The Miracle of Singing Together

sinfonians-singing

The chills were running up and down in the most predictable way; I just wanted to avoid melting onto the floor in a simpering, weeping puddle.  “Dona nobis pacem, pacem”.   The music was enveloping us; it almost sounded as if it were above us, and below us.  It surrounded us.  As a round, there would be no official ending to it; and I could see that no one wanted an ending.  It was taking on a life unto itself. “Dona nobis pacem, pacem”.  A beautiful sound from over one hundred college men.  Only a handful claimed to be singers, but it didn’t matter.  The singing was totally unself-conscious.  It was a revelation, and an important bonding for these young men, and for me.  I’ve not forgotten this experience, and I hope I never will.  But how did a piano-picker like me wind up in an auditorium with one hundred men I didn’t even know?  We were introduced by a common love.  We learned to know, respect and love each other through the one thing that we had in common… the love of music.  But, let me give you a little background.

I have always loved to practice the piano; well, let me rephrase that.  I’ve always loved to play the piano.  It was years before I really learned HOW to practice.  I enjoyed time at the piano, and by the laws of probability, I must have accomplished something, no matter how inefficient I might have been.

Of course I know, as a teacher, that I can’t count on my students to spend as much playing as I did, or still do.  Their practice needs to accomplish much in a short amount of time, so I work with them, offering the experience of my years.  I try to focus every student on the sound they are making, hoping and praying that this will lead them into a more eager and lengthy time at their pianos.

Practice is a lonely thing.  It is not for everyone, especially as students get to the “sociable” age of middle school.  Since I was never that sociable, and didn’t mind the loneliness, I became the prime example of a practice-room nerd.  That was my state of being when I entered college.  This is when I learned of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a professional music fraternity for men in music.

Lord!  A whole room full of people like me?  Guys, yet (!) who valued music above almost everything else.  This was quite a discovery.  This was not a concept in my personal experience; I came from a small town high school, and a charitable description of my place in the school would be… “he’s a little different!”  I wanted to be in this group.  The only problem was that you had to be invited.  It took me two years to really get to know enough people for that to happen.  An organ major that I knew only casually nominated me; the organ teacher’s studio was adjacent to my piano teacher, so we had chatted occasionally, waiting for our lessons to begin.

It’s hard for me to describe my experience in this fraternity; suffice it to say that Phi Mu Alpha has left a deep impression on me… on my heart and mind.  When I was hired as an assistant professor of piano at Louisiana Tech University, one of the first things I checked out was the chapter of Phi Mu Alpha.  The chapter already had a faculty advisor, but I got to know this man through our collaboration.  He played the trumpet, and I had learned almost all of the concert trumpet literature as a hired accompanist in graduate school.  Mr. Cheatham had the most beautiful trumpet sound, and I loved working with him.  He invited me to be an assistant faculty advisor, although there was no real position like that.  I got to know the members of Mu Nu chapter, and have enjoyed, to this day, keeping in touch with some of my Brothers.

It took about ten years before I briefly became the official faculty advisor.  One of my first duties was to confer with, and report to the Province Governor.  He was a pleasant man, but almost totally disengaged from the real life of the ten chapters of the Province.  When I learned that he wanted to be replaced, that he had assumed that the Province Governor was a ceremonial position, I told him I was definitely interested.  It was still a thrill to be contacted by the national executive director, and offered the position.

When I was appointed to the position, my first thought was, “I now know what it would be like to be a two-year old boy, standing naked, out in the snow, and wondering how he got there!”  I know, TMI!  It was easy to read the job description; but job descriptions don’t give a right-brained practice room nerd a clear idea about how to proceed.  I have learned, however, that just about everything I can do well relates to what I have learned practicing the piano.  I set about my job as if beginning a new, grand concert work of Franz Liszt.

In my travels around the Province, to visit the individual chapters and meet the leadership, noted quite a disparity in the size and activity levels of the ten chapters.  The most common thing I learned was that the chapters that were very active had rebuilt themselves from ashes, usually with the leadership of one committed collegian. The chapters that were languishing had, almost in every case, formerly been very active, and had fallen into disrepair upon the graduation of one very motivated person.  I knew that these chapters needed to meet each other… to learn from each other, and to be inspired by each other.

I found that there had been no Province meetings in the recent past.  The chapters were isolated, and rarely felt any real adult support, advice or leadership.  My first goal, then, was to get these chapters to all meet together; many of these Province meetings tend to be a gathering of two or three leaders from each chapter, touching base, and possibly making plans for inter-chapter activities.  I had a completely different idea.  Everyone!  The chapters that I had visited all seemed to have their life vested in just a few individuals.  I wanted a huge gathering so that these young men could see how large my fraternity is.

I, and several college students organized an inspiring conference.  I was confident that all would leave, having met and befriended fraternity members from nine other Louisiana colleges.  We had designed an organizational structure that would help the chapters to perpetuate their successes by training everyone, and including everyone in the work of each chapter.  It was all to be SO glorious.  Except, how could I get these guys to work together?  And then it struck me… they would have to act like musicians.  Instrumental ensembles take rehearsal, but everyone can sing. “Dona nobis pacem, pacem”.  So easy to teach; so easy to do.  It was worth a try.

Yes… I can still hear it, or is it that I can feel it?  It was warm, and beautiful, and I certainly felt like crying.  But, as I looked around, scores of young college men had beaten me to that.  This is why we all loved music.  Music is the perfect.  A blend of mind and heart.  Music brings diverse elements together; music is always greater than the sum of its parts.  As were we.

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