But music was his life,
It was not his livelihood,
It made feel so happy,
It made him feel so good.
He sang from his heart,
And he sang from his soul,
He did not know how well he sang,
It just made him whole.
– “Mr. Tanner” by Harry Chapin
It is odd in a way that music wound up playing such an important role in my life. My family enjoyed music but wasn’t particularly musical. We didn’t grow up with a bunch of instruments in the house and we were never much for singalongs. Dad whistled a lot, but usually it was only one tune that I never did learn the name of.
My older sister and brother were in band and choir in high school, and my brother went on to perform in musicals at Lake Region State College. I followed them into high school music, but I don’t think I really got much out of it. Sadly, when I was growing up my high school was one of those who served more as an extra two years of student teaching than a place to build a career.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the short time teachers were excellent educators and the school also had some wonderful teachers who had been there 20 or 30 years. But in many areas there was a constant turnover, especially in the music program. Music is an area that has to be developed over a period of years and where constant turnover is especially problematic. The music classes were little more than an opportunity to goof off and mine was a class that would take special advantage of that opportunity.
So when I left high school, I enjoyed music but wasn’t much interested in pursuing it. However, music wound up finding me. I happened to attend Jamestown College. I remember that cool crisp September day that was one of our first campus-wide assemblies in Vorhees Chapel. The college choir performed that day and I remember being transfixed at the sound that was coming from the front of the room. The next day I went, nervous as can be, and auditioned for Dr. Smith. To my surprise, he allowed me to join the choir and I remained a member, practicing five days a week, for the next four years.
I figured out later that what enchanted me at that first concert so was the choir’s ability to sing at just above a whisper and still fill the entire room with sound. Any group of monkeys can sing loud, Dr. Smith used to say, but it takes talent to sing quietly but with an intensity that fills the room. It is the contrast between the loud and soft that creates the drama of great music.
That was 30 years ago, and I found that music could take me places I never imagined going. The Jamestown College Choir, in the 1970s was the first choir permitted to sing at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I had the honor of singing there and all over the United States during my four years in college. In the years after college, during good times and bad, I tried to find a place to sing and had the good fortune to participate in the Billings Symphony Chorale, The Minot Community Choir and the Grand Forks Master Chorale over the years. All these groups chose music that challenged the singers and most of the time we were up to the challenge.
I was reminded of the importance of music in my life while watching the Beulah-Hazen Joint Choir perform last week. The two communities can be proud of the quality of the young singers who were on the stage that night. Others have recognized their talents as well, as 18 of the students have been chosen to perform with honor choirs. Perhaps some of these young singers too will find themselves traveling far from the banks of the Knife River to perform in the great cathedrals of Europe someday.
Now I am a new member of a different group of singers. The Knife River Community Choir has a long and distinguished history, having brightened the Christmas season in Mercer County for more than half a century. Rehearsals started last Sunday and I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the singers and how well they read the material at a first rehearsal. I am pleased that I will be able to continue to make a joyful noise here in Beulah. Truly, Dr. Smith gave me a gift that lasted a lifetime.
By they way, the Choir still has plenty of copies of the music we will be singing, so anyone who wishes to participate is certainly welcome to join us for rehearsals Sundays at 1 p.m. in the band room at Hazen High School.
Far Afield – Singing from the heart and soul
But music was his life,