End of September, 1996. The time I joined chorus.

“The mass has ended,” Father Bill said to the congregation at the Jeromeville Newman Center.  “Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” many in the congregation replied.

Those of us in the church choir began singing and playing the closing song.  The choir had changed a bit from last year, since two people graduated, but most of the people I knew were still singing with us.  Danielle Coronado, a junior like me, and her sophomore sister Carly; Danielle was one of the first friends I made in Jeromeville in my freshman dorm.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore.  Heather Escamilla, a senior who was my neighbor last year before I got the new apartment and roommates.  Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell, two seniors who played guitars, who grew up in Santa Lucia County like me but went to Catholic school.  Two senior girls, Claire Seaver and Sabrina Murphy, and their freshman siblings whom I had just met today, Margaret Seaver and Chad Murphy.  A woman named Karen, not a student, who played piano.

After the last song, as we were packing up the instruments and sheet music, I asked Claire, “Can I look through the sheet music?  I have my audition for University Chorus on Tuesday, and I need to bring my own music to sing.”

“Sure!” Claire replied.  “I’m excited you’re gonna be in Chorus!”

“You are?  For sure?” Danielle asked, overhearing our conversation.  “Yay!”

“I will if they let me in,” I said.

“The audition isn’t hard,” Danielle explained.  “You’re pretty much just showing them that you can carry a tune.  And there are always more girls than guys, so if you’re a guy and you aren’t tone deaf, they’ll let you in.”

“I hope so,” I said, flipping through pages of sheet music looking for something I knew I could sing.  “I’m really nervous.”  I had no idea whether or not an audition of Catholic Church music would be frowned upon, given the reputation that large public universities sometimes had for being anti-Christian.  Christianity influenced much classical art and music, however, so I figured it would be okay, particularly if I sang something well known.  The songs were arranged alphabetically, so after about a minute I found “Amazing Grace.”  I said, “I think I can sing Amazing Grace.”  I had never sung it with the church choir, but the worship band at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had played it a few times, so I felt like I knew it well enough.

“Sounds good!” Claire said.

“Good luck,” Danielle added, patting me on the back.  “You’ll do great.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

I drove home with the radio off, singing Amazing Grace to myself.  Growing up, the few occasions when I heard this song were always met with my mother saying that she hated it, particularly Joan Baez’ hippie-era recording of the song.  I mostly liked the lyrics, having recently learned about the history of the song.  The lyrics were written by an 18th-century British slave ship captain who turned to God to save him from a shipwreck, later turning away from the cruelty of the slave trade and becoming an abolitionist.  God had not saved me from anything that dramatic, but he certainly had saved me from my life of hopelessness, loneliness, and depression during sophomore year.


Two days later, I rode my bike to campus with the sheet music to Amazing Grace in my backpack, along with the usual binder that I would not be using today.  I rode all the way across campus to the east side of the Quad, with the Death Star building and Old North and South Halls on the left.  Just past the Quad, I passed the library on the right and a classroom building called Orton Hall on the left.  Beyond the library, East Quad Avenue ended in a T-intersection with Davis Drive, with the art, drama, and music buildings clustered together on the other side of the street.  I parked my bike and walked into the music building, looking for room 111.

The music building was small, with two floors.  I walked in through a lobby to a hallway extending to the left and right with a bulletin board in front of me.  I was not sure which side room 111 was on, but in a building of this size, it did not take long to find.

Room 111 was rectangular, with the entrance on the short side.  The wall to the left of me had a chalkboard along most of the length of the wall, with groups of five lines permanently imprinted on the board for writing music.  To the right were about a hundred and fifty seats, in rows which were each a step above the row in front of them, like stadium seats.  Two aisles divided the sections into thirds.  The ceiling and parts of the walls were off-white, covered in some kind of material that probably had to do with acoustics or soundproofing or something like that.  A thin woman, probably around thirty years old, with wavy hair dyed dark sat in a chair next to a slightly younger-looking man with a goatee sitting at a grand piano.

“Hi,” the woman said.  “I’m Sharon.  What’s your name?”

“Greg Dennison,” I said.

Sharon looked down at her list of students who would be auditioning today.  “Greg.  There you are.  What did you bring to sing today?”  I opened my backpack and gave her the sheet music of Amazing Grace, which she handed to the pianist.  “Amazing Grace,” she said.  “In F-major, so it starts C-F.”  Turning back to me, Sharon said, “Whenever you’re ready, Greg.”

The pianist played a C and an F, the first two notes of the song.  I took a deep breath and began singing.  “A-ma-zing grace, how sweet the sound.”  I took a breath and continued, “That saved a wretch like me!”  Another breath.  “I once was lost, but now am found.”  Another breath.  “Was blind, but now I see.”

Sharon stopped me.  “That’s good,” she said.  “Welcome to University Chorus.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  Danielle was right; this audition was not difficult at all.  I had had nothing to worry about.

“Are you Baptist, by any chance?” the pianist asked.

“No,” I said, a little confused.  “I’m Catholic.  I sing in my church choir.”

“You kind of sing like a Baptist,” the pianist explained, demonstrating how my voice tended to not quite hit the pitch of some long notes and then quickly adjust.  Hopefully I had not done something wrong.  If this was not good enough for the way I was supposed to sing in University Chorus, I would do my best not to sing that way.

“Interesting,” I said, not particularly wanting to have that discussion.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“So I’ll see you Friday at 12:10?” Sharon asked.

“Yes!”


After my audition, I went to the basement of the campus store to get my textbooks for the quarter.  Chorus was technically a two-unit class called Music 144, graded pass/no-pass.  There were two thin books of sheet music on the shelf for Music 144, along with a compact disc labeled as optional which I did not buy.  The longer of the two pieces for chorus was called Missa in Angustiis, by Joseph Haydn, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass.  It was first performed right at the same time that Horatio Nelson had defeated Napoleon’s forces, in the late 18th century, and it had always been associated with that event.  The other book of sheet music was called Fantasia on Christmas Carols, composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912.  I did not know that name.

Thursday, September 26, was the first day of classes.  As was often the case, Thursday was a light day for me, with only my discussion section for New Testament.  We had no class material to discuss, since the first lecture would not meet until tomorrow, so the teaching assistant just introduced the class and what we would be doing in the discussion section.  I was going back to the part-time job I had for part of last year, tutoring lower-division math classes for the Learning Skills Center on campus ten hours per week, and with only one class on Thursday, I could make myself available for tutoring on Thursdays.

My class schedule for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays was much busier, with one math class and the New Testament lecture in the morning and another math class in the afternoon.  In between, chorus met from 12:10 until 1:00.  The room was about half full when I arrived on that first Friday.  Sharon, whom I had met at my audition, sat in the front at the piano, with a balding middle-aged man in a suit also in the front of the room.  I found a seat near the right aisle and waited for class to start.  “Greg!” a familiar voice behind me said.  I turned around to see Phil Gallo from church.

“Hey, Phil,” I said.

As I looked at the people around me and watched the rest of the chorus trickle in through the door, I recognized a few other familiar faces.  Jason Costello from my freshman dorm, who also goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  Danielle, Claire, and Margaret from the church choir.  A couple of faces I recognized from the dining hall freshman year.  Scott Madison and Amelia Dye from JCF.  Scott saw me looking around and waved; I waved back.

Sharon stood up and spoke, introducing herself as the TA for the class.  She would be the contact person for most of our concerns.  She introduced the balding man as Dr. Thomas Jeffs, the professor who would be conducting the chorus.  Dr. Jeffs then introduced himself with a long list of accolades and prestigious choral groups that he had been a part of over his career.  As one with little knowledge of classical music, most of that meant nothing to me, other than that the accomplishments sounded impressive.

Next, a blonde girl walked to the front.  “Hi!  My name is Carolyn Parry, and I’m the section leader for the sopranos.  The section leader for altos couldn’t be in chorus this quarter, and the section leader for basses graduated.  So, altos and basses, take five minutes to find the others in your section, and decide who will be section leader.”

I had no idea who the other basses were.  I noticed that the guys mostly seemed to sit in the middle, with the girls mostly on the sides, but with a few girls near the aisle in the middle, possibly because there was not enough room for all the girls on the sides.  “Are you a bass?” one older-looking guy sitting next to me asked.

“I am,” I replied.  Apparently the seat I chose was coincidentally in the bass section.

“No one really wanted to be section leader,” a guy sitting behind me said, “so we were wondering if you’d want to do it.”

Wow.  My first day of University Chorus, and I’m already being asked to be section leader.  “What exactly does the section leader do?” I asked.

“Mostly just take attendance,” the guy who asked if I was a bass said.  “Just pass around a sign-in sheet, everyone makes sure they sign it, and then you give it to Sharon.”

“I guess I can do that,” I said.  I hoped that it was actually that simple, and that the other basses were not hazing the new guy or anything like that.

After the selection of section leaders, the actual rehearsal began.  Dr. Jeffs told us to turn to the Credo in the Lord Nelson Mass.  Each section practiced a few measures, then we sang them together.  This Credo seemed difficult to sing, because instead of harmonizing, it was sung like a round, with the sopranos and altos starting, and the tenors and basses coming in a measure later.  But unlike round songs I knew as a child, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the tenors and basses sang in a different key than the sopranos and altos, which created some very non-intuitive harmonies.  I had taken piano lessons for three years as a child, so I knew how to read music, but I quickly discovered that I was not very good at it.  I could follow along with sheet music when someone else sang or played, but I found it difficult to learn an unfamiliar song, particularly one with four part harmony, just by reading sheet music.  By the end of the class, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed.  Maybe I was not good enough for University Chorus.  But, as we were leaving, Dr. Jeffs said something that changed the whole experience for me.

“It’s about time to go,” Dr. Jeffs said.  “Section leaders, be sure to turn in your sign-in sheet for your section.  And, remember, if you don’t have the sheet music yet, go get that.  And they have a CD of the Haydn in the bookstore.  I will see you Monday.”

As soon as I left the building, I immediately headed to the campus store.  I remembered seeing that compact disc stacked there next to the books of sheet music, labeled as optional, and after today, I realized that I needed it.  I had no trouble following sheet music when a song was playing, so I suspected that I would be able to learn my part better by listening.

The first meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for the year was that night; that was when we performed the Scooby-Doo skit.  The next morning, I put the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass in my stereo and pressed Play.  I skipped to track 5, the Credo.  I knew enough from being Catholic that a Mass is the words from a church service set to music.  Although the Lord Nelson Mass was in Latin, I could understand what the words meant, since I knew the words to the Catholic Mass in English, and I studied Spanish, which evolved from Latin, for three years in high school.  The Credo was the part called the Nicene Creed in English, beginning with “I believe in one God,” or “Credo in unum Deum” in Latin.  The sections of this Mass appeared to be named for the first couple of words from each part.

I sang along while following the sheet music.  The women’s parts seemed louder than the men’s parts on the recording, but if I turned the stereo up loud enough, I could hear the bass.  Not only that, but I was able to follow along with the bass part on the sheet music.  I played the track a second time, this time singing along.  I remembered how, yesterday in class, Dr. Jeffs had reminded us to trill the R in “credo” at the beginning.  On my sheet music, where the words “cre- do” were written under the notes, I wrote “crrrre- do” underneath it, so I would remember to trill the R.  I started the song over and sang along.

My roommate Shawn came home in the middle of the song.  He poked his head in the bedroom door and asked, “What are you listening to?”

“Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass,” I explained.  “It’s one of the pieces we’re doing for chorus this quarter.”

“Oh yeah,” Shawn said.  “You’re in chorus.”

“It’s my first time doing it.”

“How’s it going so far?”

“I learned really quickly that I think I’m going to do better listening to the piece over and over again while I practice my part.  I can read music a little bit, but I don’t learn new music very well that way.  So I bought the CD.”

“Makes sense,” Shawn said.  He crossed the hall to the bathroom, and I closed the bedroom door and sang through the Credo two more times.

For the rest of that quarter, I listened to the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass over and over and over again.  When I was first learning a part of the Mass, I would follow along with the sheet music.  After that, as I was learning the part better, I would put the CD on while I was doing math homework or talking to girls in chat rooms, and I would sing along to my part.  This way, I would just learn it by performing, much as how I learned the words and tune to songs on the radio or on my other CDs by listening over and over again and singing along sometimes.

Something odd happened a few days after I got the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass.  I was sitting at my computer, at the desk under the bed loft that I had bought from Claire, doing homework for Advanced Calculus while the Lord Nelson Mass was playing.  I took a break, looking up from my textbook for about a minute.  Then I stood up and turned toward my bookshelf, about to look for a dust rag, when I realized what was happening.  In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I was back home working in a bookstore where the owner always played classical music.  The sound of classical music coming out of my stereo triggered some dormant muscle memory in my brain, memories of when the bookstore was empty of customers and I walked around to dust the shelves.  I laughed when I realized where this thought had come from.  I mentioned it to Danielle at the next rehearsal, and she laughed too, having remembered my stories from working at the bookstore that summer.

Although I loved listening to music, I always had a complicated relationship with performing music.  We had an old, out-of-tune piano in our living room at home, which had belonged to Dad’s grandmother, and I just liked playing around on it, but Mom always made a big deal of me playing piano and wanted me to perform for relatives and family friends.  I quit after three years of piano lessons in elementary school because I was self-conscious.  I never thought of performing music in front of others again until last year, when Danielle invited me to choir practice.  Now I was part of a chorus that would have to perform in front of a large audience at the end of the quarter, in a less comfortable environment than a church service, and once I got used to how things worked at University Chorus, I was excited about this.  The last year had been a time of great change and growth for me, and more changes were coming.

8 thoughts on “End of September, 1996. The time I joined chorus.

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