It is the first rehearsal for the Emory University Chorus, and I am sitting in a seat in a huge classroom next to a college student who beams me a shy grin and tells me her name is Jeanna. My husband and I have been singing in our tiny church choir for years, but we have been eager to stretch our wings a bit and try something new. When we discovered that the Emory Chorus would be performing with the legendary jazzman Dave Brubeck, we decided to join.
The two hours melt like chocolate in the sun as the director deftly leads us through three pieces of complicated music. During one rousing number called “Boogie at 1 A.M.” Jeanna starts giggling and when I look over at her inquisitively, she pats her belly and whispers, “My baby is dancing.” At home later, I think about what choral singing has taught me about life.
Lesson One: How right Socrates was when he said, “Know thyself.”
When I first began singing in a choir, I noticed there were folks who were sure of every note and didn’t mind belting out the entrances, and folks who were inherently timid and preferred to follow. My voice is no great shakes, so I quickly joined the followers and took comfort in depending on the big voices to take the lead. This lesson came home to me a few years ago when I was working in university publications. I had been hired as a writer and loved the work, but I had started yearning to have the extra status and money connected with being a manager.
When I finally landed a position with the starry title Assistant Director of Publications, I had my own office with a window overlooking a courtyard. I had a team reporting to me and a heftier paycheck. Before long, though, I found my heart sagging under the weight of responsibilities and I started longing for the good old days. Once I came face to face with the truth that I was not cut out for leadership, I left the job. Now I work in a setting where the only person I oversee is me.
Lesson Two: Keep your eye on the present moment.
Daydreaming in a choral group can be treacherous. If you don’t keep your full attention on the director, you risk embarking on an embarrassing solo while the other singers are pausing or launching into a “fortissimo” when the others are whispering.
That lesson comes home to me on the mornings when I am walking to work, oblivious to my surroundings because I’m fretting about an upcoming doctor’s appointment. When I shake myself awake and look around me, I am invariably awed by the wonder of the present moment, which sometimes features a sky plumped up with biscuit-shaped clouds and newborn mushrooms decorating a lawn.
Lesson Three: Even the smallest actions make a difference.
Truth to tell, I will never be a star in any choral group, while my best friend is gifted with a delicious soprano voice that calls angels to mind. Still, singing in a large group has shown me that people listen to one other to get the sound right, and even humble voices contribute something to the big effort, however small.
Ordinary life seems to overflow with tiny gestures that can change the world. One morning I was in a decidedly melancholy mood at work, and when I spotted a student heading in my direction, I was tempted to pretend I hadn’t seen her. At the last second, however, I looked up and greeted her; and then she complimented me on my dress, and I asked her about an upcoming exam, and soon we were both lit up with smiles. My whole morning seemed brighter because of one small gesture.
Lesson Four: There can be great power in ditching your ego.
In a chorus, the goal is to make a glorious quilt of sound from the fabrics of different voices. You cannot do this without momentarily forgetting about I and embracing we. This insight helped me through the agonizing months following my cancer diagnosis, when I felt as if I were the only person in the world carrying a cross. If I had been wearing a T-shirt mirroring my emotional state, it would have been emblazoned with the words, “Poor me.”
One day, I had lunch with a woman who had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I noticed that she was in remarkably lovely spirits, even though simple things like eating a sandwich and drinking from a coffee cup were enormously difficult for her. I felt my heart turn over with compassion for her, as I realized that everyone drinks from the cup of sorrow. It wasn’t long before I had edited that T-shirt to read: “Poor us.”
Lesson Five: Singing is better than Prozac for dispelling the blues.
I tend to be a melancholy and introverted soul, and on some nights I am more inclined to burrow down at home with a book than head to rehearsal. But I remind myself that our beloved brother Jesus told us we had to lose our selves to find our lives, and choral singing really brings home the truth of his words.
There are moments when the lyrics are flowing like honey, and I can’t tell where my voice starts and another voice stops. In those moments, I feel the walls between myself and other people dissolving, and my blues start fading as I realize I’m part of something much bigger than myself. In those moments, my heart leaps with joy. And I think I know why that baby was dancing at that first rehearsal for the university chorus.