I never intended to join a church choir, especially an Armenian ensemble where the 1,700-year-old ritual is sung in its typically classical mode.
But here I am, dressed in my flamboyant choir robe, joining a cast of refined vocalists who could easily qualify for any choral society.
Take our director. She came to us through the opera circles of California and has sung her way to rave reviews in the Boston Globe and other periodicals. She has at her disposal a woman in her 80s who has been singing in this choir for 46 years.
The voice is no match for her longevity. Sunday after Sunday, there she is, a timeless diva so reliable, you can set a clock to her standards.
The women next to her are gifted sopranos as well. One also sang in a town chorus. The other is a contemporary. Then we have Alex. He was the lone male before I joined him at age 75.
For years, rather decades, I stood in the last pew at the back of my church, chanting aloud. Why those around me cupped their ears, I’ll never understand. They’re not that lyrical, either.
So I grew up singing the Mass to myself, at least when I was an altar boy. One day, we were at a Christmas party and the conductor called for a sing-along. Halfway through “Jingle Bells,” the piano came to an abrupt halt.
“You’re way off key,” he chastised.
That’s when I knew I couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow. I was the kid who couldn’t sing straight. The shower was another story. I could sing to my heart’s content and my voice never carried beyond the curtain.
Folks, if you must sing while bathing, do it under a shower, not in the tub. The sound of running water is a great help. Singing can be everybody’s “bathright” when all else fails.
I love music. You know that from previous columns I’ve written. And, yes, choral music is at the top of my list. I swoon over the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. On many occasions, the Vienna Boys’ Choir has had me mesmerized.
I’ve been enamored by such compositions as Beethoven’s Ninth—the choral symphony—and his eclectic “Missa Solemnis,” not to undermine Mozart’s “Magic Flute” or any other choral masterpiece for that matter.
After some debate, I decided to make my move from the back of the sanctuary to the very forefront. My debut was unannounced. I made my way to the choir with songbook in hand.
To tell you the truth, it was the priority item on my bucket list after having a book published. All it took was a little faith—and fortification.
The first couple weeks, I laid low. My vocal cords were no louder than a whisper. I went along with the flow, peeking over my shoulder at another’s libretto to make sure I was on track and in sync with the others.
Alex, the other guy, sort of took me under his wing and kept pointing to the correct page. I’d give him a reassuring nod and kept the high notes to a lower pitch. Then came the moment of consequence.
“The archbishop will be joining us next week to celebrate an anniversary Mass and ordain four acolytes,” I was told. “Let’s all bring our best voices forward for our spiritual leader.”
Hey, singing for a priest inside a half-empty church with my back to the congregation was one thing. A packed house with religious hierarchy was another matter. Maybe I should rethink the matter through. Call in sick. Take a short leave of absence.
How would it look to suddenly abandon my place in the chorale and take my usual place in the rear, out of everybody’s hair? No backing out now. C’mon, face the music.
Our eyes made contact and His Holiness did a double take. I could read his mind. “Is that Tom down there singing in the choir? I never knew he could sing.”
What he didn’t know was that I could make a living at lip-syncing. You should have seen me at karaoke the day I had a couple beers at the local cocktail lounge. I blew the house away, literally.
After the service, we gathered downstairs in the church, enjoying some chitchat, when his curiosity took command. I’ve known the prelate for years and always had great respect for his tenor.
When did you start singing in the choir?” he wondered.
“This was only my third appearance,” I shot back.
He looked at me and smiled, “God certainly works in mysterious ways.”
I’m ready for an encore, even if my listeners are not. There are only so many seats in the back pew where they might retreat.