IMPERFECT HARMONY: FINDING HAPPINESS IN SINGING WITH OTHERS
By Stacy Horn
Algonquin, 256 pages, $15.95
During my high school and college years, I used to joke that if there was a church on an Ottawa, Ontario, street corner, I probably sang in it. The joke came back to me while I was reading Stacy Horn’s new book “Imperfect Harmony.”
I was raised according to Modern Orthodox tenets, still observed the Sabbath and all the holidays, and wasn’t terribly rebellious about religion. (That came later, after moving to New York.) But for a serious music student, which I was at the time, the way to prove yourself on the local level was to sing in competitions, and those were held in churches.
Winning or placing depended as much on talent and music choice as it did on the performance acoustics, which ran from stunning to downright awful.
My church knowledge really got going, though, when I joined the Ottawa Regional Youth Choir at the age of 15. I’d sung in a choir at my Jewish day school, my childish ego augmented by some solos I did deserve and many others I didn’t, but the moment I opened my mouth to sing at my first Monday night rehearsal with the ORYC, I knew I was in over my head.
The choir director was stern and demanding, shooting glares if you were a minute late to your seat and ill prepared to sing when the clock struck 7 p.m. The other singers, recent graduates of the middle school chorus that the director also conducted, seemed trained to impeccable, unreachable levels. I wasn’t the only Jew in the choir, but I wasn’t familiar with Christian sacred music, and I was carefully taught, in school and at home, to cover my ears at Christmas carols playing on the radio or television. But the moment I began to sing, my fears disappeared. I was part of something larger. Save for a hiatus or two, I’ve belonged to a choir ever since.
The churches were resonant vessels through which my fellow choristers and I could communicate some of the most awe-inspiring music ever put to paper. Most of the time, joy filled me and strengthened my voice further. Only once, a decade or so ago, did my voice fall into laryngitic despair, after singing both Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — noto-
riously demanding on sopranos — and Orff’s “Carmina Burana” within two months of each other. But the consequences of hitting those larynx-lacerating high notes in one of Montreal’s oldest and most acoustically pleasing churches paled when compared to being part of a continuum of music-makers stretching back over two centuries.
From the menacing thrill of the “Dies Irae” in Mozart’s “Requiem” to the expansive hope of David Berger’s spin on “Hatikvah” — to name two of my favorite pieces — choral music allows me to access emotions that cause me trepidation in text or in real life. Four-part harmony beats therapy; it pulled me out of the black grief of mourning after my father’s death last year when little else could. And every Monday evening, when I arrive just in time for weekly rehearsal with my current community choir in Brooklyn, the workday fatigue melts away in service of the greater good of learning, perfecting and performing amazing music.