To Sing My Part

Our oldest son told me once: “Mom, life is not an opera.” Oh, I don’t know about that. My older sisters and I called ourselves “The Singing Salerno Sisters” when we were growing up. We sang constantly: pop songs, church pieces and folk music. When I became a mother, singing my babies to sleep was merely the end of a day spent singing to them. Now, I sing while schlepping our boys to their activities. I sing (not too loudly) to relieve my stress in the grocery store line. I sing while waiting for the tank to fill up at the gas station. All my singing, however, largely has been done in private. I hadn’t sung in any kind of group for at least a decade until I joined our church choir this fall. Because the choir is so small—two voices to a part—I’ve had to rethink the way I sing and the way I live.

The last time I sang for any sustained time in formal groups was 30 years ago. I sang in three high school groups: chorus, concert choir and madrigal choir. Even the madrigal choir was big enough that I could hide.  There always were several altos who were much more confident and talented than I. So I hid behind their voices. I waited for them to come in on our part. I followed behind.

I can’t hide now. In my church choir, I’m one of two altos. Sometimes, my fellow alto has to sing tenor because her range is too low. Sometimes, she has trouble finding the right notes or rhythms, as do I. This means I can’t lean on her. I can’t hide my voice behind hers. I can’t assume she’s leading me anywhere.

As a result of being one of just two altos, I’ve discovered I don’t always have the best grasp on lyrics. Often, what I imagine the words to be is slightly off from what the words are. I’ve discovered I can be lazy about counting, so I invent my own rhythms. I’ve discovered I’m always waiting for someone else to start singing my part.

I’ve had to confront the idea that my voice is my own. I’ve got to keep the time. I’ve got to know my part. I’ve got to know my words. My voice is part of a larger group of singers who are relying on me to be prepared and confident so in harmony we can all pray to God through song.

I am thankful that God, who created the music of the cosmos, led me to this choir. My fellow choristers are helping me learn to share what gifts I have in ways I never have before.“Give thanks to the LORD on the harp; with the ten-stringed lyre chant his praises. Sing to him a new song; pluck the strings skillfully, with shouts of gladness.”

  • Webster Bull

    Allison, I too am hiding out in our choir, but in the bass section, where we have several strong trained voices. Everyone else comes in and sight-sings on Sunday; if I want to have a chance of contributing, I've got to take the book home and plunk out my parts on the piano. But any way I do it, it's a joy.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Allison,I'm in Webster's choir (or perhaps he's in "mine" lol) – have been singing Soprano for the past five years. Like you, I grew up with older sisters who loved to sing. Three of us did a take off of the Lennon sisters at staff talent shows at a resort on Lake Sunapee. (ala "Dirty Dancing!") – and sang our way all over the ski slopes. Of course, we were in our very tiny church choir, as well. Like you and Webster, I'm a leaner – and luckily, St. Mary's has an amazing Soprano section, including several professional musicians. When our director is critical, I sing more softly – and he usually says, "perfect!"Your experience with your choir is illuminating; thanks for sharing and informing so well – in those and all your pieces.I'm convinced I get more from my choir than I give… this blog, for example. Would never have discovered it on my own!Keep up the excellent posts – all three of you – Sheila

  • Webster Bull

    @"Anonymous,"You could still pass for one of the Lennon Sisters.

  • Julie Cragon

    I applaud all who can and do sing! I personally always thought I could sing until I had children and one of them at a very young age said, "Mommy! Shhhh. You're hurting my ears." And another as she got older simply said, "Ummm, no mom. no." But, they don't say a word in church and I'm allowed to sing my heart out. Could I sound better in church or are they just more polite in His house?

  • Frank

    @Julie: My kids don't like it when I sing in the car,or at their ballgames etc. Therefore I do it all the time ;^)

  • Allison

    @Frank: Me too. I just tell them "If I am embarrassing you, I can put a paper bag over my head and then people won't know who you are with. Will that work?"

  • Elaine

    I've sung, off and on, for years in various church choirs. I also sang briefly in a gospel choir in college. I have an incredibly *average* alto voice. (I've blogged on this, too, in my post "Singin' in the choir".) The choir I currently sing in is unbelievably good, directed by a man with a vision, who has worked with them for 25 years, slowing building one of the best church choirs in the Pacific NW. We have a brass ensemble, a bell choir, two children's choirs, a large adult choir (60+ members) and, on occasion, our own orchestra. The music program is amazing and it greatly enriches the worship experience (or so I'm told by people who sit in the pews below).I feel *totally* blessed to have found this choir, for it's easily the best I've ever been a part of and, because it's a church choir, there are no auditions!!I, too, hide a bit and prefer it that way. I am, however, privileged to stand next to the lead alto.I've discovered, during my two hears of hiding and following, I've actually improved. The parishioners, were they able to hear me individually rather than the choir as a whole, might say I only had one way to go…:)

  • Allison is the link to Elaine's touching post about choir singing.

  • Laura R.

    Allison, I think you're really brave to be a relatively new chorister and not be able to count on "hiding" behind a more experienced singer! In time *you'll* become the strong alto that others will be able to follow. Hint: one thing that does help is that, after a few years, you'll know the repertoire better, so every anthem won't be new to you. It makes a big difference!But you've already discovered something more important: that it's not just you performing, but rather you are doing something with others to the greater glory of God, which supports the worship of the whole congregation. I think it can be a sort of spiritual discipline. My own experience has been that of Sheila above, that I get far more out of singing in church choir that I give.

  • Sarah Harkins

    I can only dream of being able to carry a tune! I sing and people turn their heads- not for a good reason :-) Kudos to you who can sing and are willing to share it! Now how about a nice youtube video of the Salerno sisters? there must be something in the family archives…

  • Allison

    Sarah: I will have to ask my dad if he has any tapes. That would be funny to listen to.

  • Warren Jewell

    New Advent led me to the site below, and I was delighted. It was linked from "A Video Every Catholic Music leader Needs to Watch". For those of you who sing the worship and rites, it infers you have work before you beyond your voice. But, it will be glorious work:;_medium=feed&utm;_campaign=Feed%3A+TheGodFearinForum+%28Army+of+Martyrs%29God be praised in others' hearing your prayers-said-twice.

  • Allison

    WJ: Thanks for posting the link to this great video. I passed it along to our parish listserv. I am blessed to live in a parish where the pastor is passionate about reviving the church's musical traditions, and where my friend has started a Gregorian Chant Club!