Robin Meloy Goldsby has a few things to say about singers, and, this time around, they’re all good.
John and I enter the Burgerhaus Forum in Overath, Germany. Tonight Julia is singing with the Paul Klee High School Choir, a feisty group of kids between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, who meet once a week in the evenings to learn new songs, study new harmonies, and tackle new challenges. That’s what they tell themselves, anyway. Mainly, for the last two years, they’ve been having a hell of a lot of fun with music. They call themselves The Singin’ Pauls.
The concert is scheduled to begin at 7:00 PM. We’re fifteen minutes early and the hall is already full—around 500 enthusiastic fans have shown up to listen to the choir. I look around and see a smattering of parents and grandparents, but I’m most impressed by the huge number of schoolmates crowding into the venue. Kids cheering for their musical friends! In Germany we don’t have school-sponsored athletic competitions. But we have this, and I’m grateful. We root for musicians instead of the athletes. It’s a little like having the halftime show without the football game. No linebackers, no pom-poms, no referees. Just music.
No seats! It’s fifteen minutes until show time and the joint is packed. What to do. We may have lived in the German countryside for almost nineteen years, but we’ve maintained a few of our hard-won Manhattan skills. John and I can find a cab, a parking place, or an empty seat in just about any situation. We have good “available space” karma—a talent that comes from squeezing into crowded Times Square subway trains during rush hour.
“Look! There. Front row, left side. Two seats. Go.” We advance towards the seats and snag them just in time.
“I don’t know,” says John as he sets up his video equipment. “Julia might not be so thrilled to see us in the first row. Especially since I have the camera.”
“What?” I say. “The only other choice is the very last row. We’re American parents. We’re supposed to be pushy, remember? We’re staying in the front.”
At this point I spot Curtis, Julia’s brother, right behind us, with a couple of his friends. He’s proud of his sister.
Anticipation bounces around the hall. John finishes setting up his Zoom camera and we’re ready to go. The house lights dim. Forty kids march onstage and take their places. All shapes and sizes: Goths and good girls, hippies and Emos, German, Turkish, French, Iranian, Palestinian, and, yes, American. They face the audience. I can’t decide if they look old or young. Julia stays out front—she has a solo in the first song. She messes with the microphone cable, then turns around. That’s when she sees us in the front row—John with his camera, and me, bursting into tears. Where these tears come from I have no idea. I could blame it on my mother (she’s a champion weeper and I seem to have inherited this trait from her), or menopause, or the whole circle of life thing, which sets me off pretty often these days, but really there’s no excuse. It’s a high school choir concert for heaven’s sake—a medium sized group of big kids trying to stay cool. That’s it. Their sweet, expectant faces are killing me. This is not casual crying with ladylike tears; these are big shoulder-shaking sobs.
Julia laughs when she sees us. Then she rolls her eyes, just a little. There are 500 people here, she’s preparing to sing a solo, her dad, with his goofy grin, is aiming a camera at her, her mother is having a change-of-life breakdown, and she’s completely calm. She looks like she’s hanging out in a playground with friends. Which, in a way, is exactly what she’s doing.
The audience cheers for the choir before they’re even sung a note. Frau Hövel, the Maestra, raises her baton. Herr Müller, the co-director of the choir and the accompanist, strikes the first notes on the piano. Forty voices join together and the room fills with music. Imperfect, but somehow just right.
Della Henderson Rawsthorne, my paternal grandmother, was an accomplished singer—a contralto—and the musical director at the Haven Heights Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The church paid her a decent salary to show up once a week for rehearsals, to select the music for the Sunday services, and to conduct the church choir. For much of my childhood, I spent Sundays and religious holidays watching her in the choir loft, holding together an aging but enthusiastic throng of warblers, brayers, and chirps, all of them heaven and hell bent on making it through the week’s hymns without a misfire, a croak, or one Hallelujah too many. Grandma, her deep and powerful voice booming through the sanctuary, covered up a multitude of musical sins with her own musical valor. Daring and inventive, she led her singers through an inspired repertoire of Methodist music—”Up from the Grave He Arose!” was my favorite—assigning solos to both the strong and the weak, pumping her arm in time to the organ music, plucking notes like daffodils out of her weedy garden of singers.
I admired Grandma’s skill and her bravery, but the choir itself? High comedy. I might have been nine years old, but I knew funny when I saw it. Whenever Orville Rudolph—a robust tenor who always sang about a quarter-step sharp—stood up for a solo, my brother, sister, and I would bite our cheeks and turn purple in our attempts to avoid laughing out loud. The “fall on your knees” part of “Oh, Holy Night” rivaled anything we had ever seen or heard on The Ed Sullivan Show. We learned to double over in the wooden pew and pretend to tie our shoelaces during the solo sections, our mother clutching her hymnal and glaring at us, our shoulders shaking with silent guffaws. Mom also thought Orville was pretty funny, but at the advanced age of thirty-two, she knew a thing or two about gracious restraint. My Dad just raised his eyebrows when Orville hit the high notes, which made us laugh even harder.
I feel kind of bad about it now—really, who were we to giggle at anyone’s honest attempt to praise the Lord, or anything else, through music? I hope Orville made it to his own version of choir heaven. I hope he has gotten to sing lots of solos. I also hope, for my grandmother’s sake, that they’ve installed auto-tune in God’s control room.
For five years, I was the volunteer choir director of the Paul Klee High School International Choir in Overath, Germany. I slid into the job when my kids were in Junior High and I realized there weren’t enough music teachers to cover the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade choir. What, no choir? I had little choral experience myself, but I played the piano, I had written a bunch of kids’ songs, and I honestly thought, how hard could it be?
Every Wednesday for five years I met with thirty kids, most of them eleven, twelve, or thirteen years old. My own kids were in the mix. We spoke and sang in English, mainly because I didn’t want anyone, especially a twelve year German, laughing at my Colonel Klink accent.
Not that I’m complaining, but thirty twelve-year-old kids can make a lot of noise. There was a set of drums next to the entrance to the choir room. Here is a fact: It is impossible for a sixth-grade boy to walk past a set of drums without bashing the ride cymbal. Twice. Nothing, not even bribes with chocolate, will stop a boy from doing this.
Each Wednesday, before leaving the house for our five o’clock rehearsal, I took two Tylenol and a hot bath. Preventive medicine. I developed a thick skin, thicker eardrums, and newfound respect for teachers. I worked two hours a week with these kids; I couldn’t imagine the constitutions of the brave men and women who showed up Monday through Friday, eight hours at a shot.
“Whatever they’re paying these teachers,” I said to John, “It’s not nearly enough.”
“You have a job,” John said. “Why are you doing this?”
I really didn’t have an acceptable answer.
“I have two simple goals,” I told John, dodging the question. “First, I want to teach them to clap on two and four.” German kids are programmed to clap on one and three, which has the undesired effect of turning everything, even the funkiest piece of music ever written, into a Wagnerian march. “Second,” I said, “I want them to sing and say the “th” sound properly. If I can do that, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
Getting “two and four” wasn’t so easy—it took months of backbeat practice—but eventually they nailed it. They started to swing, just a little. The “th” fell into place a bit faster. The “th” sound doesn’t exist in the German language, and, most of the time, it ends up sounding like a “z.” I wrote a tongue twister for them to practice: Thelma the thick-headed thief had three hundred and thirty-three thousand, three hundred and thirty-three threatening thoughts.
Zelma transformed into Thelma, we found the backbeat, and we were groovin’.
They sang at many concerts, and I watched in complete amazement as these kids—shy, insecure, and standing on the slippery slope of puberty—learned to take pride in their teamwork. What they lacked in musical ability they made up for in eagerness. One of the “real” music teachers at the school tried to convince me to hold auditions each year—for the sake of quality control—but I refused. Anyone who wanted to sing was welcome.
“This isn’t about music,” I told him. “It’s about fun. Singing makes for happy kids. It’s almost impossible to sing with a group and be grumpy at the same time. These kids need to have fun. School is serious enough.” I’m sure I sounded a little too American for the system, but, as a volunteer, I got to set the rules.
My choir kids never got much beyond two-part harmony, but they were loud, smiling, and full of joy. We had choreography, a healthy amount of “two” and “four” clapping, and a series of soloists with back-up singers. During the final year we started to look like a sixth-grade Las Vegas act. Instead of sequins and feathers we wore red t-shirts. Curtis would play congas or drums, John, when he was available, would show up and play the bass. Eventually, Julia took over at the piano. Aside from the chocolate, the kids hardly needed me for anything at all. They had found each other. Music was their navigation system.
We practiced, we performed, we had a ball. As a teacher, I was pretty relaxed. I had one firm rule. No one was allowed to laugh at anyone else. Our choir room was a safe place, the sacred ground of artistic expression, a space where the kids could be bigger versions of themselves. No laughing, unless we were all doing it together. Orville Rudolph, after all those years, had come back to haunt me.
Five years, a hundred headaches, and twenty concerts later, I reluctantly stepped down. The music faculty had added several new teachers to the staff, my own kids had moved on to the middle and upper classes at the school, and, well, it was time. There’s not a high school kid alive who wants her mother hanging out in the school music room. We made a big splash at our last school concert, then kept meeting for the rest of the semester, just to sing and finish the term with style. For the final session, I invited parents and friends for a farewell musical soirée. I thought it would be a good excuse to eat brownies and a nice way to say auf Wiedersehen. We prepared some tunes from High School Musical, a few of my originals, “The Girl from Ipanema” in Portuguese (with the help of a Brazilian choir mom), “Kansas City,” “Seasons of Love,” and, because the kids requested it, “My Heart Will Go On,” also known as the dreaded Titanic theme.
Five minutes before we were scheduled to start our presentation, Janina, a very pretty and extremely bashful girl who had been with me for two years, came to my side.
“Robin,” she whispered. “I am ready.”
“Ready for what?” I said. I had discovered over the years that a kid this age assumes the entire world knows what she’s thinking.
“My solo. I am ready to sing a solo.”
If Janina had told me she had booked a round trip ticket to Reno I would not have been more surprised.
“Really? That’s great! Just great! Which song do you want to sing?”
“Titanic,” she said. “The second verse. I practiced it.”
“You’ve got it Janina,” I said. “Kids, stay out of Janina’s way on the second verse. She’s going to sing it solo. Solo!”
They cheered for her.
The concert was a huge success. We sang and danced and stomped. We got to the last tune of the set, the Titanic theme, and I announced that Janina would be the soloist. I saw her mother’s jaw drop. We started the song. When it came time for the second verse, Janina stepped forward, with three girls holding her up on each side. Her voice was Helium-high and tiny, but I swear it was the loudest and proudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Four years later, here I am, not at the piano, but in the front row, happy to be a normal parent enjoying the show. Tonight’s concert will offer us a little Cold Play, a Beatles tune—”Penny Lane,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an instrumental version of “My Funny Valentine,” “Stand By Me,” “Circle of Life,” “Skyfall,” and a few hip songs I’ve never heard and will probably never hear again.
Julia and the choir start the evening with a tune called “Happy Ending.” The Mama Rose in me wants to shout, “Sing out, Louise!” but the close proximity of the male members of my family keeps me in check. I get control of my sobbing about halfway through the song. I look around. Many of my sixth grade choir kids are now singing with this senior group. They’re young adults now, most of them capable of walking past a drum set without hitting the ride cymbal, all of them stretched out and dressed up and ready for anything. A year or two short of graduation, these kids face a complicated world, but for now, while they’re singing, there’s reason to celebrate.
The audience claps along—finding the backbeat!—and I sit back and watch time roll by like too many sixteenth-notes, my husband beside me, my grown son in the row behind me, my daughter center stage, Grandma Rawsthorne somewhere in the room. Now I know why I’m crying. When this evening is over, where will the flawed and glorious music go? Poof. I hate when good things disappear. I want right now to last forever.
I hope these kids will hold onto their songs. I hope they’ll keep singing for themselves and each other.
Look. There, in the second row onstage. It’s Janina, just as pretty, but no longer shy. She’s singing her heart out.
To see John’s front row video of the choir:
Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm: A Novel, and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl.