December 6, 1996.  My first chorus performance.

I opened the closet door, sliding aside shirts and pants on hangers trying to get out the tuxedo from behind all of my other clothes.  When Dr. Jeffs had announced a few weeks into the quarter that we would need a tuxedo for our chorus performance at the end of the quarter, I panicked a little.  I had no idea how to get a tuxedo or how much it would cost.  A minute later, though, Dr. Jeffs mentioned that the music department had a place where they ordered tuxedos for people who needed them.  I met with a music major who handled the tuxedo orders; I recognized her from chorus, she was a soprano, but I did not know her name.  She measured my waist and inseam and arm length, just like senior year of high school when I took Renee Robertson to the prom and had to rent a tuxedo.

A week ago, I went home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.  Mom wanted to see the tuxedo, and since it did not come with shoes, Mom told me we could get shoes while I was home.  I put on the tuxedo in my room, a little confused at first but eventually figuring out where to put the cummerbund and cufflinks and all these other accessories and articles of clothing that I did not normally wear.

I emerged from my room wearing the tuxedo, awaiting Mom’s reaction, wondering what she would find to make a big deal of this time.  “Look at you, all dressed up,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  Her tone quickly changed when she said, “The pants aren’t hemmed.  And they look a little bit too short.”

I looked down at the bottom of my pants, only now noticing the slightly ragged edge where the pants stopped at approximately ankle level.  I had failed; the show was just a week away, and there was not enough time to get new tuxedo pants.  “I never actually got my pants measured properly,” I said.  “The girl who ordered our tuxedos, she just asked if I knew what size pants I wore, and I told her 36-32, because that’s the size of pants I always buy.”  I paused before deciding to reveal more details of my failure.  “But people have told me before that my pants look a little too short.  Maybe they really are.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mom said.  “It probably won’t even show, if you’re going to be part of a whole choir.  And you’ll probably be in the back, since you’re tall.”

“That’s true,” I replied.

After I took off the tuxedo, Mom and I drove to Macy’s in Gabilan.  I hated shopping for shoes.  I had large, unusually shaped feet, and a few years ago I always seemed to have a hard time finding new shoes that fit me.  This traumatized me and made me afraid to buy shoes, because of all the hassle.  I wore a size 14 in athletic shoes and 13 in dress shoes, with shoes being more comfortable if they came in an extra wide option, although normal width shoes were usually not prohibitively uncomfortable.  The only black dress shoe they had that fit well had this weird scaly pattern along the surface of the shoe.  It looked like the shell of a shiny black turtle.

“Why is there that pattern on it?” I asked Mom.

“What pattern?” she said.

“This!” I replied, tracing my finger along the pattern on my shoes.

“Oh, that.  That’s what dress shoes look like.”

“What?  I’ve never seen dress shoes like that.”

“Dress shoes look like that.  It’ll be fine.  Besides, if we want anything else, we’ll have to special-order it, and it probably won’t be able to get to you in time.”

“I guess,” I sighed, resigning myself to the fact that these ugly shoes were probably the only option.  Maybe Mom was right, maybe dress shoes really do look like this, although I did not remember ever having seen shoes like these before.

I laid the tuxedo in the back of the Bronco; there would be time to change when we arrived. I had people to pick up; we had organized carpools a few days ago, and I got a car full of people I knew, which was fortunate since I did not know many people from chorus, at least not well.  Danielle Coronado and Jason Costello, were in my car, both of whom I had known since our first week at the University of Jeromeville.  We all lived on the same floor of the same dorm, Building C, when we were freshmen two years ago.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore, was also in my car; we sang together, along with Danielle, at my old church last year. After I picked everyone up, I headed east on Highway 100 toward the Drawbridge.

“How was everyone’s Thanksgiving?” Danielle asked.

“Nothing special,” Phil replied.  “Just went to my parents’ house.”

“I was at my grandma’s house in Arizona,” Jason said.  “There were a ton of people there, but it was really good.”

“Greg?” Danielle asked.  “Don’t you have a big Thanksgiving family gathering too, somewhere in the north state?”

“Bidwell.  But we didn’t do that this year,” I explained.  “My brother is in high school now, and he has basketball practice, so we couldn’t be away from home for that long.  So we just had a smaller Thanksgiving at home, just us, plus my grandparents on Mom’s side who live nearby.  Today is Grandma’s birthday, in fact.”

“How did that go?”

“It was okay.  I always used to like traveling to Bidwell, but it just hasn’t been the same since my great-grandma died.  She lived out on the edge of town on an old cattle ranch, and I used to love exploring in the hills near her house, but we don’t have that property anymore.”

“Did she pass recently?”

“It’s been a couple years.  Senior year of high school.  So how was your Thanksgiving?”

“I was just back home with my immediate family.  But it’s always kind of loud, since I come from a big family.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably like when I was a kid and all the cousins would be there.”

About ten miles east of Jeromeville, I took the exit for the Drawbridge and downtown Capital City.  “So why are we having the performance here instead of somewhere on campus?” I asked.  “Is it always here?  This is my first time in chorus, remember.”

“Usually the fall performance is here,” Danielle explained.  “Winter and spring are at the Main Theatre on campus.  But I don’t know why this one is here.”

“I think there are just a lot of other performances at the Main Theatre this time of year,” Jason explained.  “And they just couldn’t reserve the building for this night.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

A few days ago, someone had handed out a flyer with directions and a map.  I knew my way around Capital City enough that it seemed easy to find, but in the maze of one-way streets that was downtown Capital City, I got lost far more often than I should.  Complicating things further was a historic shopping district along a street that was now only open to pedestrians and light-rail commuter trains, which traveled the street at slow speed.  

In the middle of the pedestrian-only section was the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the cathedral for the Catholic diocese for this part of the state and the location of this performance.   The large stone building, half the width of the entire block, was gray, with a large clock tower in front rising from the center and two smaller towers with crosses on top on either side.  A wide, low set of stone steps climbed about three feet to the entrances, three large sets of wooden double doors with statues of saints placed between them.  The middle set of doors was open.

The four of us arrived at 4:15 and walked in through the open door, through the lobby to the back of the church.  On the far side of the church, just in front of the altar, risers had been set up for the chorus to stand on.  The students who had arrived so far stood around and sat in pews, while the students from the orchestra set up their instruments.  At the side, a familiar face sat at a grand piano, organizing sheet music.  “Hey, Spencer,” I said, walking up to the piano.

“Greg!” Spencer said.  “I didn’t know you were in this.”

“Same,” I said.  “How long have you been doing piano for chorus?”  Spencer Grant lived downstairs from me freshman year, and he had gone to high school with Danielle.  I knew that he played piano, because I remembered him playing the piano in the common room of Building C many times, but I did not know that he was the accompanist for these performances.  Although I knew him to play piano, I would not have pictured him as the type to be in a performance like this.  Spencer always struck me as an odd combination of equal parts overconfident nerd and country hick, neither of which was a personality I associated with classical music.

“I started last year,” Spencer explained.  “They needed a pianist, I play piano.”

“That works.”

“Is this your first time in one of these?  I don’t remember seeing you here before.  Which group are you in?”

“Chorus.  I sing bass. And, yes, it’s my first time.”

“How do you like it?”

“It’s great.  For a long time, when I was younger, I never liked singing in front of people, but it’s not so bad when I’m part of a group.”

“That’s true.”

“Section leaders, I need to see you for a minute!” I heard a voice say.  It took a few seconds to register that I was a section leader and I should be listening.  I looked over my shoulder and saw the section leader for the sopranos, a blonde girl named Carolyn, waving and calling out, “Section leaders!”

“I need to go see what that’s about,” I told Spencer.  “It was good seeing you.”

“You’re a section leader?” Spencer asked.  “And this is your first time in chorus?”

“Yeah.  No one else really wanted to do it.”

“A lot of people get talked into things that way.”

“I know.  I’ll see you later.”

I walked over to the other section leaders.  “I’m here,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“If anyone in your section doesn’t show up, be sure to let Dr. Jeffs or Sharon know as soon as possible.  If you didn’t bring your roster, here’s a copy of the program with all the names on it,” Carolyn said, as she gave the three of us programs.

I went up to the risers to stand with the other basses as I read through the program.  As the section leader, I had been responsible for submitting everyone’s names exactly as they wanted.  I listed myself as “Gregory James Dennison.”  Over the last several months, I had started using all three of my names when I had to fill things out, and I had changed my email name and signature to show all three names.  I remember passing the list around asking the basses how they wanted their names in the program, and my friend Scott Madison, whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship before I joined chorus, commented on my name.  “‘Gregory James Dennison?’  You’re using your full name now?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t know why, I just like the way it sounds.”

“Oooh.  Can I be ‘Scott R. Madison?’”

“Sure,” I said as Scott wrote “Scott R. Madison” on the form.

Phil Gallo took the form next.  “When I was in high school,” he said, “I was reading something about these gangsters from the 1920s, and they all had cool nicknames.  My friend started calling me Phil ‘The Fist’ Gallo.  He said it sounded like a Mafia name.”

“That’s awesome,” I said.

“I probably shouldn’t put that on the chorus program, though,” Phil said, writing “Philip T. Gallo” on the form.

“‘Philip T. Gallo?’” I said.  “The T stands for ‘The Fist?’”

“Haha!” Phil shouted.  “My middle name is Thomas, but I like that better.”

The dress rehearsal went well.  We had performed these pieces well enough that I knew my parts by then.  Since we had learned them out of order, though, we had only been performing them in their entirety from start to finish for a week.  We sang Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis, commonly called the Lord Nelson Mass, first.  I liked hearing it all together in order; it began quickly but in a minor key, specifically D minor; switched to D major for the Gloria, and changed to many other keys and tempos through the piece to fit the mood of the lyrics, ending with an upbeat Dona Nobis Pacem in D major.  I thought we sounded great.

After the Nelson Mass, the Chamber Singers did their part of the show.  Sharon, the teaching assistant for chorus, conducted this part of the show. We did not have to do anything during that time except stand quietly.  As one who had not studied classical music in detail, I was not sure exactly what the term chamber music even meant, what distinguished it from other music, but the Chamber Singers were a much smaller group than University Chorus.  When the Chamber Singers finished, the University Chorus performed Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a composition from the early twentieth century incorporating four existing British Christmas songs.  This one had been more difficult to learn at first, since I did not have a recording of it to sing along with, but we had rehearsed it enough that I knew it by now.


After the rehearsal, we had a break for dinner.  Despite being in the middle of a big city, with lots of interesting places around to eat, I walked down the street to McDonald’s.  I needed something simple and familiar.  Danielle walked there with me, and we saw about ten other people from chorus there too.  I ordered an Arch Deluxe and French fries, but no milkshake or Coca-Cola.  Someone had advised me not to have sweet drinks or dairy, since those might affect my voice.

We all had to be back by 7:45, and I made it in plenty of time.  Some of the audience had already arrived, and more trickled in as we waited to the side of the risers.  My mom and dad were making the drive up to see my performance, and eventually I saw them walk in.  It was close enough to the start of the performance that I could not go talk to them, but I made note of where they were sitting so I could find them quickly afterward.

At 7:55, the lights went dim, and the orchestra began playing the oddly familiar droning A note that the stringed instruments used to tune themselves.  After they finished, Dr. Jeffs stepped up to the podium and raised his baton.  The orchestra began playing as Dr. Jeffs conducted, and a few measures later, we began our choral part.  “Kyrie!  Kyrie eleison!” we sang.

I was surprisingly not nervous at all.  I had rehearsed this enough, and listened to the recording of the piece often enough, that I knew exactly what we were supposed to sound like.  The entire Mass was long, around forty minutes; I sang my part, just as we had been rehearsing, and I stood still and silent as the soloists did their parts.

As much as I enjoyed being in chorus, I never considered trying out for a solo.  I did not have the vocal talent to sing a solo.  The resounding deep voice of the bass soloist, the clear high tones of the tenor soloist, the warble of the alto and soprano soloists, all of those were sounds that my voice was not trained to make.  I was not a vocal soloist, but I was getting used to feeling like I at least belonged in the chorus.

The rest of the night went smoothly, just as we rehearsed.  I felt a little uncomfortable standing through the entire Chamber Singers performance, looking down on Sharon conducting the small group in front of us, but once we began Fantasia on Christmas Carols, I was sufficiently distracted that I no longer noticed my uncomfortably sore feet in the ugly shoes.  I wished I had a recording of this piece, because I really liked it; it was a different twist on classical Christmas music, beyond the same old songs I hear every year.

The performance ended, and we got a standing ovation from the audience.  The applause seemed to last a long time as each conductor and each group took bows and was recognized separately.  I was a part of that.  They were cheering for me.  I was not used to receiving applause, and it felt good.  I smiled.

Eventually, the lights came back up, and I saw people mingling with friends and family in the audience.  I turned to Phil, the nearest person from my carpool, and said, “I’m going to go say hi to my parents.  If Jason and Danielle are ready to drive back, tell them I’ll be back soon.”

“Okay,” Phil said.

I walked over to Mom and Dad; Mom saw me and gave me a hug.  “You look good in your tux,” she said.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“That was very nice,” Dad said.  “I’m glad you’re doing music again.”

“Me too,” I said.  “What are you guys doing tonight?”

“If it’s okay with you, we’re just going to go back to the motel without stopping at your house.  It’s getting late.  We’re staying at the Oak Tree Inn in Woodville, because everything in Jeromeville was either booked or really expensive.”

“Yeah, that sounds right for Jeromeville.”

“We can take you to breakfast in the morning.  Does that sound good?”

“Sure.  That works out perfectly, because there’s an after party, and I wanted to stop by.”

“Great!  We don’t want to get in the way when you’re hanging out with your friends.”

“Thanks.  So I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Sounds good!”


I got home after dropping off the others in my car.  The after party was at someone’s house, not too far from my house, just off of Maple Drive on the other side of Coventry Boulevard.  I walked in and looked around.  I saw a number of familiar faces, but most of my closest friends in chorus were not here.  Danielle, Scott and Amelia, Jason, Phil, all absent.  Claire and Margaret were here, but Claire was a music major, so she knew all these people, and Margaret was her sister.

“Hey, Greg!” Claire said as Margaret waved.  “What did you think of the show?”

“It was great!  I’m glad it’s over, though.  One less thing to concentrate on as finals start.”

“I know!  This is your first chorus after-party, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Have fun!”

I walked around trying to start conversations.  Most of the conversations were about music things that I did not understand, and a lot of people were drinking.  I sat to the side making small talk with anyone who seemed interested in doing so, and I learned names of more of the people I had been singing with for three months but did not know well.  I eventually went home after a little over an hour, because this party did not really feel like my scene.

Breakfast with Mom and Dad the next morning went well.  We went to Denny’s, where I ate way too much, and Mom spent much of the time asking gossipy questions about other people in the show last night and pointing out if their noses were too big, or their eyes were too close together, or any other interesting thing to notice about them.  Mom did this kind of thing for everyone.  She also said that the Oak Tree Inn was very nice for the amount they paid.  For the rest of the years I lived in Jeromeville, my parents stayed at the Oak Tree Inn when they came to visit.  It was only ten miles away, and much less expensive than the alternatives.

I may have not fit in with the crowd at the after party, but I was starting to feel like I was actually a musician.  I had no plans to try out for a solo, but I enjoyed being in the chorus.  I would not be able to take chorus winter quarter, though.  Dr. Hurt, the professor I currently had for Introduction to New Testament, taught another class I wanted to take that met at the same time as chorus.  I would do everything I could to make sure I took chorus again spring quarter, though.  In addition to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the Math Club, chorus was now one of my activities to be involved in, and I looked forward to when I could do it again in the future.  Even if it meant wearing those ugly uncomfortable shoes with the tuxedo.

The ugly shoes today, after spending a couple decades collecting dust in the bottom of my closet and not being worn. I still have them, for some reason.

Author’s note: Have any of you ever been part of a chorus or any sort of performing group? What was that like for you? Do any of you have any interesting stories about that?

Also, I thought about making the song for this episode be something from Fantasia on Christmas Carols, since I already shared a different part of the Nelson Mass in a different episode. But Fantasia on Christmas Carols is 11 minutes long and not broken into parts, and I am posting this episode in October and I have a strict personal policy not to share Christmas music when it’s not December. But if you really want to hear Fantasia on Christmas Carols, click here.

5 thoughts on “December 6, 1996.  My first chorus performance.

    1. Thank you! Just so you know, I’m really not an expert on classical music in real life either; if I ever get picked to go on Jeopardy!, that’ll be one of the categories I’m weak in. So all of the music I write about in chorus-related episodes is, and in future chorus episodes will be, pieces I actually sang when I was actually in chorus many years ago.

      “Sacred-ish”… why exactly did you use that word to describe it? I’m curious what you’re getting at there…

      Like

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