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Life in the Key of Songs
by Carolyn Donovan, April 2006

Sometimes, in life, you just have to take a deep breath, open your mouth, and let the song out and the music in.

Learning to Sing in 4th Grade

I sang my first song in 4th grade choir. If you are of a certain age—alive when we put a man on the moon, say—you will know this tune as “that old Coke song” although its proper name is “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” I received my first choral instruction during the first verse:

I'd like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves.

There was much giggling in 4th grade choir on that verse, because it is possible to sing a “naughty word” if you slur:

I’d like to build the world a home
And furnishit with love…

Mrs. Carbonneau was adamant that we sing it properly, and went over and over it until we got it right.

I’d like to build the world a home
And furnish (stop) it with love…

Even in 4th grade, the idea that a bunch of us Houghs Neck kids could sing a whole song without messing up and that people would come and hear us and say nice things about how good we were, delighted me.

Eighth Grade – My Annus Horribilus

I sang my first classical piece in eighth grade, the Regina Coeli by Mozart. It was the first piece of the year, it was in Latin, and it was hard. Even the alto line had scales and trills in it. I can still sing it, thirty some odd years later. Our Spring piece was the 8th grade version (i.e. slightly abbreviated) of The Magic Flute. The nineth grade boy who sang Papagano is now a medical doctor.

My eighth grade year turned out to be a really hard time for my family of four: my sister’s anger problem, combined with her deep self-loathing, finally exploded into the uncontainable and uncontrollable situation my parents had desperately hoped wouldn’t occur. There was serious drug use, dropping out of high school, shocking lies about parental abuse. She hated her life, her family, herself. She would constantly run away from home. At one point, my mother asked one of her nephews-in-law, who was a T cop at the time, to look for her in Boston. He found her in the Combat Zone.

The only place that gave me a sense of safety was the music room, with our demanding Mrs. Carnabuci. She was a petite, stylishly dressed, classically trained pianist, who didn't take crap from anybody. She could also play piano scores backwards. There was no screwing around, there was no talking when your part wasn’t singing, and most of the time she made us sing standing up (you get more breath out of your diaphragm that way). And she got the best out of us, her piddling little junior high school choir. You knew what was expected, and what wasn’t tolerated. If you didn’t focus, if you didn’t give it your all, you would mess up, and everybody would know it was you. You didn’t want the Carnabucci scowl thrown your way. Glorius agimus tibi, propter magnam glorium tuam!

Grampy died that year, too, from years of eating Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in cream for breakfast. My mother's father was one of those hardy immigrants from Labrador, in the Canadian Maritime Provinces. He could make anything out of anything else, he had the highest score at my godfather’s bowling alley, and when I was little I was the only grandchild (out of more than thirty) he allowed to sleep over their apartment (I brought my own books, and knew how to turn on the tv and turn down the volume). Mom had already gone to work when we got the call; since we never got phone calls in the morning, we knew what it was. Dad picked up the phone, said “Okay,” then turned to us and said “Well, he’s gone.” Then he went to work, and I went to school.

The choir was practicing for our Christmas concert, The Messiah by Handel. I was handling the news of Grampy’s passing in that standard “just leave me alone” sort of teenage way until we sang the chorus of “And All Flesh Shall See Him Together.” Grampy doesn’t have any flesh, I thought with horror and sadness. I hid my tear-streaked face behind the score. It took forever for the period to end; would she never stop practicing that chorus! I quietly left the school, took the bus home, and sobbed my eyes out in my empty house. And all Flesh Shall See Him Together, except Grampy! The phone rang, and since answering machines were unknown in households then, I answered the phone. It was Miss Iannoni, the school counselor. “Carolyn?” she asked. “Y-y-yes,” I said. “Why aren’t you in school? You were in school, but you’re not now.” “My gr-gr-grandfather died this morning!” I wailed. She was very kind, and said I didn’t have to come back to school. I believe she and my mother had a chat the next day, but I don’t know, because nobody ever said anything to me about it.

Old Enough to Sing with Actual Basses

Mrs. Carnabuci made it to the high school the same year I did, and so my high school choir did not sing the fluff songs, those tinny, light-weight songs that merely followed the plunky piano accompaniment. We almost never sang in English, and we never sang in less than four parts. We sang mostly in Latin, and sometimes in six parts. We sang The Messiah, the Missa Brevis, and, as it turned out, every single song in the movie Amadeus. I sang all of the alto parts as I watched the movie at the old Harvard Square movie theater, so happy to know that I was a, a, a Mozartarian. Being both president of the Concert Choir and First Alto my senior year were the only things I seemed capable of excelling at.

I actually met a good friend because of a somewhat standard madrigal, “The Nightingale.” It was Girl’s State, and I was in the Town of Democracy. I heard a tune I knew, but didn’t understand the words. So sang the song in English, walking down the hall of the dorm until this girl came out of one of the rooms, singing the same alto section but in German. The rest of the girls thought we were a little dorky, but Gayle and I became fast friends, becoming day “exchange” students at each other’s schools (her high school had chipmunks, mine had pigeons) and staying close through college. I even went to her wedding.

The Nightingale
has gone away
Called her once more
I heard
Her melody today
She sang a pretty love song
A love song
that she sang before.

Collegial Continuity

I got into a small ivy-league college based in part on my application essay, entitled “Life in the Key of Songs” and in part because my high school principal’s son was on the hockey team, and he – the principal – put in a good word for me. My abbreviated college career included Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and a Madrigal group. I loved the, hardness, of the singing. When the rest of my life (family, schoolwork, me) was a mess, my sacred choral practice gave me solace, peace, and a sense of personal accomplishment. I wasn’t a complete failure if I could sing French Christmas carols without accompaniment…

Just Shut Up, Will Ya?

And then I grew up, and…stopped singing. It wasn’t intentional, but adult life had its own rhythms, and they didn't seem to be the same as a high mass's. I still sang in the car, and sometimes at home when nobody else was there. Regardless of what was on the radio, I could sing the harmony to it.

I went through a tough period in my late 30’s, having to do with being an emotional coward (although others would call it growing up). During that time I couldn’t bear to hear music with words in it. No matter where I was or what I was doing, every word in every song penetrated my brain like a hole had been drilled through my skull. Other shoppers remained blissfully deaf to songs that could make me flee a supermarket in tears.

If background music actually is background music in your life, you probably don’t realize that 98% of all song verses fall into one of four categories:

  1. We’re in love;
  2. We’re no longer in love;
  3. I’m in love with you but you’re not in love with me;
  4. You’re in love with me but I’m not in love with you.

I just couldn’t bear it; I wanted the singers to just shut up about this love thing and sing about something else. I was working on my own love thing, and didn't need them "oh-oh-oh" ing and "oo-oo-oo" ing all about it.

I needed silence at that point, I just needed quiet. I had enough words going through my head already, I didn’t need some soaring yet vacuous song telling me what love was supposed to be like. The only song that I “let in” was Tom Lehrer’s The Elements.

When my teenage niece spent time with me, she naturally would turn on the radio in the car and proceed to tell me what all the cool songs were and then sing along with them. I concentrated very hard on the driving, but sometimes I just had to ask her to shut it off. I envied her jivvy energy, her surface appreciation. Every song on the radio had been playing when something “wicked important” happened in her life, and I got to hear all about the thing, then her rendition of the song, which was pretty good tonally, even if I couldn’t listen to the words.

Light Dawns on Marble Head

At one point, I thought there might be something wrong with me. I thought I might need to be medicated to stop my anxiety about hearing songs in public. Why was I hearing everything all the time? Why couldn’t my brain just put background music in the background?

And then, it dawned on me: I had an excellent choral education in the Quincy Public School System, and I had been trained, as an alto, to hear things that most people aren’t even aware of. There wasn’t something wrong with me, I just was really, really good at picking out words in songs. It was a gift, actually, as long as I looked at it that way. This gift was given to me through many years of practice and, well, love of the work.

Peace came back into my life, although I was still a little leery of getting caught in public with a bout of hyper-song-itis. Mrs. Carbonneau and Mrs. Carnabuci had been superior teachers, and I had been an earnest and diligent student. Lalala…la.

Carolyn Takes a Deep Breath

I tried out for a chorus the other day, a local chorus that is doing Handel’s Mass in Time of War in June. I discovered them on the Internet, when there was just one audition rehearsal left.

Walking into that music room, sitting with the altos again, hearing four part sacred choral work, was so normal, so comfortable, that it felt like home. And although I had never sung the piece and cannot sight read, I put my hearing skills to good use and picked up the tune from those around me (the words are never a problem; sacred choral works all have approximately the same quonium tu solus sanctus’s and laudaumus te’s). The audition was a little scary, naturally: I sang alone for the director and two committee members. But I hit (almost) all my notes, and my voice, which I could tell was not my 17 year-old voice, was strong and confident. I got the “welcome to the chorus” email later that night.

Carolyn lets the Deep Breath out

Shutting music out of my life was not something I meant to do, but once it was gone, it was hard letting it back in. I was afraid of it. So much of my early life was entwined with song, good and bad, that I wasn’t sure how my grownup life would accommodate it. But that first rehearsal with my new choir was like a very quiet "clink" of music, my music, coming back into my life.

I am not wealthy, like I thought I would be. I am not multi-lingual, like I expected to be. I had a small family that was torn apart by internal forces which defined my life for many years. I don’t have a degree in computer science like I probably should. I may not ever sell a screenplay, like I want to. I am, however, an alto who sings sacred choral works.

How do you do.


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Photography by Wan Chi Lau and Carolyn Donovan