By Cate Huisman
It is a warm, bright September evening, the kind that gives no hint of the cold and dark that will inevitably come. Sweaterless, I toss my music folder and pencils — I can’t sing without a pencil — into my bike basket and pedal off to an autumn ritual: the first practice of the Pend Oreille Chorale as it prepares for its Christmas performances.
Rehearsal begins with reunion. I greet my fellow tenors, the altos who sing the notes I once could, the sopranos whose ranges I haven’t had since grade school. I hear about Gloria’s new grandchild, and Jodie’s new job at the hotel and ask Ed if he’s in shape for the ski season. I’m pleased to see that Jim is back; as one of a few who have been in the group since it first performed 30 years ago, he helps maintain its institutional memory and culture.
None of us would be here were it not for the devotion of Mark and Caren Reiner. They are, as one chorister has said, “unimaginably caring mentors.”
When they arrived in Sandpoint in 1992, they noticed that the community lacked a chorale and orchestra, and saw they might be able to do something about these omissions. It would be their contribution to the health and well being of their new community.
The Pend Oreille Chorale sings only classical music and, within that genre, only music the Reiners call “spiritually uplifting.” This is usually liturgical music. We never sing show tunes or jazz or pop or rock pieces. We present at least one and usually two concerts annually, something no other Sandpoint group in modern memory has been able to do, in large part because of the Reiners’ inspiration.
Theirs is no small undertaking. In addition to the choral practices each week, there are orchestra practices, as well as practices for soloists. Mark and Caren provide sheet music for all the musicians, perhaps 40 copies for chorale members and another 30 copies for orchestra members.
Often it is copied sheet-by-sheet from their own collection — legally, because they use only sheet music in the public domain. They arrange for the use of a hall for rehearsal and for places to perform, usually in Sandpoint churches. The Reiners are adamant that all performances must be free to the public. It’s their contribution.
On this first evening of practice, we search out our sheet music from among the piles the Reiners have provided, and start off by sight-singing through each piece. For a few, this is a straightforward process, but for many, like me, it is not. I keep my pencil ready behind my ear, and on this first night, I draw it out often to write “find this note” in the margins of my music. Occasionally I’m so lost that I circle an entire passage and draw a “!” next to it. Caren has told us it helps to lift our eyebrows to keep our tones from going flat, so I draw little eyes with uplifted lashes where I am told this is liable to happen.
In addition to getting the musical notes right, I have to learn to sing the words right. Words sung in English need to change slightly from how they are spoken, especially those with a hard “American r.” So on this first night I start to cross out every “lord” and “ever” (of which there are many) and replace them with phonetic reminders: “lawd” and “evah.” Still, I struggle most to sing the notes correctly; I won’t get these other details right until the snow flies, if then.
By October, summer’s end is hard to deny. Dry leaves crunch under my bike tires in the street, and the air smells of wood smoke. I’ll need lights for the ride home — such a bother, always misdirecting themselves, hard to get on and off, burning through batteries.
But when I get to rehearsal, I’m delighted to find that Alan has made and brought a set of his vital CDs. Alan, a retired physician who sings bass, uses a synthesizer he calls “The Mighty Kurzweil” to create recordings for each voice.
Starting with a performance in the public domain of the piece we are to perform (sung by a professional outfit, in which every singer gets everything right), he plays the notes for each voice — soprano, alto, tenor, bass — on the synthesizer, and records them on top of the pros’ performance. Then he makes copies of the appropriate CD for each member of the choir, so we can hear the notes we are supposed to sing, as well as see them on the printed sheet music.
Alan labels each CD helpfully. This year we are singing “Handel’s Messiah,” and my CD label reads, “Tenors! Here is slower and less threatening version of ‘The Messiah’ by G. F. Handel with every note of your part emphasized!”
This is important, because some choir members cannot read music at all. Choral prospects are told that reading music is not required, and there are no auditions for the choir. Usually just a small number of singers have no such recourse to the printed page. But many of the rest of us find the recordings really helpful.
Tonight we are struggling through “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” a challenging section of “The Messiah.” It takes a particular toll on us tenors, who often must sing notes in the middle of chords that aren’t as easily identifiable as the root notes the basses get to sing at the bottom, or the melody that sopranos warble at the top. Mark has us sing our part alone, with Caren playing just our part on the piano. After a couple of tries, we get it right.
We singers exchange relieved glances now that we have a better sense of what we are supposed to be singing. But when we are joined by the rest of the voices, our notes become elusive again. I come in on time but on the wrong note, and I’m scrambling as we finish the phrase and move on to the next section, having not yet perfected the last. There is barely time to scratch several circles and exclamation points, and two or three entries of “Find this note!” before we move on to the next section, “Glory to God.”
By November in North Idaho, darkness is already deep at rehearsal time. With few streetlights and fading bike lights, I count on literally blind faith to get me there. I arrive late, and find myself marooned at the end of a row of tenors, next to a soprano. This is risky for me, because as a singer I am easily corrupted. Although I do my best to sing the notes I am supposed to, I have a tendency to align my voice with whatever nearby notes sound nice. Usually, I try to seat myself in the midst of the tenors, where I will be surrounded by supportive voices, and led in the proper direction instead of down the primrose path. I feel a little nervous in this position, and I’m acutely aware that the season is progressing and my time to master the correct notes is dwindling.
Evidently, Mark is feeling some of this pressure as well. Although with his snowy beard he looks like a taller and somewhat slimmer version of Santa Claus, he seems to take life too seriously to appreciate such a comparison. He can play bassoon and trumpet but has chosen to focus more on conducting and composition — some other years, we have sung his own piece, “In the Stillness, a Star,” as part of our Christmas performance.
But tonight he is again frustrated with our rendition of “For Unto Us,” although the basses are the ones struggling now — failing to come in where they are essential for starting a fugue.
Occasionally, out of desperation as well as in an attempt to lead by example, Mark sings their line for them in a fine deep voice. Meanwhile, the altos — who, like us tenors, sometimes struggle to find the notes in the middle — are having the same problem. Mark tries to sing along with them, too, but singing alto is one of the few musical talents he doesn’t have, so Caren takes over and sings their part.
Caren provides a light, almost comic counterbalance to Mark, exemplified in random riffs on the piano, perhaps a bit of that challenging “For Unto Us” transmogrified with a ragtime beat. These often emerge when Mark is desperate to get us to focus seriously, like now, and they give us a brief reprieve in the midst of highly focused effort. But her gifts include a great deal more than that: Just at a point where I don’t have a clue what notes I am supposed to be singing and can’t hear them from other tenors, I hear her playing them ostentatiously. The fact that she could hear we needed this support and was able to play our notes in addition to the written piano accompaniment, with only the normal number of hands — all the while singing the alto part as well — does not seem like something a mere human should be able to do.
The experience is sobering. I’ve removed and reinserted the pencil from behind my ear so often that my hair is falling in my face, and I promise myself once again that I will practice more at home.
I shouldn’t have checked the thermometer when I left the house. I’m not sure I want to know that it’s this cold. I wish it would warm up and snow, so I would have an excuse to drive. The air is crackling and the stars are bright, but during the ride to practice I am too miserable to appreciate them.
With just three weeks to go, Mark is getting antsy about some of our continued failings. “You’ve got to count,” he exhorts us, and I know it’s true. I’ve been depending on the altos to come in on time so I can follow them. But they are depending on the sopranos, who are having a difficult time this evening — not only arriving on schedule, but continuing their delicate dance among the highest notes available to the human voice.
Desperate to keep things aloft, we are struggling through “For Unto Us” and coming in flat. Not having a particularly fine-tuned musical ear, I don’t suffer much from this experience, so I must take my cue from our leaders. Caren’s face shows concern. Mark’s is so contorted that he is unable to speak, but the problem is evident as he stabs his baton skyward, letting us know we are flat once again.
At times like this, it is easy for me to feel that we will never be the choir Mark wants us to be, that his demands of perfection from the random denizens of a small mountain town in the Idaho panhandle are entirely unreasonable. But his demands are his strength, and they draw from us the best we are capable of, even if it is not perfection. And I know, because he has often said so, that he appreciates us to an extent verging on reverence, recognizing the time and effort we are willing to provide and the community we are willing to form.
For every, “Don’t go flat!” (verbal or nonverbal), there is an, “I am so grateful,” often voiced at the end of a difficult rehearsal such as this one.
That attitude about their human companions reflects the Reiners’ deep concern about the state of the earth. They are worldly and sophisticated, and yet otherworldly as well, living far up Grouse Creek, 20 miles out of town, off the grid in a house they built themselves — everything from the solar collectors on the roof to the arched, stained-glass windows.
The living room floor is reinforced to support the weight of two grand pianos. In the basement workshop are the carved decorative parts of a wooden pipe organ, Mark’s current project. Outside, a monster garden provides for a vegetarian diet. They are ready to be fully self-sufficient if necessary.
But ready to present the choir in performance — that is another thing. This is evident, to me, in the number of penciled notes remaining on my sheet music. My habit is to erase them as I’ve mastered the problems they mark, and now, as Thanksgiving approaches, a distressful number remain. When I concentrate hard, I get a lot of the notes right. But as we end a phrase, I can hear Caren’s stage whisper: “‘ev-ah,’ not ‘ev-err.’”
Advent is upon us, and time is running out. We start again with “For Unto Us,” which I actually did practice this week. Some of the notes fall into place, and I’m able to carry on even when others around me are struggling. I count. I come in when I’m supposed to. But Mark has that grimace again. I draw the eyes with the raised eyelashes. “Glory to God,” however, is sounding better, and in the “Hallelujah” chorus, I have just a few pencil marks.
It’s almost a relief when I remember I must step out for a moment to check with my daughter on the phone. In the quiet, shadowy light of the empty hallway outside the rehearsal hall, I dial her number. Through the tall windows at the front end of the hall, cones of light in the parking lot reveal the first light flakes of the season, drifting down between the cars, settling just past my bike under the overhang, suggesting that it will be a slippery ride home. At the other end of the hall, a narrow window at the back of the church tells no such story of snow, revealing only the faint outlines of pine and dogwood in the dark.
None of this is evident from the well-lit rehearsal room. It is only the dark of the hallway that makes visible what is all around me. And the hallway reveals something else, too — not just what is visible, but what is audible.
Over the sound of my quiet voice on my phone, I hear singing. A sound better than any I had imagined we could make comes from beyond the door of the rehearsal hall. From here, I can hear how the voices fit together, how most of the notes, which we get right most of the time, create a harmonious whole. I want to linger in the darkness and listen to this choir as it knits its voices together to form the sounds I’ve been hoping to hear. I realize that Mark and Caren’s demands have enabled us to sound, if not perfect, at least heavenly.
When I take my seat again in the midst of the choir, it sounds the same as when I left — we are still struggling to come in at the right time and to remember not to go flat. But what I heard from the hallway stays with me. Now I know that even if we never get everything exactly right, our performance will still be uplifting. People will come in from the cold, knock the snow off their boots, pile their winter coats on the pews beside them, and experience that joyous harmony I felt in the hallway.
Even if we sing “ev-err” a few times instead of “ev-ah,” they too will feel the stirring of the season inside them and know a deep peace as Handel draws us through to his final resounding chords.
This article first appeared, in a slightly altered form, in Idaho Magazine.
Pend Oreille Chorale: G.F. Handel’s ‘Messiah’ • Friday, Dec. 9, 7 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 11, 4 p.m.; FREE. Sandpoint Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 602 Schweitzer Cutoff Road, 208-310-3616.
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