If you had told me five or ten years ago that I would one day sing a solo in a choir concert, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Yet I did exactly that last Thursday, at Datvebis Gundi’s first formal concert. As you may recall, Datvebis Gundi, or the UCLA Kartvelian Chorus, is my linguistics department’s unofficial choir.
The run-up to the concert was a little more stressful than I would have liked, not because I was nervous but because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to perform at all. The Sunday before the concert, I suddenly developed a sore throat so dramatic I half-convinced myself I was coming down with epiglottitis (being a linguist, I know where my epiglottis is and why an inflamed one would be bad, and not just for singing). At our dress rehearsal on Tuesday, it was neither advisable nor very possible for me to sing, so I just stood where I was supposed to for every song and followed along in my lyrics sheets while the rest of the choir rehearsed. Luckily, my throat recovered by Thursday, so nobody had to pinch hit for me.
Our concert was part of the Fowler Out Loud series and was held among palms and cycads in the interior courtyard of the Fowler Museum of Culture History at UCLA. We performed nineteen songs, including lullabies, toasting songs, a lament, and three Alilos, which are Christmas songs. Most of the texts were in Georgian, but some were in Svan, Megrelian, or Laz, the other Kartvelian languages. My solos (and by solo I mean a call in a call-and-response song) were in Mamli Mukhasa, a song about an oak tree that symbolizes Georgia, and Ocheshkhvei, a Megrelian work song and the only song we performed from written music. And I pulled those solos off, even though not that long ago I would never have consented to sing any kind of solo in a concert.
For most of my life, I didn’t consider myself to be someone who had a good voice. This wasn’t something that bothered me; it was just something I believed about myself. I guess I liked to sing, but I didn’t sing in choirs for years and years the way some people who meet me nowadays assume. My choir participation was more sporadic.
The elementary school I attended for fourth and fifth grade had an excellent extracurricular choir that I joined. (Our elementary school’s regular music program was pretty impressive too: we learned to ring handbells and play gamelan.) I still remember some of the songs I learned in that choir. I also sang in my church’s children’s choir, which went through sixth grade. Singing in a choir was fine because I could blend in with many voices, but I would never have dreamed of, say, trying out for the school talent show with a song, and I knew no one was ever going to pick me to sing a solo.
After I graduated from the church children’s choir, I didn’t sing in another choir until ninth grade, when I joined the youth choir of the American Church in Paris. I actually showed up at the first rehearsal because I wanted to play in the youth handbell choir, but the youth choir and the youth handbell choir were one and the same, and as I soon found out they did a lot more singing than ringing. But I stayed in it because it was wonderful. The girls (it was almost all girls) came from all over the world. Almost everyone spoke English and French, but a few only one or the other, and many people spoke more languages besides. I remember that we started off the year with two songs from the immensely popular movie Les Choristes: Vois Sur Ton Chemin and In Memoriam. At the end of my family’s semester in Paris, I brought my choir music back to the U.S. with me. Eventually, Vois Sur Ton Chemin became the first piece I did an instrumental arrangement of for my friends to play. (According to some of them, it’s the only piece we ever managed to make sound good.)
It was around the time we lived in France that I discovered I could sing alto parts out of the hymnal even as most of the congregation around me sang the melody in unison. My success at picking out the part varied according to the hymn, but I kept practicing because it made singing more interesting. I think this is how I became reasonably good at sightreading.
I was only in the American Church choir for four months, and upon my return I didn’t sing regularly in another choir until, well, I joined the Georgian chorus a little over a year ago. That’s a nine-year hiatus. Of course, I didn’t spend those nine years not singing. Because in college, I discovered Sacred Harp. (Oh, no! you’re thinking. Not another post about shape note singing! Surely you knew where this was headed!)
One of the things that appealed to me about Sacred Harp singing, besides the harmonies and the intense texts, was the idea that you didn’t need a “good” voice to sing it. The style of singing is distinctive; I’ve heard it called “open-throated”. It’s supposed to be loud. (Actually, Georgian singing, at least the way I’ve been doing it, is kind of similar.) Moreover, it’s a participatory tradition: ordinarily shape note music is not performed because the point is to sing for ourselves. Anyone can, and is in fact encouraged to, join in. Many singers I met as I was starting out did not have what I thought of as “good” voices, though their voices were certainly powerful.
Sacred Harp is without a doubt what gave me confidence in my ability to sing. I learned just how good a sightreader I was and probably improved a lot too. I may not be the loudest alto at any given singing, but people tell me they like to sit beside me because I sing all the right notes. Gradually, I came to think of myself as a good singer. Not necessarily one with a beautiful voice, whatever that means, but in shape note singing that mostly doesn’t matter. If it weren’t for Sacred Harp, I’m not sure I’d be in Datvebis Gundi today. (Maybe I still would be, because really, who can resist Georgian music?) I’m sure I would have balked at being assigned solos for the concert. But instead, I thought, Sure, I can do that.