The Harmony Project (an excerpt from a new essay)

Every Monday night, thrumming with anticipation, I take my place in the alto section.  Lately I sit between Teresa, the fiddler with a secret identity, and Eva, who teaches fifth and sixth grade at the Jewish Day School.  They’re my two best choir friends—different enough from each other, in almost every way I can think of, to serve as a mini version of the choir’s spectrum of types.”  I am very happy sitting in between them—Teresa wearing every emotion close to her skin, a grownup wild girl, fragile and tough in what seem to be about equal measure; Eva with her throaty laugh, always ready to laugh, and to dance beside me when it’s time for us to sing standing up.  Teresa has one of the loudest and one of the best voices in the choir; I’m grateful to have her in my ear.  And Eva—Jewish mother, exactly my age, with two grown daughters who are constantly calling her cell phone—feels like someone I’ve known all my life, someone with whom I might have gone all through school and still be close to, unlike any of the people with whom I actually grew up.

Of the three of us, I almost always arrive first—sometimes as much as half an hour early—and save our seats.  I want to be as close to the front as possible (preferably in the first row) in the pack of over eighty altos, because I’m short—just five two (although I seem taller, I am always told, and I feel taller)—and this is the only way I can have an unimpeded view of David.

And I need that view.  I watch him like a hawk.  You have to, if you don’t want to be the one who makes a mistake.

All those changes David makes, week to week, right down to the wire of (and sometimes, as noted, only minutes before) a concert in front of a packed house, used to make me terrifically anxious.  How was I supposed to learn a song and keep it learned if he was forever changing it?  Now, as I begin my third season with the choir, I not only don’t get anxious about it—not only don’t mind it—I like it.  I like that it’s hard for me to learn the music in the first place (because learning by ear is not getting any easier for me, not yet) and I like that it’s hard to keep it learned.  I like that it can’t be “kept learned,” because every week it’s a little bit different, and you have to be prepared for that: you have to be prepared to abandon the harmony on the last verse of the song you worked so hard to get just right all week—harmony that was different from the harmony on all the other verses—and learn a completely new way to sing it at the next rehearsal.  Or only a slightly different way to sing it (which may be even harder to learn: small changes, I’m discovering, are trickier than big ones).  Or: you have to keep the harmony you’ve been practicing, but completely change the rhythm.  Or change the rhythm just on one of the verses.  Or keep the rhythm on the verses but change it on the chorus…or the bridge.

I like being kept on my toes.  I like that this is so taxing, so demanding.  I like being exhausted at the end of rehearsal.

I suppose it could be said that I like things in general to be difficult—and taxing, and demanding, and exhausting.

But only if they are also a pleasure—like writing, or teaching…or being someone’s mother.  Sometimes the difficulty and the pleasures are all mixed up together.  Sometimes being on one’s toes is exactly where one wants to be.  (It is the great joke of my weekly ballet class that I—the oldest student by twenty-five years—would like it very much if I were allowed to stay at the barre, in relevé, while everyone else chasséd and glisséd and pirouetted across the room.  I cannot convey how deeply sorry I am that I have started ballet too late to ever progress to pointe shoes.)

In the Harmony Project, both the difficulty and the pleasure are palpable.  Palpable, and intertwined—and also shared, in a way that I have never experienced before.  Perhaps this would have been true in any choir I might have joined (how would I know?); what I do know is that it is not what I have experienced in other activities in which I am not the only participant—when I sang at the Jazz Academy, for example (and even when there were two of us singing the alto part, which wasn’t always the case).  Certainly not in writing workshops.  Not even in ballet class, when we are all doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.

Ballet is hard—hard even for the youngest women in the class, I am always relieved to see; hard in different ways for all of us—and it’s a pleasure, too (we wouldn’t be doing it otherwise, as we—even the youngest of us—are all too old to be doing it for any reason other than pleasurable exercise), but not a communal one.  Even when we make our way “from the corner” in groups of three (and I grumble all the while: why must I leave my precious barre?), we are not really dancing together.  We are each concentrating on what it is we have been told to do, and how to do it better, if not—an impossible goal, it seems—“right” (and, at least in my case, on how not to fall down while trying to do it).  At least I am concentrating on all of that, and not dancing “with” anyone.  It occurs to me that I should not speak for the others, who may feel quite differently.  (The inherent paradox: if I felt that we were engaged in a shared effort, I would feel confident speaking for us all.)

I have never sung a note with the Harmony Project that felt like something I was doing alone.  Even at home, by myself with the practice CD and my stereo, I am always conscious of all the others.

I don’t understand this.  I won’t pretend to.  And while it’s tempting to say that this must have been what I was looking for when I went looking for a choir (because that’s my default position: that we seek what we need, whether we know we’re seeking it or not—whether we are conscious of what it is we need or not), I think for once I won’t.

Maybe this togetherness was just a side effect.  A side benefit—a bonus.

Maybe I didn’t need it.  Maybe I just got it anyway.


(Listen to the Harmony Project here.)