Imperfect Harmony: Singing through Life's Sharps and Flatsby Stacy Horn
For Stacy Horn, regardless of what is going on in the world or her life, singing in an amateur choirthe Choral Society of Grace Church in New Yorknever fails to take her to a place where hope reigns and everything good is possible. She’s not particularly religious, and her voice is not exceptional (so she says), but like the 32.5 million other
For Stacy Horn, regardless of what is going on in the world or her life, singing in an amateur choirthe Choral Society of Grace Church in New Yorknever fails to take her to a place where hope reigns and everything good is possible. She’s not particularly religious, and her voice is not exceptional (so she says), but like the 32.5 million other chorus members throughout this country, singing makes her happy. Horn brings us along as she sings some of the greatest music humanity has ever produced, delves into the dramatic stories of conductors and composers, unearths thefascinating history of group singing, and explores remarkable discoveries from the new science of singing, including all the unexpected health benefits. Imperfect Harmony is the story of one woman who has found joy and strength in the weekly ritual of singing and in the irresistible power of song.
“If ever a book could make you want to break out in song, this is it!” American Profile
“[A] beautifully researched and eloquent book.” The Huffington Post
“In this joyful and contemplative memoir about the power of singing together, Horn celebrates the transcendent consolations to be found in the act of making song.” More
“Horn create[s] a paean to the joys of communal singing that’s both familiar and thrillingly new, and worthy of a closing standing ovation.” Forward
“Horn eloquently traces the evolution of ensemble singing . . . She writes movingly about how singing about death and simply breathing together bring a transcendent feeling of harmonious belonging.” Publishers Weekly
“In this one-of-a-kind celebration of singing with others, I’d call her pitch nearly perfect.” --The Atlantic Monthly
“If ever a book could make you want to break out in song, this is it!” --American Profile
“[A] beautifully researched and eloquent book.” --The Huffington Post
“In this joyful and contemplative memoir about the power of singing together, Horn celebrates the transcendent consolations to be found in the act of making song.” --More
“Horn create[s] a paean to the joys of communal singing that’s both familiar and thrillingly new, and worthy of a closing standing ovation.” --Forward
“Horn eloquently traces the evolution of ensemble singing . . . She writes movingly about how singing about death and simply breathing together bring a transcendent feeling of harmonious belonging.” --Publishers Weekly
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Read an Excerpt
Finding Happiness Singing with Others
By STACY HORN
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2013 Stacy Horn
All rights reserved.
A German Requiem
Written by Johannes Brahms during 1865–1868
Performed by the Choral Society of Grace Church most recently in the Spring, 2010
To get to Grace Church, I walk east on Eleventh Street from Seventh Avenue to Broadway. It's a lovely walk that I've taken more than a thousand times. Some city streets are gray or brown, but this particular stretch is a magical mystery tour of color, even at twilight. Nature and humanity have had a couple hundred years to settle into a luscious coexistence on these four blocks, and it's like walking through a friendly forest that has been peacefully settled by people. In the spring and summer, boxes of brilliant flowers and strange plants crowd almost every apartment window, some with leaves so large they look tropical. Clover, wood-sorrel, crab grass, and violets sprout from the sidewalk cracks that are off to the side, and there's always a sweet perfume that comes from either wisteria, pine, or honeysuckle. Steam rises from the manholes like water escaping from a pot. Branches from each side of the street reach across, forming awnings overhead whose leaves sound like hundreds of tiny drums whenever it rains. In the winter, holiday decorations pick up where nature leaves off and the color comes from tasteful wreaths hanging on the windows and doors, and garlands of pine and Christmas lights winding down the wrought iron gates, railings, and balustrades.
Rehearsals are every Tuesday evening from 7:15 to 9:30, so this is a walk I take at night, when my view is lit by the moon, street lamps, and whatever light filters out from the first-floor parlor windows. It's a very wealthy part of town and it shows. Sometimes I feel like the Little Match Girl as I pass by, forever on the outside, catching glimpses through lace curtains of the enchanting lives in these small palaces of glimmering chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and grand pianos. In one window is a small, sad painting of a gerbil with lettering that reads: In memory of Mr. Pokey, 2001–2003. In another is Paddington Bear. For as long as I can remember that bear has stood in the window, looking out, his outfit regularly changing with the seasons. It's the beginning of January now, and he's dressed in a top hat and tails, as if he's been making the holiday party rounds.
As I make my way east, it's as though a small storm has been raised whenever I hit the avenues that run perpendicular to Eleventh Street. In New York City, the cross streets are mostly residential and therefore quiet, while the avenues are commercial and loud. Crossing the thoroughfare, it suddenly becomes brighter and noisier with taxis and buses and bicycles and people. And then, just as suddenly, it's back to the protected calm of Eleventh Street. The last two blocks before I get to Grace Church are filled with antiques shops. I've never once stopped inside any of them, and I probably never will. The splendid gilded tables and French country armoires are much too grand for me. The very last block is relatively barren, the vegetation tapers off, and a parking garage takes up almost a third of the south side of the street. And then I come to Broadway.
Every time I turn that corner and look up at Grace Church, I'm no longer the Little Match Girl; instead I feel like Dorothy when she first steps out of her colorless Kansas farmhouse and into the land of Oz. The evening light hits the windows, spires, and tower of the church and makes it glow. When Walt Whitman came upon the same view, he described Broadway as a sea and Grace Church a "ghostly lighthouse." For me, it's a building that casts a spell, beckoning all to come inside to join the bewitched.
"Places, places," John calls out a few minutes before 7:15. We always begin exactly on time, and the one and only time choir rehearsal was ever canceled was on 9/11. John Maclay is the third director of the Choral Society of Grace Church. When organist and choirmaster Frank Smith retired in 1992, he was succeeded by Bruce McInnes, who retired in 1999. Of the three choir directors I have now sung under, John is the most obsessive and meticulous. He regularly distributes handouts with incredibly minute and fussy directions like, "Diphthongs are two vowels in one. Always give precedence to the first vowel, adding the second at the last possible moment." And then he gives a precise and phonetically spelled-out example: "house = HAAAAH-oos." He used to type up and print out stickers for everyone to put on the front of their music listing their name, telephone number, key dates for the rehearsals, his number and e-mail, but then he stopped. My theory is that some choir member affixed the sticker to his music folder crookedly and that one askew sticker taunted John for the rest of the season.
But John's perfectionism is why a reviewer once wrote of us, "I assumed that this would be a pleasing concert, although an amateur one. I was wrong. It was magnificent." The reviewer had been going to a lot of holiday concerts that month, "but none has been even close to the level of professionalism of this strictly volunteer group." He talked about our discipline and passion and then said we were "amateurs in the best of all possible senses." That is all John. John and his insane attention to detail, a devotion that I'm guessing keeps him up long into the night, looking for yet another way to make us hear and appreciate some impossibly subtle nuance in whatever piece we're working on. "Wake up and listen to the intervals around you," he called out to us recently.
The conductor sets the tone. It's his job to determine what the composer wanted to express and then elicit that from us, by any means necessary. You need a powerful personality up there, but not an egomaniac. If the conductor is too narcissistic, it's painful for the choir. Self-involved conductors will talk and talk and talk, usually about themselves. Yeah, yeah, you're great. Can we sing now? John goes almost too far in the other direction. It's only about the music for him. Until recently all I knew about him was that he's a lawyer, and while he was in law school he was the assistant conductor of the Harvard Glee Club, but that was about it. John has another quality that compounds the mystery. When he's up there on the conductor's platform, directing the choir, we're mesmerized. Whether he's directing our singing, telling us gossipy stories about the composers, or giving us impassioned explanations about what music means and what the composer was trying to communicate, he has our rapt attention. John has a tremendous ability to convey his enthusiasm from that protected perch, and whatever he tells us, we believe him. He always manages to take the shared pleasure of singing and amplify it. We'd miss a lot of beauty if it weren't for John Maclay. He is a substantial, commanding, and charismatic presence, from a distance.
Up close he's more restrained. He's perfectly friendly, but somehow conversations with John are always over in seconds. It could be that he's just shy. So while I can describe what he looks like up there on his stand—light hair, light eyes, a trim, handsome, youthful-looking fortyish man, always dressed in crisp, pressed white shirts—for the most part John Maclay remains an enigma.
When I asked my fellow choir members for impressions of John, soprano Christina Davis was one of the people who responded. "I remember a bunch of women in the choir each sharing the moment when they first realized John was gay. It was always a very Greenwich Village rite of passage, given his elegant 1920s-style good looks and Cantabrigian intellectual brilliance to realize he was not likely to be interested in you. But, in some ways it helped to remove any romanticism (at least on a heterosexual woman's part) from one's reverence of him."
"Take your seats," John calls outs, less patiently now, and I start to look around for a spot. Rehearsals take place either in the church itself or in the Grace Church School gym. Tonight we're practicing in the church, where we have a choice of sitting in pews in the front or on plastic chairs farther back. Finding a seat of any kind, however, has become a delicate and sometimes dangerously fraught operation. Once, two sopranos tried to tell my friend and fellow soprano Barbara Sacharow and me to move from the seats we had taken in a pew. "We saved these seats," they insisted. But saving seats was not done back then, and while they actually had left a couple of their belongings behind to mark their territory, I thought they were items forgotten from a service earlier in the day. I started to explain, but they didn't give me a chance. "Move," they demanded, their faces hovering above us, angry and accusing, never once considering that it was an honest misunderstanding. They were so off-putting about it that Barbara and I both refused. The following season a tenor muttered, "Bitch," when one of them walked by. I looked at him with a mix of surprise and pleasure. "Oh yeah," he said. "I hate her." Small victory.
Emma Berry, an alto, who chose our choir because it met on the right night and in the right location, tells the story of taking a seat nearest to the restrooms when she was pregnant. A tenor quickly approached her. "I sit here usually." "Uh-huh," she answered. "No really. This is where I usually sit." "Listen," she explained. "I'm sitting here because it's near the exit and I need to be here so I can go to the bathroom easily, which I need to do about every thirty seconds." "Oh for crying out loud," he said before stomping off. The person next to Emma roared with laughter, but it's true that people tend to sit in the same seats and if you show up and your regular seat is taken you feel momentarily lost.
My favorite spot is in the pews that were built specifically for the choir in 1903, where I hurry now to grab a seat. For over a century, thousands of singers have sat here, singing many of the same pieces we sing now, feeling many of the same emotions. I love taking my place in history even though that also means being surrounded by reminders that just about everything is more permanent than I am, than all of us. There's a lovely carved wooden chair next to the pew where I sit. On it is a plaque that says that the chair was put there in 1892 by someone named Julia P. Fisher (in memory of an unnamed dead sister, I later learned). No one I know remembers Julia or her sister. But it must have been a cherished spot for her, too. One hundred years from now, others will be sitting in this pew, next to that chair, probably singing the same works I'm singing and looking around just as I am now. How many of them will take a moment to think back to the living, breathing, happy chorister who used to sing here? How many will think of Julia or her sister or me?
My preferred place secured, I wait to see who's going to sit next to me and behind me. It matters. Those are the people you can hear, and a flat singer will pull you down, spoiling the fun, while a great singer with perfect pitch will pull you up, making you sound better than you would have otherwise. I look around. The evil duo is nowhere in sight. I hope that Barbara will get here in time to sit near me (I still have mixed feelings about saving seats). She has a lovely voice, and she can sight sing. Barbara can pick up a piece of music she's never seen before and sing it as if she's been singing it her whole life. I can't do that. Basically, Barbara is the kid in class whose tests I've been cheating off at every opportunity. Barbara joined the choir because her marriage had broken up and she "needed to find something just for me." She'd sung in choirs through high school, college, and graduate school, and "when I thought what my life was missing most, it came down to music." She worried that she'd be "the only Jew singing about Jesus," but quickly discovered that beliefs and faith within the choir were all over the religious/nonreligious map. A lot of people join after recognizing a sense of something missing in their lives, it turns out. Christina Davis told me she became a member as a result of two events, 9/11 and turning thirty. Both caused her to look at all that she had sacrificed in her life, and "Foremost among these losses was choral singing."
Unfortunately, Barbara is nowhere to be seen. She works as a library teacher at the Fieldston School in the Bronx, and she has to run home, have dinner, check her e-mail, and grab her water bottle before heading for choir and frequently arrives minutes before we begin.
At the moment, to my immediate right is a soprano who doesn't seem to like me and who is making a point of not talking to me while we wait for everyone to get settled. I look around for people I know. Even after all these years, I don't want to sit here not talking to anyone, looking like I have no friends. I pick up John's most recent handout and start reading to camouflage my anxiety. Then Caroline, a new soprano, sits to my left. She has a pretty voice and she's nice. Then two friends sit in front of me. I start to relax and feel happy that I'm here.
After a brief warm-up we open the piece we're going to perform in April, A German Requiem, by Johannes Brahms. Although I've done this piece twice before, it's in German and I no longer remember what the words mean. Just because this is church music, one shouldn't assume it's about something ... churchy. One Christmas we sang a piece by the British composer Benjamin Britten that referred to a few missing children. "Timothy, Mark, and John are gone, are gone, are gone, are gone, are gone," one line went. Turns out that one particularly hard winter the boys were butchered Sweeney Todd–style and salted down to eat. "Famine tracks us down the lanes, Hunger holds our horses' reins." We were singing about cannibalism. Cannibalizing children, no less. I looked out at the audience when we came to that part. Are they getting this? The actual text of the piece might be vague, but the title is Nicolas and the Pickled Boys and it's printed right there in the program. The chorus ends with St. Nicolas bringing the boys back to life ("Timothy, Mark, and John, put your fleshly garments on!") who then sing "alleluia." For the performance, we had three choir boys who walked down the center aisle of the church, singing in their pure and innocent voices, without a hint of the grisly deaths they'd just suffered.
John tells us to pull out our pencils and get ready to start marking our music with his directions. "If you don't have a pencil, mime the act of having a pencil." We begin. Something is up with John tonight. I didn't think it was possible for him to be more of a perfectionist, but he is having us repeat small sections over and over until he gets it where he wants it. We never quite achieve the sound he wants. "More sostenuto!" More this! More that! "Draw the sound out, don't push it out!" He tries having each section sing it alone, first the tenors, then the basses, the altos, the sopranos. But he is not satisfied.
There's a soprano in the pew in front of me who keeps whipping her head around to scan our row. I immediately think someone sounds bad and she's trying to figure out who. Is it me? She keeps turning around. She is looking at me! Seconds later most of the sopranos make the same mistake. Everyone leans forward as one to mark the spot with our pencils. If you watched our rehearsals from above you'd see waves moving throughout the chorus, as everyone bends forward and back to mark their scores. Sometimes I make a show of marking the spot where I've made a mistake in order to signal to all around me (the soprano in the next row, for instance) that, yeah, I know I messed up and I'm going to go back later and learn it. See? I get it.
In only an hour my score is filled with marks. Not all of them are about mistakes or John's directions. I've made a practice of scribbling in asterisks next to my favorite parts in the music. I put them there because I don't always remember where they are. They're like small signs that remind me, "Bliss Ahead!" I know that as long as the world doesn't end in the next few seconds something very good is about to happen to me.
"The wonderful thing about the amateur chorus," the conductor Robert Shaw once said, "is that nobody can buy its attendance at rehearsals, or the sweat, eyestrain and fatigue that go along with the glow; and nobody but the most purposive and creative of music minds—from Bach in both directions—can invite and sustain its devotion."
That's because it gets you out of the house every week to do something that is like exercising joy. As I move firmly and inexorably into midlife, I need it more than ever. I thought that these would be the easy years. I was sure I'd be settled by now, not wondering how I'm going to pay for all the dental work I just learned I needed or still crying about the last guy who broke my heart. Last week I read an article about an experimental treatment developed by researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School that reversed aging in mice. "Hurry scientists, hurry," I thought when I finished it. I need more time to get my life together.
Excerpted from Imperfect Harmony by STACY HORN. Copyright © 2013 Stacy Horn. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Stacy Horn is the author of four nonfiction books. Bestselling author Mary Roach has hailed her for “combining awe-fueled curiosity with topflight reporting skills.” Her commentaries have been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, and she is the founder of the social network Echo. She lives and sings in New York. Her website is www.stacyhorn.com.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Horn's experiences in the Choral Society of Grace Church are vividly brought to life in her book. I often felt that I was right there in the room, in the choir, having the very same experiences. She seamlessly and naturally interlaces music history with her stories. Before I knew it, I realized I'd just read pages of - gasp! - music history, and didn't find one bit of it dry. I couldn't stop turning the pages. I wish my own college music history texts had been as captivating. Horn also does a wonderful job describing more advanced musical concepts in layman's terms, which helps to keep the book accessible to all music lovers. She cites studies that give insight into why singing feels so good and how it affects us emotionally and physiologically. Even with the inclusion of history, a bit of music theory, and science, the flow of her words is never once broken. The reading never felt bogged down. I cried while reading stories about how song came forth, often spontaneously, out of moments of deep grief to help carry people through. I laughed while reading some of the interactions between choir members, especially the "where to sit" and "someone's in my chair" antics. During that chapter I texted my best friend, a soprano in our local choral society, to ask her if they have assigned seats. She replied with, "No, but no one better ever sit in my chair!" which gave me a nice laugh. I highlighted on my Nook like mad, taking special note of the many thought-provoking quotes by famous composers, conductors, and music educators; gems of knowledge and experience that I'm sure I'll pass on to my own music students. Professionally, I'm an instrumentalist, not a singer. It was interesting to read Imperfect Harmony from my perspective of a professional in classical music, yet also as a (very) amateur singer. This book inspired me to listen more often, too. More often than I care to admit, I find myself listening to music out of necessity: I'll soon be performing the piece and need to study the score, or I have a student is learning a piece and I need to get to know it again. Horn's honest and heartfelt appreciation of each piece highlighted in the book compelled me to find recordings of each, put them in one playlist, and simply take in the music. We professionals forget to do that at times. I have a few friends who will be receiving this book as a gift when it is released. If you love to sing with others...actually, disregard "to sing." If you love making music with others, you will love Imperfect Harmony.
I don't think you have to be a musician to enjoy this book; however, if you have ever been in a choir, I'm sure you will love it. I guarantee you will identify with at least one (and probably more) of the tales about your fellow singers, conductor(s), and the emotions and memories brought about by the music selected to hightlight each chapter. In addition to the often amusing and heartfelt stories, you will learn more about your favorite compositions and composers, and maybe even discover some you've never heard of before.
Stacy's book is a must read for singers. It gives you an easy to read look at the science behind why you love singing in a choral group, and gives you some interesting history of choral society singing.