I don’t remember learning to read music. I don’t remember learning to read either. This is more an admission of my poor memory than it is of my precocity. By my best guess, I most likely learned to read music sitting with my family in a church pew. Growing up in a church with no paid clergy or musicians, the congregation was expected to have a certain level of musical competence – at least enough to recognize that when the little back dots went up, so did your voice. Mom, a trained mezzo-soprano and pianist, exceeded the minimal musical competence required of her, and would often change parts at the verses, raising the bass an octave, singing most of the tenor line, throwing in with the sopranos if necessary (it was no fun to sing the melody when all that harmony was just there for the taking). I learned to hear the “inside” voices of a chorale in church too, which was good because as I became school age, I found sometimes I couldn’t hit the high notes in some of the Primary songs and I could find a third or a fifth that worked in the song. Some of the kids gave me funny looks, but it was OK; the church taught me that Jesus wanted to hear all of us sing with whatever voice God gave us. If someone was singing the “wrong” note, someone else could always sing the right one louder.
As a kid I also learned to play the cello. I was at home in an ensemble with an “inside” part, and was well served by my ability to listen to where I fit in, adjusting dynamics and attack based on how others were playing. I also got fewer funny looks for my vibrato. When I came back to singing, I relished my time in the alto section of choirs (provided I wasn’t just singing a D or an F# for measures at a time; composers of intermediate level chorus pieces, we need to talk) and I loved being one voice in the midst of a big group, even while singing solos. That time learning music in church by singing with hundreds of other people of one heart and mind, if only for the space of a few hymns, had inextricably linked music with the numinous for me. I was incapable of making music without also connecting to something else. Something Big.
The spiritual and philosophical path my life has taken has not been without its twists and turns. The church of my youth didn’t have a place for the adult I became. I explored paganism, atheism, other forms of Christianity. It’s hard for me to describe myself, but maybe an agnostic with Christian leanings would be accurate. A few years ago I sang in a wonderful church choir where the desired sound was that of a boy choir. We were able to sing some inspiring music and that bundle of neurons responsible for my confusing music with God got a great work-out, but the biggest challenge for me was subconscious: if the “proper” sound for this choir was the hollow, cool treble tone of a pre-pubescent boy, the dark, warm alto instrument I had been blessed with never quite fit. Did God really want me to use a practice mute?
Vox Femina wanted my voice as a woman. As a community, Vox commissions new works, often from women, paying living composers to create new music. We do outreach in the community, sharing the joy we have in performing with kids who may not have the opportunity to hear or sing this kind of music. We sing songs about women’s experiences, about love, freedom, protest, kindness, hope, anger, and yes, even God. Every time the forty of us get together, we are united, making music with one heart and mind. Singing in Vox is prayer. It’s meditation. As a chorus, we breathe together – unless it’s staggered breathing, where we listen to our fellow singers and breathe when others are singing to ensure that every singer gets to catch her breath while the choir continues to make music. Listening, supporting, sharing. Vox Femina is a microcosm of the kind of society I would like to live in.