A Drop of Kerosene in Your Glass of Milk

Recently I was witness to something of a musical miracle.  OK, maybe that is overstating, but at least we could fairly call it an impressive musical phenomenon.  This phenomenon is otherwise know as a Seventh Grade Middle School Choir.  I am the piano accompanist for this choir, and I have known, and worked with, the director for over 20 years.

Middle School Choirs are not necessarily the ensemble of choice for the concert-going public.  Their voices are mostly immature, and the boys range from soprano to baritone, with some forcing an almost frog-like sound due to some misplaced social requirement.  But Middle School Choirs may be the platform for the shaping of the future concert-going public, so don’t be too hasty in judging!

The beginning of this rehearsal was absolutely terrible.  The director was not able to get a reasonable reading of a selection the choir had been learning for over a month.  The altos seemed to want to join the sopranos in singing the melody, but down an octave.  They had been well-rehearsed, and they knew their part.  The problem was that the room was in actual chaos.  A casual observer might have wondered why the choir director couldn’t manage his classroom.  

The facts are this:  according to a school system, a choir is a class.  But musicians know this to be an over-simplification.  A choir is more like a team.  No one expects a football team to act like a class.  It is much more homogeneous than any math or science class.  In those classes, the teacher speaks, give illustrations or descriptions, lectures, and the students are free to pay attention, ask questions, answer questions, or… tune out.  In a choir, the class is front and center.  The action and the activity are vested in the students themselves.  Those that choose to not participate are not benign, they actually inhibit the progress of the whole.

It would be hard to imagine a basketball forward simply not paying attention, or a guard not closely monitoring the activity on the court.  It would be harder, still, to imagine the coach not immediately “benching” such a drag on the team effort.

If we think of the choir as a team in every respect, we can easily understand the actions taken by our choir director.  One singer had decided to not participate.  Not only that, she decided to distract others by engaging in conversation during parts of the rehearsal.  When she was asked to remove herself from the group, to sit in the back, she found it necessary to disrupt the room even further.  From this single misbehavior, several other students became disruptive.  

My focus was on not the disruptive students, but those that were there to make a choir.  Singing is fun, but these students had learned the magic that can be created when people sing together.  A choir is one of those entities that we say “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”  But choirs are not easy for children.  Choirs are especially difficult for American children.  Most of us have grown up with the idea of personal freedom, liberty… our rights as individuals.

A choir cannot exist with groups, or individuals.  You might wonder “how many individuals it would take to ruin a choir?”  My question to you would be “how many drops of kerosene would be too many in your glass of milk?”  In order to benefit from the musical magic that occurs with a choir, we all have to give up our ideas, our rights, and we have to form a unit led by a truly benevolent dictator.  We have to form a homogenous entity.  A choir has nothing to do with democracy, and it certainly cannot exist with its parts in defiance of the one who leads.

I believe the students in this Middle School choir have come to know this, at least on some subliminal level.  Their faces showed their dismay when the intangible was being stolen from them.  The director had to, one by one, have the disruptive girls removed.  They probably did not want to be in the choir, and they certainly had no understanding of their place on any team.  It is the failing of the school system that places students in classes that they are not able to manage.  Forcing these students into an ensemble that is team-oriented, team-dependent is a travesty.

But… that day when the disruptive girls were finally “benched”, the Middle School Choir sang.  They smiled, and they lifted their voices and the made music.  Each and every one willingly gave up their individuality for something that most people never experience.  A unit, a team that is focused on achieving together.  That was my musical miracle.


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