I have no clue where to start. I really don’t. I think I’ve lost my literary voice after I’ve let it lie dormant for three years. Ever since I started going to Stuy, the workload has just crushed me, crushed the living heck out of me. I let it. What, with AP Calc, and honors Precalc all together? What a formula for failure. In the days before my math tests, it’s a scramble every day to get my work done in time for six hours of sleep. Hurry, hurry! Box the answer! Think! The whole point is not the test itself, but the studying before it. The test is nothing, really; it’s blindly zipping through the problems in the allotted forty minutes, going so fast that I can only hope to get the arithmetic correct.
You see, chorus is like a test that lasts through the entire semester. As we edge closer to concert night, it’s a rush to get all the pieces learned. Memorize the words! Speak the rhythm! Hit the note! Up and over the top! However, concert night isn’t just another test to be grappled through in an allotted time. It’s something to enjoy and bask in. Unlike a math test, you don’t want it to end.
So which test would I rather take?
When I tried out for chorus, I wasn’t sure I wanted it.
“She’s an Alto two,” the choral conductor Ms. Hall dictated to the assistant conductor Ms. Shamazov, wagging her finger at me, the troublesome little freshman. She peered at me through her glasses. “She has a good range.”
Ms. Shamazov barely looked up at either of us. She scribbled something on a crumbled yellow post it. “Would you like to join the chorus?” she asked without looking to see my face. “It’s four years starting now. You’ll sing for us until you graduate. Would you like to join now?” Scribble scribble. I asked them for time to think about it. They agreed.
It was the math team that really held me back from joining, and I couldn’t let it go. Chorus would take up the period in my schedule reserved for math team, which meant I would have to choose—math team or chorus? But I’d just competed for Math Team! Math team was my home, my little safety burrow, and I wasn’t willing to crawl out; numbers had always been my thing. We were permanently wedded, math and I. Our certificate of marriage had been sealed with the AMC, and I was not willing to file a divorce.
“ARE YOU CRAZY? TAKE IT!” my mother exclaimed at me in fast Chinese, She squinted through the steam wafting from a boiling pot of who knows what, narrowing her eyes until they were reduced to two angry dash marks across her face. “You’re too into math. Broaden your horizons a bit. Get your face out of that problem solving book. Take it.”
“But I like math more.”
She stopped stirring and wiped her face. “I know. But look, you don’t have to drop math team immediately. You still have that free, don’t you? You decide next year right? Just give it a chance is all I’m saying.”
And so Math team disappeared. Oh the woe! Math team had been ripped from my sophomore schedule, extirpated like a carrot. My love forever gone! Oh the injustice! The skies would never be blue again. The grass would not grow as green. What blasphemy!
I sang the next day: Sometimes I feel like a moaning dove. Wring my hands and cry cry.
After three years of chorus, I have learned this much—rehearsals right before concert are always pressured. Ms. Hall gets desperate when we do not know our lines, because she wants us to know those pieces. Know them well. In her own words, she’s “always right.” In my words, she will not be denied.
“BARITONES.” Ms. Hall sighs, “You sound like two scared little girls in a playground. Don’t just sit there and grow hair. DO SOMETHING.” She jabs her baton at the middle row of baritones, the tongue of a python hissing with every swish. Her eyebrows furrow into a scowl of concentration—or frustration. I cannot tell which.
“MOVE YOUR MOUTHS!”
And stars are shining bright; I arise from dreams of thee
“SUPPORT FROM THE ABDOMEN!”
And a spirit in my feet hath led me, who knows how who knows how
To thy chamber window sweet, I arise from dreams of thee.
The baritones stop choking themselves on a B flat. Ms. Hall clears her throat and purses her lips. As everyone settles in for the big speech that always comes after a clear-throat-purse-lips moment, I cannot help but notice that her lips are kind of like plums. Plums that have been abused by one too many preservatives.
“Boys, what do I always tell you? Support from below, come from above. Support from the abdomen…”
Sighs float. Chairs creak. Some lean back and stretch their arms. A couple singers have their cheeks smashed against their hands. Their eyelids flutter open and shut, waging war with gravity in which gravity seems to be the victor.
“…Brahms would never have allowed this. Ridiculous, boys. This is unacceptable. I teach you one thing, and I have to teach it to you again and again. You boys need more geritol. You hear me boys?”
“Yes, Ms. Hall.”
“Yes, Ms. Hall.”
I turn around slyly to face the boys, letting my eyes stray to a certain bass. His face and chin are angular like a badly cut diamond. His cheekbones jut out at odd angles, and his stoic face is in its usual expressionless expression. He looks up, and suddenly, his black eyes have met mine. I couldn’t read anything from his eyes. How hard and glassy they are!
His eyebrow wriggles up. You stare at me because…? I blush. My heart skips a couple beats, and I whip back around. I realize I have scattered my musical score and my paper bag, with my half eaten bagel, on the floor. Suave.
“Good job, Lily,” my friend for life, who I will call Stella here, snorts and bends down with me to collect my music. My other friend for life, who will be Kim in this memoir, gives me a half smile, her pale lips pulling an even paler face. She blinks slowly at the papers and bagel. The America Run on Dunkin’ bag stares back at her. She bends to pick them up.
Ms. Hall is a brilliant musician. She can catch subtle mistakes in pitches and phrasings and teach 130 hormone-raged teens to sing in harmony at the same time. But she rants. When she does, I take my cue; it’s a time to surreptitiously look over notes for that impossible calculus test next period. Or to finish that write up for Spanish, because “Me llamo Lily” doesn’t quite cut it for fourth year Spanish. When the rant isn’t meant for my section, I study like a good little Stuy nerd. I try not to do my work spy-kid style in chorus so often, but if that assignment is due next period, I do what I have to do.
“WHY ARE THE ALTOS ALWAYS CHIT-CHATTING? WHAT ARE THEY DOING?” Sometimes, I do get caught in the act. “I demand to know the reason why all of you are talking and not singing. Stand up. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU.”
A collective grumble oozes through my section as we all stand up. Sighs and under-the-breath complaints ripple through. I know I am contributing to the ripples. At times like this, I wonder: why did I drop math team again? I start muttering to convince myself, “I like chorus better than math team, yes I do, yes I do…maybe.”
“All of you girls have done nothing but chat in my face for the last FOUR years,” Ms. Hall opens her palms and closes her fingers in an attempt to imitate chatting mouths—or chatting pincers. It’s hard to tell. “All of you are going be useful for once and SING.” At the cue of her baton, we take reluctant breaths and open our mouths:
I lost him once through friend’s advice, but it’s not gonna happen twice
Altos harmonize. We don’t support a chord like the basses, or contrast it like the baritones; our role is to sing under the sopranos, give the chorus depth. We exist to serve. We’re velvet under crystal, Robin to Batman, a footnote to the plot. We sing an afterthought. The annoying sopranos are always taking up the starlight.
“What have I just told the baritones? SUPPORT FROM BELOW!”
Cause all advice’s ever gotten me was many long and sleepless nights Oh!
“USE YOUR UTERUS GIRLS!”
Altos are a warm sort of folk. We are motherly, sisterly and understanding. We’re mad at the world for not making us sopranos, but we understand. If we could tell God how we felt about his not giving us soprano voices, it’d look something like this:
It sucks that we’re always a sidekick and never a superhero, but You know what? We get it. God has His agendas too. We’re still special too, right? You didn’t make Altos a rare voice type for nothing right? Don’t sweat it God, we get You. And FYI, a certain Alto Two, Lily, is confused what religion she belongs to. Sometimes, she calls You Jesus. Other times, she calls You Buddha. Please don’t smite her if she gets Your name wrong. But hey, Gods don’t care about petty things like names, right?
Thank You for the numerous and wonderful blessings,
Sectionals are harsher than regular rehearsal. I really want math team back every time we have these. We go in the theater at 3:30 after school and leave at 6. A waste of three hours.
“The sopranos are screeching. It’s terrible and ugly. Again.”
“Unacceptable. You’ve forgotten your words. Again.”
“Do you want this concert going? I will cancel ALL concert performances and pull every single piece. Is that what you want? No? Again.”
It’s not the drilling that makes sectionals hard to bear. It’s the three hours of being squished on the bleachers with 130 other choristers. I feel like a canned sardine, salted and moisturized in my own sweat. We’re literally half an inch away from each other and I can practically smell my friend’s shampoo—or lack thereof. It’s the three hours of relentless stage light beating down on us. The heat is merciless. It’s the three hours of standing, because we’re not allowed to sit until it’s all over. Oh my love, math team. Thou eludest me.
When it finally is all over, we can’t use the bridge entrance to get out of the building. They’re closed for the night, so we get out from the first floor. I see a certain someone walking down the bridge with his dog-eared books and dull colored back pack. He is wearing that hat that looks like a limpid dunce cap, but he is marvelous, dunce cap or not. I catch up to him.
“Hey.” He cocks his diamond head. His lips jerk one side of his face, but not the other so that it is never clear whether he is nervously smiling or smirking. “Um, okay. Bye.” I watch his dunce cap bob down the street. That went wonderfully. The streetlights are a dim orange as I let my long shadow lead me to the subway.
How bereft thou hast left me! Math team and basses make terrible sweethearts.
All the rehearsals and sectionals are worth it, because—as every good little Stuy nerd will tell you—studying pays off. Concert nights are glorious. We’re all out of our minds. Of course, Ms. Hall is out of her mind too, but just in a better way. Isn’t she always?
“Boys, I don’t want to see your underwear showing through! Wear a belt. And no ties with naked ladies!”
“Girls, your skirts better reach your knees. I am kicking off any girl who looks like she has giraffe legs.”
“Can you all just pretend to be mannered people for once? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”
In a rush of hair gel, ties, stockings, and smeared eye shadow, we’re on. I love it. A million eyes are on us, and the whole world will know how magnificent we are. On stage, there are no sopranos, or altos, or tenors, or basses. There are no 130 separate singers.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
There is only one entity, because we are all limbs of an entire body. Ms. Halls is the brain in the middle. Hear us! The harmony is perfect, angelic, and the fruits of our labor are now ripe. We didn’t doze off through rehearsal and die through sectionals for nothing.
Let the river run, let all the dreamers wake the nation
It’s the solo of the alto section. We are the melody for once, and we shine. Yet, we are altos as much as we are sopranos, as we are tenors, as we are basses. It’s their solo too as much as ours. This concert is the reason that I let math team drop. This is why chorus stayed in my schedule for three years and math team didn’t, even though I know I will regret it when next year’s rehearsals come around. This performance, this final test, the only test that I enjoy.
Everyone is on the middle C octave on the ending line.
Come the New Jerusalem!
Age 17, Grade 12
Stuyvesant High School