Making Musical Sense

MEREDITH JONES doesn't look different from anybody else. But she knows how to work a miracle. It happens every Monday night in a small community church in a small New Hampshire town. People file in from their separate working worlds - a carpenter and a nutritionist, a state rep and a teacher, a story teller and a new mother. A pastor, a writer, a landscaper, several professors, and a doctor. Many are grandparents. We number about 60 in all. Some of us have beautiful voices. Many do not. We all love to sing. For a while there is friendly chatter. Then we stand and stretch. We inhale slowly from the deepest part of the stomach. We look like a bizarre exercise class. We sing some arpeggios. And then we do Meredith's famous ``pif paf poof'' warm-up exercise that sounds like the final whining escape of air from a giant balloon. At some point during the warm-up's you forget about everything else. You forget to notice the overalls and workboots, the ties and jackets, the t-shirts and silk blouses, the young faces, the old ones. We are all singers. We are here to make music.

Last fall we worked on an early 20th century piece by Arthur Honegger called ``King David.'' The first weeks were discouraging. None of the parts seemed to fit. Whether we sang it right or wrong it all sounded disjointed to me. I couldn't hear a melody, never mind figure out my part. All I could do was try to follow Ed, the tenor behind me with The Ear and The Voice. For weeks, nothing stuck. I'd leave rehearsals and not be able to recall a single snatch of tune to hum during the week. Several times I almost quit.

But there was Meredith waving her arms up there in front of us. She conducted with her whole soul. Short gray hair, sensible glasses, round figure - she looked like everybody's favorite aunt. Except she had this glow about her, this combination of pure joy and enthusiasm and absolute certainty that it could be done. We didn't think we could do it. But she did. How could I quit?

Two weeks before the performance, after we'd worked and struggled for weeks, we collapsed into harmonic chaos during an especially difficult passage. The discouragement was palpable. ``I don't know how she sleeps nights,'' muttered someone next to me. But Meredith plunged ahead undaunted. ``I have great hope for this!'' she said. ``I really do.'' We all laughed. Then we worked. We took the passage apart. Got it right. And on we went.

In the midst of the hard work, there were moments of glorious sound. And there were startling dramatic harmonies I grew to love. It was a different kind of beauty than the old Bach, Handel, and Brahms chestnuts most of us were used to. But the piece grew on us - rather, we grew with it. Bits of it even became hummable during the weeks between rehearsals.

And always, each week, there was Meredith with her tireless patience and good humor to cheer us on. Sometimes she'd pump her arms like a fan at a football game. ``That's it!'' she'd cry. ``That was working! That was working!'' Other times she's make us laugh and understand at the same time. ``Quick,'' she'd say, explaining a staccato section. ``Sing it quick and drop it like a hot potato.''

One of her most frequent bits of advice was to ``listen to anything but yourself.'' That was easy. I was already listening to Ed. For a while, I clung to his clear certain tenor, singing just above a whisper so I wouldn't throw myself or anyone else off. But then one day Meredith said something else. ``Let go of your voices. Let it do that!'' She thrust her arm toward the arched ceiling of the little church. ``It sounds good to you when you keep it in your section,'' she explained. ``But it doesn't do much for anybody else.''

At that moment a musical truth crystallized. Perfect balance - that's what it takes to create beautiful music with many voices. We must listen to something other than ourselves, else we might as well be soloing. But - we must also sing boldly and fearlessly. We must resist flat-ceiling singing, singing that is careful and clutching, that wants to politely control our voice until we feel it's just right - and so, ready to join the others. Maybe, quite possibly, it never will be just right until we let it go. Until we fling open our mouths and throats and hearts freely, unselfconsciously, and with love.

It made sense. It made musical sense and it made life sense. We do not live solo. To make a worthwhile individual contribution we must listen to others. And yet, we must not listen with such concentration that we no longer hear ourselves. Meredith taught us to love that complexity. She taught us about the perfect balance between listening and singing out with our whole hearts.

That's exactly what happened during our performance. We all watched Meredith, the miracle worker, wave her arms before us, and we sang with high-ceiling voices.

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