Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Singing & Me



A recurring theme for me in my writing and presentations is the importance of staying engaged.  I am thinking today about recognizing those activities that are special in each of our lives for whatever reason and trying to find ways to stay connected to them.  Singing is high on my personal list.

I remember singing in the car with my family on trips at an early age.  We sang songs that were familiar to my parents like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” (both of my grandfathers worked for the NY Central Railroad), “Down By the Old Mill Stream”, “Frere Jacques” and many more.  Everyone in my family could carry a tune, so I probably assumed that anyone could.  I don’t remember any family member or relative singing in a choir, let alone solo.  We all just liked to sing for the fun of it.

I think it was in fifth grade when we started having music classes (singing and band).  I remember one of our teachers singing solos at school events.  When I was in 8th grade, he asked me and three others if we would sing for an upcoming talent show and we agreed.  He taught us to sing “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby”, a “barbershop” tune with 4-part harmony.  We did well and won, but it was somewhat of a “hollow victory” as the second place finisher was a group of guys lip-synching “Duke of Earl”.

I sang in the high school choir as well as an “ensemble” made up of 16 people (four per part).  The ensemble introduced me to 8-part harmony (first and second soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts).  I was aware that anyone could audition to be a member of the All-County Select Choir (ACSC) each year.  An audition meant singing solo in front of a group of music teachers from other schools that I didn’t know (a terrifying prospect!).  Our choir director encouraged me to try out my junior year.  With more than a little trepidation, I sucked it up and went for it!  I remember being quite happy when I was selected!

The ACSC experience marked the beginning of a new chapter in my “singing career”.  The music was more advanced and challenging and I was surrounded by singers who were very talented, but I did not feel out of place in this environment.  However, when my school choir director asked me to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at a basketball game, I declined.  Just the thought of it scared me silly. I was not a self-confident person at that point in my life.

My family moved the summer before my senior year to another school in another city.  It was not considered “cool” to be in choir at this school.  Not being confident and wanting to fit in, I decided that I would “sit this one out”.  I would not participate in any organized singing program for the next sixteen years.


Fast forward to 1982.  We attended a church in Buffalo while I was in grad school the previous year.  I enjoyed singing the hymns as part of the congregation and thought my voice sounded pretty good.  After I graduated and started thinking about what I wanted to do, I realized that I missed singing.  So one of the things on my list when we moved to a new town in NJ was to join a church that had a choir.    

I enjoyed singing in that choir very much.  There were about 25 people in the choir.  The organist was also the choir director.  We didn’t sing anything particularly challenging (for some reason, he hated the “Hallelujah Chorus”) and he never asked anyone to sing solos.  I can remember rehearsing Christmas music and thinking I sounded really good.  So when I was asked to sing a very small solo part in a church play, I decided to go for it!

When I say I was awful, that is an understatement.  I was off key and couldn’t breathe.  At that point, I decided I was not cut out for singing solo and wouldn’t risk that kind of humiliation again!

Fast forward again to 1994.  The first attempt to bring down a World Trade Center building across the street from where I worked in 1993 had failed.  We had decided to move to Colorado (a good decision, as it turned out).  We joined a small church that had a small choir.  It didn’t take long before the minister’s wife (a choir member), the director, and the pianist were encouraging me to sing solo.

I want to interject that it was around this time that I became aware that I had developed what seemed to be a natural vibrato in my singing voice (a good thing).  I had always had this, but it seemed more consistent and effortless.  I now think this was an early sign of things to come.

So I took a leap of faith, ignoring (but not quite forgetting) my previous experience.  The first couple times I had trouble breathing and missed a word here or there.  Once I realized that I could actually do this, I started to enjoy it.  And I was good. Notice I am not saying great.  I am no Josh Groban, but I loved singing his songs (when I could fit them into my range).  It is difficult to share this honestly without sounding conceited.  I considered my voice, such as it was, to be a gift from God.  That said, I later realized that I had not fully appreciated it and what it meant in my life until it was gone.

Another aside.  Whenever I was singing anything that was particularly important to me (my son’s weddings, for example) I would pray for God to be with me and help me do well.  I can honestly say that I was never disappointed when I did this.  It was something I would recall years later in a time of need.

I was blessed by having many opportunities to sing in churches, at weddings, memorial services, special events and community concerts.  A high point that didn’t involve any solo singing was when I sang with the Colorado Springs Symphony chorus (a holocaust memorial program and multiple performances of “Carmina Burana”,  one of which was with Gerry and Betty Ford in the audience at the Vail amphitheater.  I also started singing in a community group called the Tri Lakes Music Association and became a soloist for them.  One of the songs was a version of “O Holy Night”, a favorite of mine I have performed at Christmas church services and, later, in a retirement community chorus.  But by far, the biggest thrill and honor for me was being asked to sing at both my son’s weddings.




The year after my diagnosis, we downsized and moved closer to our sons.  We joined a Methodist church that is affiliated with the one we had attended previously, and I joined the choir.  I had started to lose confidence is my ability to do solos that had more to do with anxiety than voice quality.  However, the quality of the music program under the leadership of Jim Ramsey made just being in the choir very fulfilling.  I was the only choir member that used a music stand due the shakiness of my hands.  Then in 2011, I had deep brain stimulation surgery, which stopped the shaking, so I no longer had to use the stand.

At the same time that I was singing in the church choir, I also joined the chorus in my new retirement community.  Our Christmas and Veteran’s Day programs were well received by our neighbors.  My voice held up well for about four years, and this became my opportunity to do solos.  My last year in the chorus, a fellow tenor (and retired pastor) from my church choir agreed to become our director.  We were able to take our performances to a new level with his direction and participation by a few key members of the church choir including Jack Kennedy (another fellow tenor) and Marge Harper (soprano).  Both have fabulous voices and are very kind and generous people.  I can’t remember for sure all the programs we did, but I do recall singing my favorite barbershop song (by the Buffalo Bills in “Music Man”), Lida Rose.  I got to sing the melody which was such a thrill (especially since I was able to hit the high notes).

My voice quality started to noticeably deteriorate (gravelly sounding) and my ability to hold out notes dropped off considerably.  At the same time, I noticed that I was having trouble “processing” and keeping up in church choir rehearsals.  I recall being very concerned about not wanting to “drag down” the quality of the choir.  I decided to stop singing in both the church choir and community chorus around the same time about four years ago, I would guess.

At that point I didn’t expect to ever do any organized singing again.  Once more, something unexpected happened.

In 2012, I visited Phoenix early in the year to speak to the PD support groups run by the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center about deep brain stimulation therapy.  While I was there, a friend (Patti Meese) took me to a rehearsal for a PD singing group, the West Side Tremble Clefs (WSTC).  I enjoyed singing with them and meeting there energetic, inspiring leader, Sun Joo Lee.  Four years later, early in 2016, Linda and I (without a lot of forethought) bought a vacation condo in the Phoenix area.  So it was around March last year that I walked back into a WSTC rehearsal!  I didn’t have much of singing voice at all, but that didn’t matter to the group or Sun Joo.  They were there because they love music, each other, and Sun Joo.  I gradually got enough voice back to enjoy the experience and to get Sun Joo interested in having me do a solo.  I was interested too, to be honest, but I was scared.  So the cycle I had gone through all those years ago started again, but in a much different context.

Fast forward to my 69th birthday.  We were doing a fundraiser event at a local church that is our biggest fundraiser (the group is totally self-funded and managed-quite an accomplishment for a group of “Parkies”, as my friend, Gil Thelen, likes to call us).  I had agreed to do a solo (Annie’s Song).  The day before the concert we had a rehearsal and I tried singing it with our pianist (Mina DeWitt) during our break.  I sang it in the key of “C” which had been comfortable for me in the past (the original is in “D”).  I was just plain flat out horrible!  So, at this point, I am scheduled to be the first soloist in the program, and I am scared stiff!  I told Sun Joo that I wouldn’t mind if she scratched me from the program, but she declined, saying it would be fine (even though what she had just heard was clearly NOT fine).  I tried to think of a possible solution and came up with a “Hail Mary” plan.  At the end of the rehearsal, I asked Mina to transpose the music “down a step”.  Thankfully, the result was much improved.  Enough that I was able to sleep that night.

I still was feeling more than a little trepidation when I stepped up to the mike the next afternoon.  I had asked God to be with me, as I had done in the past.  I can’t explain it, but I was able to control my nervousness.  In the lower key, I was able to “sing out” and my voice quality (minus any attempt at a vibrato) was good.  Like in the old days, I looked out in the audience and found Linda.  She was crying.  I knew then it was good.  I was relieved as I sat down and thanked God.

There was something “magical” about that program.  Sun Joo mentioned it, as did Beth Lee and others.  It was palpable, but hard to describe.  I think magical is the right word.  The program and fundraiser were both a big success.

I don’t know what the future holds for in terms of my love for singing.  I intend to keep sing in with the Tremble Clefs.  What a blessing it has been!  I am also using my advocacy connections to be a part of working toward making Tremble Clefs available to everyone with PD.

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