In August of 1991 I turned 19. I had graduated high school two months before and would be starting at community college in a few weeks. Like many (most?) others, the four years spent in High School were not the best years of my life. They were not the worst – that would be the two years in jr. high – but they certainly didn’t do me any favors. My first mistake was underachieving. I’m awesome at that – a world class lazy smart-ass. I have a brain like a lint trap and I test well, so everyone’s academic expectations were high. Needless to say, I disappointed them. The place I did excel was in music. Starting with the orchestra, I worked diligently and managed to hold onto first chair. I loved playing the cello. I still do. Soon I discovered I could sing and made what is, in retrospect, one of the worst decisions I could have made. I joined the choir. As someone who didn’t start out in freshman girl’s choir, I had to audition for the choir director, also head of the music department. It was the most thorough audition I’ve ever had, involving not only the standard scales and tonal memory bits, but also a song (no biggie) and some random “find the notes in these chords. face away from the piano. now pick up the middle note in this triad. how about the second highest note in this tonal cluster? Can you sing the notes in this diminished 7 jazz chord as an arpeggio?” (yes. yes I could. Can’t everyone?). I am not exaggerating when I say that my successful audition for the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus was a healthy verse of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” next to the half hour that choir director put me through. After all that, I learned that he was considering not allowing me in concert choir – I didn’t have any stage presence.
This was a particular time of my life where I gave an awful lot of deference to authority. That choir director was treated like a god, and I learned to consider him one as well. By the time I got into choir I learned that about 80% of the kids couldn’t read music. And we never sang anything classical or in a foreign language. He would not permit us to go to state competitions. It was a whole lot of show tune medleys and concerts standing on risers in choir robes and high heels (the girls anyway). But he was in charge and I wanted to please him. It never happened. By my senior year the orchestra teacher had broken her wrist, so the orchestra was being run by one of the band teachers, who used me as his TA. As a “thank you” he arranged some music and gave me a lovely solo for our winter concert. I struggled, auditioning for the fall play and spring musicals my junior and senior years. The choir director was in charge of these as well, so you can imagine the outcome. I considered dropping out of choir, but he had promised that any misbehavior in any class or extracurricular of his would result in a failure grade in anything I did in the music department. At that point, he controlled about 40% of my GPA. Cognitive dissonance being what it was, my authoritarianism told me that I was terrible. I should not have wasted my time singing.
Taking one last chance, I applied as a vocal performance major at Harper, and a crazy thing happened – first off, we sang Mozart. And Palestrina. And Faure. And hundreds of other real composers. I adored it. I loved the sound we could make together, I loved being in the middle of a chord, I loved all of it. I learned that singing the Cantique De Jean Racine could bring tears to my eyes in the middle of rehearsal. Much to my surprise, I got into the chamber choir, and we sang music suited for a smaller group. Learning that singing the notes on the page wasn’t sufficient – that in order to make transcendent music, you had to rely on your ear to listen to the people around you. I missed more than one entrance being carried away by someone else’s vocal line (usually the basses – once a cellist, always a cellist). This choir director announced that we would be going to Europe, and I attended the first informational meeting. It all sounded wonderful, but I was regretful as I left to go to my shitty job. When the next meeting came and went without me, the choir director sent me to his office. He wanted to know why I hadn’t turned in the first bit of paperwork. I told him the truth – there was no way my $4.75 an hour was going to pay for the flight. He smiled and told me not to worry – just between us, they could take care of it. Please come to the next meeting. I left, stunned. My mediocre no stage-presence, no role in the high school musical voice was getting me an all-expenses trip to Europe. So, I guess I was wrong?
“I blossomed” is a cliche, and a mildly gross one at that, but I did. I met some wonderful people that year at Harper. Unfortunately, I continued my pattern of underachievement, quickly giving up a subject if I deemed it too difficult (I’m sorry, but math is fucking hard and I will never understand anything more than basic arithmetic and whatever is useful for cooking and balancing a checkbook) but the music!
And the trip to Europe, in 1992, when I was still 19 was eye-opening. I had never been to a foreign country before, but suddenly we were deposited in Germany. 2.5 years of indifferent hoch schule deutsch – wherein I consistently frustrated my stereotypical German teacher by my refusal both to do homework or to get less-than-perfect scores on the tests (and someday I will tell you how that german teacher and the choir director made things more sucky for students like me, and it’s all my fault) – meant that by day 2 I didn’t even realize when people were speaking German rather than English. It also meant that the first warning of each our our pre-tour meetings “Do not go off on your own!” was quickly ignored by me. I had a watch and spoke the language – I didn’t need to be with the group. I’ll never forget wandering through the Mozart Disneyland that had sprung up in Salzburg (which he hated, hated, hated!), visiting the concentration camp, my “conscientious objector” status on the side-trip to Berchtesgarden (a few of us refused to visit Hitler’s bunker and stayed behind in the village below). I especially won’t forget the shock of going from the opulence of Vienna to the so-recently post-Soviet Czech Republic, our hotel rooms in a menacing concrete tower with razor-wire and broken glass decorating the awning, and an elevator so terrifying that some of us chose to walk the 20 flights of stairs for our meals. One of our leaders took us aside and admonished us as spoiled westerners – up until a year or so ago, Czechs would be on a waiting list for several years for the chance to live in buildings like this. Duly chastised, we settled in at the table, replete with linen tablecloths, napkins, good china and crystal and had some of the best food I’d ever tasted. That I had to play the squeamish girl card (look, I had been a vegetarian for 6 years before this – I wasn’t really “playing”), while one of the tenors distracted me with small-talk and a bass (the singer, not the fish) removed the head from my trout is perhaps the only thing that mars this tale of burgeoning independence.
The age of 19 was the first time I realized that sometimes Old White Dudes in Authority are wrong. And sometimes I am right. Not always, of course. 19 was also the age when I was certain I was fat at, oh, say 80 lbs less than I am now. That I thought that a tuxedo jacket and a bustier were worth precious luggage space on a trip to Europe. When I gave up too early on music theory. But that year? I’d say it was a pretty good one.