“You know what? It doesn’t matter how many practice sessions you’ve missed, honey, because you just gonna jump right in with the rest of us and give it your best, and that’s all that matters.”
She smiled at me when she said it, but her forehead puckered in earnest lines, and her dark brown eyes stared straight into mine from her equally earnest chocolate-brown face.
I clutched my messy sheaf of music against my chest and gave a shaky laugh, glancing away as I stammered my thanks and tried to hide my red face.
She was the kind of woman you took seriously, answered instantly, and didn’t dare contradict. She could see too far into you if you did.
Besides, I was a newcomer. An outsider, really, and this was already insane.
I shook a loose lock of frazzled hair away from my eyes and extended my hand on a nervous impulse. “Well, thanks for taking me on. I really appreciate it; I know it’s short notice. Dr. Bennet, you said?”
She nodded, and shook my small clammy hand warmly.
“All right then, well… I’ll be practicing,” I promised, and scurried away, scooping up my coat on the way out.
I didn’t breathe until I was out in the hall, tossing my coat over my shoulder and clattering down the stairs on legs that shook like a Christmas jell-o salad. My stomach ached from clenching, but once I let myself breathe once or twice the tension eased, and an elated smile plastered itself across my sore face.
So. Shy, awkward little me was joining a Christmas choir.
Wonders would never cease.
But as I shoved the glass door open with my shoulder and sprang shivering down the concrete steps to the waiting car, a tiny tickle of foreboding lodged in the back of my mind.
What if it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be?
Turns out, my fears were more than justified. A week later, perched awkwardly on the edge of a hard folding chair in a practice room that smelled of carpet and dry-erase markers, I struggled just to organize my music as the rest of the choir laughed and jostled around me, reviving old jokes and cracking new ones.
My folder, a flimsy paper affair scarcely sturdier than the sheet music itself, had no pockets and was basically the paper equivalent of a soft taco-shell. My booklets of performance music slipped and slid inside it like pancakes on a sea of butter. Was it Let Us Be Joy that went first, or Joy To the World, and where on earth had Silent Night gotten itself off to? And heavens above, if O Come, All Ye Faithful was supposed to be an audience sing-along, why was the soprano melody so weird?
Also, should I offer my coat to the silver-haired, sweet-faced old lady to my right who looked cold, or would that be presumptuous?
Maybe it was just plain presumptuous for me to be here at all…
“Heads up, shoulders back!” Dr. Bennet called, and we all scrambled to our feet, dropping our folders on our chairs behind us. I’m pretty sure a tiny part of me died inside when I heard my folder slip off the back of my seat and scatter with a whispery thunk under the chairs behind me.
“Eyes on me, y’all,” Dr. Bennet prompted, and for the next two and a half hours my entire existence consisted of simply trying to keep up with the others in a barrage of unfamiliar choral terms, lessons from two weeks ago that I had not been here to see, choir splits, harmony troubles, breathing exercises, and the simple pressure to behave like a semi-rational human in front of all these accomplished strangers.
“I’m so glad to see a new face here,” the sweet-faced old lady who sat next to me said. Valerie, I learned her name was. “Are you new to this?”
I had always been good at improvising, but what little confidence that thought gave me quickly faded as song after song, my one uncertain little voice drowned in a cacophony of joyful noise.
Sure, they had their problems— but they were genuinely good.
Me— I’d never done this in my life.
As I stood in the front row with the rest of the sopranos, frantically flipping pages and watching Dr. Bennet’s wiry black curls bounce like angelic pogo-sticks as she shouted directions to be heard over the music, I knew I’d gotten myself in over my head.
Just how far over my head, I had yet to even realize.
I barely had time for a coherent thought for the next two weeks. What time was not spent plunking out melody after melody at our home piano and attempting not to choke as I tried to sing high notes softly, I devoted to flipping through my music and just trying to pin down the hardest parts. I’d have to hope the other parts would come with luck and practice.
I sang snatches and snippets of the program all day all through the house, until my little brother buried his face in the dinner table with an exasperated groan, clutched his curly red head, and declared he would die if I sang another note.
So I whispered the songs to myself until my voice was reduced to a scratchy croak, and that scared me enough to stop me— but the music and words still tussled in my head every waking moment.
The week of the first performance crawled closer. I redoubled my efforts.
“Um, excuse me,” the gentle girl who sat on my left each practice coughed, pointing to my music, “But the choir splits here, and you go down, not up. It’s pretty easy, see? No sweat… you’re doing great…”
All my past failures rose to the front of my mind and danced fiendish circles on my bed at night, keeping me awake with their leering faces.
I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t belong there; I had nothing to give.
When the day of the first performance rolled around, I staggered into the auditorium for dress rehearsal with my music clutched in sweaty hands and my stomach already turning somersaults in my ribcage. The rest of the choir was already gathered, clustered in comfortable knots around the orchestra pit in their own little circles that I dared not break.
I sat down on the edge of the first row of seats and waited to be called.
What was I even doing here? I wasn’t ready. Give me two more months, and I still wouldn’t be ready.
The single slice of pizza I managed to choke down in the university cafeteria after dress rehearsal tasted like cardboard.
By the time pre-concert had begun in the auditorium that night and I was crammed in a back room to wait my cue with the others, my nerves stuck out like broken violin-strings.
The room was full of the rustle of black choir robes and muted, hastily shushed whispers, but you could have snapped your fingers in the next room and I would have jumped a mile, then sat down on the floor and burst into tears.
I would fail. It was that brutally simple.
The shock of adrenaline that hit me when the first ear-shattering note of our cue slammed into my senses was enough to carry me through the auditorium to the stage. It looked like a Christmas paradise, hung with starry blue lights and mounded high with white and silver presents.
The orchestra, sunk in shadow but glowing softly within from the dim lamps of the musicians, seemed to be playing on top of the world as the crashing notes of a triumphal march reverberated through the building.
My hands were so slick with sweat I almost dropped my music.
I made it to my seat on stage, and somehow I managed to sit stock still as the march ended with a roll of drums.
An expectant hush settled over the waves of people I could just make out beyond the glaring footlights. My seat was in the center of the first row— I’ll never know why— and stuck out there in front of everyone beneath the twinkling Christmas lights, I felt my face burning with a deep and dizzying heat.
Failure or not, I was stuck here now, and there was nothing I could do about it.
My hands left wet prints on the glossy front of my music folder.
Half the choir stood to sing the first song, and their clear, high voices must have swept some of the tension from the air, because when they sat down the whole auditorium was steeped in an almost surreal silence.
For the first time in weeks, I could hear myself think.
No time to savor the moment.
The dim shape of Dr. Bennet, hovering above the orchestra pit like a herald angel, raised her arms. I lurched to my feet, and the rest of the choir rose around me, music open.
I barely even glanced at mine. If I had tried, I’m convinced I would have only seen complete gibberish.
The orchestra struck its first note, and before I knew it I had burst into song with the others, swept along by the music as my voice automatically found the notes I had practiced so desperately. “The heavens rang with praise… the night that You were born… the longing world beheld the savior come…”
I must admit, I was half-shocked to find myself still standing on my feet when the last great note cut off, and the unseen audience burst into applause.
They must not have been able to hear me. My voice had cracked at least twice, and it was as shaky as a dead leaf in a winter storm. The rest of the choir drowned me out with their voices that soared like the voices of angels, high and sweet.
I was nothing. I had so little to give.
I think if I had not been so utterly exhausted, I would have cried, but there was no time for that either.
The first notes of the next song already echoed through the silent auditorium, falling like snowflakes from the fingers of the harpist to our right.
I turned the next page in my folder with a shaking hand, barely registering the words of the next song as I skimmed over them. Wait for your cue, Kate… wait for your cue… just get through it as well as you can.
The grave, dark eyes of Dr. Bennet caught mine and I straightened, making a pitiful effort to smile. ‘You just gonna jump right in with the rest of us and give it your best, and that’s all that matters…’
A few more beats… and there. Our cue.
I opened my mouth with the rest, and our combined voices rose slowly in the first haunting notes of In the Bleak Midwinter. I sang without listening, numbly following the rise and fall of the tune with the rest of the sopranos through the first half of the song.
It was only when I turned the fourth page and glanced over the last few stanzas that my brain clicked back on, and the words washed through me with a shiver that stood my hair on end and almost stopped my voice.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wiseman, I would do my part;
But what I can, I give Him— give my heart.
I give my heart… I give my heart… I give my heart…
I raised my eyes, which were suspiciously blurry, and actually saw for the first time in what felt like ages.
Everybody was smiling.
The tenor in the row behind me started three notes behind the rest of his section, and still everybody was smiling, and there was joy in their voices.
Was it that simple?
I breathed— actually breathed— for the first time that day, and felt the tension in my shoulders seep away.
What I can, I give Him.
For some (the few privileged wisemen) it was much.
The ice-clear, sugar-sweet voice of the soloist trailed off, and for a single breathless instant all was silent, hovering on the edge of completion as Dr. Bennet raised her hands.
A great lump came into my throat, and I barely managed to swallow it down.
For others— for the shepherds— it was only a sheep.
Shepherds like me.
Dr. Bennet’s hands fell, and with them the last few rich, trembling notes of the song spilled from us, pulled by invisible strings.
“I give… my… heart.”
I had not noticed before how lovely all our voices sounded together.
The note ended, and Dr. Bennet turned away before she could see my smile.
But if I ever see her again, I think she would like to know.