Thank you so much. (Inside me, I said, Oh My God, I will if I can stop from crying! Opening solo?!)
Practice, practice, practice and finally the day was here. I was the proverbial nervous wreck! My family and friends were coming to see the concert. The ancestral theme of the Wendell Berry poem and the Dance of the Nations song moved me deeply. Three days after I was offered this solo, my mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She had surgery coming up two weeks from the spring concert. We were blessed that the disease was caught early and her prognosis was good. Her doctor assured her, "from my deepest heart, Donna..."
However, there was still the mystery and fear dancing with this hopeful news, and mixed with the emotional depth of the concert experience, I feared crying at the first sight of my mother's face in the audience.
Two hundred women gathered on either side of the altar. The church was buzzing with anticipation. Soon, the director, Joanne, welcomed the audience to the concert and gave a few words about a recent trip the chorus took to Croatia, and an upcoming journey we would make to Cuba. When I dared to look up at the packed church I saw my family and friends right before me in the second row. Joanne finished talking.
It was almost time.
In my mind, I heard my Mother say, "Call Nana to help you. She loved to sing. She had a beautiful voice." I silently spoke to my Nana, called for help from my ancestors, and prayed with a passion, Please don't let me cry right now! My eyes found the pillars at the back of the church and there I focused.
The five women moved from their chorus of hundreds and headed for the central altar.
My heart dropped to the bottom of my legs.
The women wove themselves into a beautiful crescent at the altar and recited the Wendell Berry poem:
"We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other's arms,
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance,
And the larger circle of all creatures,
Passing in and out of life,
Who move also in a dance,
To a music so subtle and vast,
That no ear hears it,
Except in fragments.”
It was time.
I took my cue. I moved close to the microphone, where I turned my back to the audience, as directed. I grasped the pitch pipe in my two hands. I'd never touched one of these in my life! Goddess help me remember to blow in the "D" hole, I prayed.
Tears welled up in my throat.
I blew the "D" into the pitch pipe softly, hummed the beginning words to myself, and turned to face the audience..Nana, come to me now. Sing through me now, please!
"Round and Round we turn.
We hold each other's hands,
And weave ourselves in a circle.
The time is gone.
The dance goes on."
I was never so relieved to "join the crowd" when I finished my part. In walked the women, holding hands and singing the Dance of the Nations song with me, now. After the applause and a moment of silence, we began to sing E-FUO, a song to welcome the ancestors into a space.
Into the evening we sang the songs of many nations. It was an inspirational concert that came together perfectly. I felt deeply honored to be a part of such beauty and magic.
After the concert, my family and friends greeted me in the front of the church with flowers and hugs. We walked to Market Square for dinner and a much-needed break before heading back for the evening performance (which was much less stressful, old pro that I was by then!)
Days later, the songs still wake me in the night with their beauty and I repeat them over and over so I won't forget them.
I remind myself not to worry. We've already made it through that night...
Now I can sing for the sake of singing and I can dream ~
of all the things that can come true,
of the miracles of healing for Mom,
of the beauty that is all around me when I look for it,
and of the amazing strength available for me, and for all of us, when we believe it is there for the taking.