Picture a small circle of bluejeans-clad baby boomers wearing reading glasses and huddling over inch-thick musical scores. It's 10 in the morning. The sunlight bends low through bare lilac branches outside the picture window.
It's January. We've gathered together as a small group in my living room to sing "Messiah."
Yes, we know we're out of step. This isn't a concert hall, and December is the usual time people work through George Frideric Handel's great oratorio in communal sings or concerts. But our annual music fest, an offbeat affair, happens by design after the first of the year – in the privacy of a home.
Hallelujah to that!
Because some of us haven't seen one another for an entire year, we embrace at the door and converse over mugs of tea before wandering over to the piano to warm up.
We have voices of varying quality, but it doesn't matter, because we sing along with a CD of the entire work, which has been cranked to a very high volume. It's necessary since – disregarding the occasional shower solo – some of us haven't crooned since the previous January.
We sing the entire thing – every aria, chorus, and fugue. We hum the musical interludes, and we laugh at our mistakes. (We'd like to think there are fewer each year, but there probably aren't – just different ones.)
It's one grand rehearsal with no pause of the baton. Maybe when we're octogenarians, we'll be ready to "perform" it – but I doubt it.
Four of us – Suzanne, Barby, Laura, and me – were friends and choristers in high school, in suburban New Jersey. We now live in far-flung towns across New England.
We started this ritual 18 years ago, when the last of us arrived in the Northeast to raise our families. We carry on each year to the bafflement of our kids and the wry acceptance of our husbands. We've added a few local singers and an alumnus who drives 3-1/2 hours round trip to participate.
In the early days, though, our husbands and children would escape to bowling alleys or to go sledding down hills. Now the men who can carry a tune join us. Our teens and college-age children merely linger and listen briefly.
Some might say we cheat, using a professional recording as a crutch. We don't care. Indeed, the CD is our path, our light, and our way. If we miss a beat – or several – we wait for a familiar strain and catch up. We appreciate having a full – but invisible – orchestra.
Although we could use another strong tenor, we cover most voice parts. And as King George II reportedly did at the first London performance, we stand for the "Hallelujah" chorus. But we do so in a circle, melding our voices with the pros and alternating the musical phrases with one another – so it sounds like an impassioned conversation.
Often when I explain this January "Messiah" tradition to friends who aren't classical music aficionados, I get blank stares. Why would anyone want to spend 2-1/2 hours singing music from more than two centuries ago?
Those friends who do appreciate the idea of the activity wonder why we bother to sing the whole work when even concert versions cut less popular sections.
There is no lofty reason. We just want to have fun. We are able singers, not professional musicians or scholars. Doing the whole oratorio feels right and honorable, especially in this era of instant messaging and ready-made soup.
And because our "Messiah" sing falls after New Year's, we are usually exhausted from the holidays – a little exasperated by extended family members who stayed too long, disgusted with ourselves for succumbing to the annual December pressure to eat, drink, and spend too much.
The warm glow of December has definitely cooled.
Yet, throughout the highs and lows of the holidays, we know we have this special event at the endfor us to look forward to.
We perform in a "salon" under our own terms, with no admission fee or expectations. When I host, I fancy myself the Gertrude Stein of baroque music.
This may sound sanctimonious or overblown, but I'll hazard it anyway: The experience feels pure and purifying. The holiday decorations and presents have been tucked away, the linens have been folded and stored, and the pantry is now restocked with everyday food. Normal life resumes on the first real day back at work.
In the meantime, delaying the inevitable, we grab a couple of hours of the sublime. We gather for one last hurrah with like-minded friends. There's no audience, no pressure, and no lines outside the ladies' room.
For our group, this morning of song is the period at the end of our sentence, the pause that concludes the story of our year. Amen to that.
With the volume pumped up and the indulgence of our audience – one another, the living room furniture, and the snowman in the yard – who knows if we sound any good?
It doesn't matter. At least we feel pretty good.