Dedicated to Erica Denler and the ALHS Chamber Singers. May they always strive to be the best, except of course, when they are.
All throughout my life I have been inflicted with a severe case of nerves that has consistently discouraged me from taking many chances. Things that I now call hobbies, such as skiing and rock climbing, I used to consider death wishes. Attempting them was just a feeble endeavor to impress girls. The only problem was that telling stories of sliding down mountains seemed to impress more guys than gals. Well, maybe not impress. My stories gave them an attempt to show off with some of their own. One group of guys went so far as to invite me to jump off of a bridge with them. They assured me that I would be perfectly all right. Before I jumped they would tie one end of a bungee cord to the bridge and attach the other end to me. This would prevent me from hitting the ground underneath. After much urging on their part, claiming that it would turn me into a real man, I brusquely informed them that what they called proving their manhood most people for the last century called hanging. This seemed to work them up even more, so I left them in search of someone more interesting to talk to, like someone in a coma.
It was in an attempt to impress girls a different way that I auditioned for my high school choir. Women love a man who can sing. Or so I was led to believe by a friend of mine who would have told me that the girls in the choir sang in their underwear if he thought that it would get me to join. I wasn’t surprised at his desperation for another male in the group. The girl to guy ratio was about twelve to one. However, what most guys would have seen as potential, I began to see as an opening for disaster.
In constructing my brilliant plan to meet chicks, I had overlooked one vital point, I had never sung before in my life. I could read music about as well as I could read Swahili. I thought that forte was the age my father was turning and that piano was the instrument in the center of the choir room. G wasn’t a key, it was a letter, and scales were things that you weighed yourself on. I kept getting the terms harmony and melody mixed up, which has the same effect in a choir as getting the gas and the brake mixed up in a car.
All of this seemed to go unnoticed by the choir director. Actually, I seemed to go unnoticed by the director. Ms. Rayman was a warm and caring person until it came to music. I often thought that she would have made a great choir director for the Green Berets. You could tell the students who knew her well by how they referred to her. The students who had been in the group for a year or two called her Miss Ray, and the survivors who had remained until their senior year addressed her simply as Ray. Her name confused me, but not as much as mine evidently confused her. I joined the choir along with four guys named Jeff. I quickly became a fifth. Yet, you could sense that she really loved what she was doing and her hard work paid off. The choirs at my high school were the best in the district, and only a few students had succumbed to exhaustion in the process.
Near the end of the year I was beginning to feel more confident as a singer. I still had no clue how to read music, but once I learned my part in a song I was pretty much able to sing it and stay in key. Still, I was in no condition to advance beyond the choir I was in. I could sing decently in a group of seventy students, but a group of twenty was an entirely different matter altogether. Besides, to audition you had to sing a solo in front of the class. I had made a fool out of myself in front of people before. I was in no hurry to do it again, even with clothes on. Nope, I was definitely quite happy where I was.
Well, I was happy until Miss Ray made me audition for my high school’s two advanced choirs, Chamber Singers and Madrigals. Then, I wished that I was at least halfway across the continental United States. Even New Jersey sounded nice. Not many people were planning on auditioning and Miss Ray was upset. To demonstrate how anyone could audition, she asked me in front of the whole class to sign up. I was about to say that my family was moving to Zimbabwe over the summer, so there would be no point to it, when I remembered why I joined the choir in the first place: to impress women. This would be a golden opportunity.
The guys in Chamber Singers and Madrigals were studs. All of the girls on campus loved them. They made football players jealous. This wouldn’t just impress girls—this would cause them to lose all control at the sight of me. They would faint when I took the stage. The slightest note from me and they would go into cardiac arrest. It didn’t matter whether or not I could actually sing. All that mattered was that I was in the group. Immediately, I grabbed a pen that the person sitting next to me was using to write his girlfriend a note and scribbled my name down on the sign-up sheet.
It wasn’t until I got home that I realized what I had done. I had fallen victim to an impossible fantasy and in doing so set myself up for lifelong humiliation. I would have to spend the rest of my life in seclusion, never venturing out of my house in fear that someone might recognize me as the idiot who in auditioning for Chamber Singers proved that there is no God. I would have to hire some poor immigrant woman to do my shopping for me. Children who lived around my house would spread rumors about the spooky and most likely psychotic man who once killed about sixty high school students with his voice. I was doomed.
I worried so much that I began to feel sick. Sick! That was it! I would pretend that I was sick the day of auditions. No one would think badly of me if I didn’t audition because I was sick. My pride once again restored, I was almost able to enjoy the weekend.
Tuesday arrived, the day of the audition. I stayed at home and watched Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, which was almost bad enough to get me to give up my ploy, go to school, and accept my fate. However, what I lacked in bravery I made up for in stubbornness and I refused to let myself take one step out of my bedroom until Tuesday had officially ended and the hazy sunshine of Wednesday morning hit my window.
I had no idea what to expect when I approached the choir classroom the next day. I felt a little ashamed of myself for lying to the entire class, but I would have felt a lot worse if I had subjected them to my singing. I took consolation by telling myself that if I had sung on Tuesday, none of these students would be able to hear lies anymore.
Some of the senior Chamber Singers who were graduating at the end of the year asked me why I didn’t audition. I told them about my horrible bout with an unknown sickness that had my doctor stumped and led my priest to administer Last Rites to me. I had never experienced anything more gut-retching and painful, with the exception of maybe those chimichangas the school cafeteria kept insisting on serving a few times a month. What made things worse, I let them know, was that I had been working hard on a solo and had really hoped to perform it. To make my story seem sincere I sang a few lines from The Doors’ “The End” as if it were the song I had prepared. The seniors responded with blank faces and one of them left to find Miss Ray.
I thought that my act was up. I felt like a child who had been caught reading his father’s dirty magazines—deathly afraid, extremely embarrassed, and really confused. I couldn’t tell by the seniors’ faces if they liked my singing or if they were about to slip into some sort of mass seizure. I was about to check them for a pulse when the wandering senior returned. She smiled and told me that she had talked to Miss Ray and convinced her to let me come to the second day of auditions. This time the seniors had to check me for a pulse. I could see no way out of it. Fate had played a cruel trick on me and I would be forced to accept my destiny as the student with a head for lies and a voice for murder. I briefly considered feigning a relapse of my mystery illness, but quickly dropped the idea when I realized that would mean another day of Gilligan’s Island. I would face the situation with what little courage I had and hope for the world to blow up before auditions began.
Unfortunately, Armageddon was late and auditions began immediately after school. Since I had missed the first day I did not have to sing the imaginary solo that I had prepared. Instead I had to sing a very real song in a small group that the rest of the auditioners had learned and memorized by the time I had finished reading the title. The song wasn’t too difficult. It was just very high. Mariah Carey would have had difficulty singing the bass part, and I was a tenor.
Miss Ray arranged us into two octets and four quartets. My octet was to sing first and as I made my way up I thought of how much I had really enjoyed life. When I got to the stage I looked at the other people who were auditioning and the people who had decided to come and watch because they had nothing better to do. My heart pounded and I tried to imagine them all in their underwear, but my ex-girlfriend was among them and the sight of her in her underwear was one I had been trying to forget. Miss Ray played our pitches on the piano, I took a breath (from my diaphragm, the way Miss Ray had taught me to) and sang.
Either I was briefly granted the voice of Michael Jackson or my jeans were a little too tight that day, but I made it through the song and sang all the notes correctly, no matter how high. Even more astonishing was that I made it through the song more than once, every time without a problem. I also made callbacks.
Thursday’s audition consisted of singing the song we learned on Wednesday over and over again. Usually we only made it a few words into the song before we were cut off by Miss Ray. This was to see how well we sounded together. I don’t know how hearing a few quartets singing the first five words of a song over and over is enough for anyone to determine how a choir of around thirty people will sound together for a full year, but it seemed to work for Miss Ray and she quickly dismissed all of us.
We would find out who made it into the two groups that evening at the choir banquet, an expensive awards ceremony that had I not been dragged into this whole affair, I probably would have skipped. I felt that I should have been granted admission to the banquet for free, since I was nervous and didn’t eat a thing. Before revealing who had made the groups, Miss Ray gave many speeches about how good the year was and how talented all of us were. These were followed by even more speeches, this time from the students about how good the year was and how talented Miss Ray was. I went into a nicotine fit even though I had never smoked a cigarette before in my life.
Finally, after I had made confetti out of the tablecloth where I was sitting, Miss Ray announced that she would reveal next year’s Chamber Singers and Madrigals. Any thinking that had been going on in the room up until that moment promptly stopped as Miss Ray told us how this would be done.
Miss Ray must have spent weeks deciding what would be the absolute worst way to reveal next year’s groups to us considering how nervous we all were, and I think she nailed it. She called all of the seniors from this year’s Chamber Singers and Madrigal groups to the front of the room. Then she put the names of next year’s Chamber and Madrigal Singers into a box and laid out about thirty roses on the table behind her. One by one the seniors were to take a name out of the box, pick up a rose and without telling anyone else whose name they had drawn, take the rose to the person whose name was on the card.
I couldn’t help it. I had to leave. Not because of my nerves. They had made it as far as they had, they could have taken me the rest of the way. Rather, I had drank about five sodas while they were giving out awards and I desperately needed to use the restroom. While I was in there a particularly ballsy senior walked in and handed me a rose. He then left, without telling me anything. Yelling for him to stop, I quickly ran after him, but I never quite caught him. People started applauding as I ran into the banquet room. I stopped just beginning to understand what had happened. I began to smile when some people in the front of the room started snickering. Pretty soon their snickers turned to chuckles and then on into laughter as more and more people joined in. I should have known that fate would never let me escape from an incident like this without some form of embarrassment. I had forgotten to zip up my fly.
I had made it into both groups and although much hard work lay ahead, the hardest part for me had passed. It took quite a push, but I had overcome my nerves and went on to accomplish something that I could be quite proud of. More important, it was something that I had accomplished for myself. For the next two years Chamber Singers and Madrigals kept me so busy that I didn’t even have time to try to impress women. And I definitely didn’t have time to jump off any bridges.