In May of 1981, I made my vocal debut at Toronto’s renowned and historic Massey Hall. The venue was full and the audience hummed with anticipated excitement. Despite being on stage, I somehow found myself immune to stage fright. Despite literally standing where legendary operatic tenors like Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti once appeared, and where famous personages such as Winston Churchill and jazz great, Oscar Peterson, had wowed listeners, I was confident. I was perfectly prepared for my role.
To be more precise, I was not performing a solo. I was part of a one-hundred voice choir about to launch into the exuberant Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” To be more forthcoming, not only was I not performing a solo, I was not even going to sing. To be perfectly honest, I had politely been asked not to sing.
The choir which was about to perform was composed of the entire graduating class of 1981 from what is now Master’s Seminary and Bible College. The audience consisted of undergraduates, families and friends of the grads, members of many local churches and other interested community music lovers. With fellow students, I was about to receive my coveted piece of paper, but I would not be joining them in song. But what to do with Bob? In final rehearsals, I was instructed to take my place in the chorus, simply mouth the words, but not allow any sounds to issue forth.
The Choirmaster feared that I might, in one instant, destroy all the beautiful and powerful harmonies inherent in Handel’s music. The Chorus ends with a 2 second rest (pause) just before the last note—between that fourth and fifth “Hallelujah.” Bob, the reject, could not read music. If given voice, I could inadvertently puncture that dramatic two seconds of silence by forgetting to put on the brakes at the pause.
All this is a prelude to explaining a huge gap in my early education. Back in the day, almost every student took music classes in school. I did get to clang rhythmically on a triangle in grade one, but that was it. Because I changed schools and school boards three times from Kindergarten to grade eight, I somehow missed out on learning to read musical notes or play an instrument — not even the ubiquitous recorder.
Despite that handicap, I developed a love of classical music through my teen years. In my last semester as a university undergrad, I impulsively chose to take an elective course in Music Appreciation. That’s when my illiteracy eventually caught up with me. In this small class, every other student was musically gifted, played an instrument or sang. They were looking for an easy credit. I was in over my head — and I needed this credit to graduate. I struggled desperately to earn my C. Without much effort, my classmates impressively scored A’s or an occasional B plus. At least I learned about Mozart, Smetana and Beethoven—and graduated.
While studying for the ministry many years later, I found myself in a compulsory course, Church Music. I had avoided the class for several semesters but now I was cornered, four months before graduation. We learned hymnody, the ability to select and lead hymns and choruses appropriate to the theme of the service. So far, so good. Then, I was once again confronted by my nemesis. The last weeks of the professor’s lectures focused on understanding sharps and flats, half-note and eighths, major and minor keys, bars and measures. It was all Greek to me. (By the way, up to that point, I had also avoided studying Greek.)
I would never suggest that I pulled a favour, but the prof and I did happen to play on the same intramural touch-football team. To ease my post-exam anxiety, he marked my paper right there and then as I peeked over his shoulder. With a smile, he turned his head, smiled, and let me know I passed — just!
And so, in May, 1981, I stood proudly on the stage of Massey Hall. In its grand gala opening on June 14, 1894, a 500-voice choir, accompanied by a seventy-piece orchestra, belted out the Hallelujah Chorus.
But I do believe I still hold the distinction of being the only chorister over those 93 years who ever had to pretend to sing the lyrics.
The formal rituals of graduation then followed. I did receive my piece of paper. My mother, who sat proudly in the front row with my father, was understandably happy for her first-born son, so the evening ended on a good note — just not one that I made.
Happy Mother’s Day!