Heart of the Matter: Letting a Song Go Out of My Heart

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2016

By John Toren (B.A. '74), Illustration by Ilana Blady

They say that singing can be therapeutic. When my wife, Hilary, recently decided it might be fun for us to join a choir, I found that it can be a lot more than that. Our vague aspirations sprang abruptly to life when we heard from a friend about the University of Minnesota's Summer Chorus (cosponsored by the Oratorio Society Choir). The commitment consisted of eight two-and-a-half-hour rehearsals followed by one Saturday dress rehearsal with full orchestra, and a performance later that same evening. To me, the prime virtue of the program was the repertoire-opera choruses! So I sent the organizers a delicately phrased question: If you love opera but haven't sung in a choir in 40 years, aren't good at sight-singing, and don't sing very loudly, would it be appropriate for you to sign up?

The reply was pleasant. Sight-singing wasn't required because you'd have YouTube videos and MP3 files to study. There was no need for loud singing. In short, if you could carry a tune and were willing to send in the entry fee you were welcome to participate. Next thing I knew, Hilary and I were sitting in a large rehearsal hall on a hot summer evening in a sea of 150 strangers.

Rehearsals invariably went by in a flash. Returning to the parking lot afterward, I often noticed I felt twice as alert as I had been when we'd arrived. Practicing at home, though, was much more difficult than I'd expected. At times it seemed we lived in a madhouse-Hilary in the living room pounding out her line on the piano while I in the nearby office tried to parse "Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside!" among 10 notes of varying length and emphasis. It was easier to find the right path once we reassembled with the group. (Perhaps the practicing made a difference.) Soon, the complexity of the task we'd undertaken became obvious. Phrasing, emphasis, dynamics-they all needed attention. Before long my score was highlighted with advice written in pencil: "stop," "go to the top of 13," "breathe," "quick page turn," "dramatic volume," "sing piano, but with fortissimo consonants."

Only during our last Wednesday rehearsal did our conductors say they expected us to look at them rather than at our scores during the performance. Then, how were we supposed to make use of all of our scribbling?

Whatever butterflies I had vanished the moment we arrived at the concert hall on the afternoon of the performance. The event was still six hours away, but there was already electricity in the air. Singers and orchestra members started to arrive, and after rehearsal and sandwiches we waited some more, like athletes in a locker room before a big game.

I felt a surge of confidence as the performance began. Most of the things I'd learned during rehearsal seemed to come back unbidden, and the wonderful sounds coming from the orchestra added a whole new dimension. Looking out at the people in the audience, it suddenly occurred to me for the first time that, aside from being a lot of fun, what was taking place really meant something. We were all contributing freely to a musical effect that people in the audience seemed to be enjoying.

It was an exhilarating experience, and for weeks afterward I caught myself humming "Va' Pensiero" or "Treulich Geführt" with a little grin on my face, and sometimes a tear in my eye. Those arias had become the soundtrack to my summer.

John Toren is a book editor at Nodin Press and the author of several books, including The Seven States of Minnesota.


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