By Susan Wilson

Guest Columnist

Oak Bluffs, MA, USA


There are an unlimited number of pieces that have been written about the pandemic (should that be capitalized at this point?) and individual experiences of it. A global experience broken down into stories that have both a commonality yet are also disparate. Everyone has struggled with the isolation, the fear, the mixed messaging, the masks. The sudden shortages of critical goods (cleaning supplies and toilet paper) and the primal urge to hoard paper towels and tea are common to us all regardless of philosophy or demographic. Some have found new strengths, or a talent for puzzle building; a return to a quieter life or a new joy in social media. Yet each of us has lost something peculiar to us, whether the separation from a family member or the missing out on a traditional Fourth of July celebration; a longing for a cup of coffee with a friend or a grandchild’s hug. 


What I feel most in the loss column is music. 

Susan Wilson


If any one thing defines my childhood, it is music. My grandfather was a percussionist in the Rhode Island Philharmonic; a hotel band drummer and an adjunct professor at the University of Rhode Island teaching percussion. He literally wrote the book on drumming. My mother, from an early age, had a wonderful voice and as a teenager took herself on the train every Saturday from Providence to Boston to the New England Conservatory to study voice. In my family, any situation can be cause for a show tune to come to mind. My aunt danced, my cousins sang and danced.


One of my earliest memories is of a collection of red 45 rpm records that encompassed the basis of a classical music education. "Peer Gynt Suite," "The Flight of the Bumblebees," "The William Tell Overture," "Peter and the Wolf." Beethoven, Brahams and Tchaikovsky. When Leonard Bernstein began his televised program introducing children to classical music, I was enraptured. No one had to make me sit and watch. 


Maybe it was because my mother was a singer, or maybe I just wasn’t interested in voice, but my interest always lay with the instrumental. I wanted to play flute. I started with the fife, sort of a gateway instrument in my town. We had a wonderful fife and drum corps called the Coginchaug Ancients and with the gift of a fife my grandfather had in his drum shop (who knows why), I got my start tootling out "Yankee Doodle" and "My Grandfather’s Clock." I learned how to march and play. I played by ear. We didn’t use musical notation; we used a letter system AABCBAA ("Yankee Doodle" if you can’t recognize it). Thus, I missed a critical step in learning to read music that took me forever to overcome. On to high school and, after a wasted few months on a piccolo, I began flute lessons in earnest. High school band, college concert band. I went from never practicing to practicing a lot as I took private lessons between college semesters. The flute, for me, was something that I picked up and put down as life dictated. After a long hiatus from playing at all, I joined the Vineyard Haven Band. I was still mostly playing by ear. Still playing marching tunes and classical pieces arranged for band.


The only vocal music I grew up attempting was church choir. For reasons I will never know, the choir director, an immensely tall red-headed woman with great flat feet and a cello background, decided that I, at age nine, was an alto. Now, there’s a joke amongst choristers that goes: “What’s the difference between an alto and a soprano? An alto can read music.” As I say, I really only played by ear, and an alto needs to do better than that. She tried, did Miss Wilcox, she tried to help me learn to sing on pitch, but it was a demoralizing experience. I just didn’t hear the notes. Now I know that if you want to hear the notes between upper voice and lower, you have to have good strong singer next to you. Lean in. For many years I was an on again, off again church choir alto. As an adult, I think I got a little better with the alto thing. But I was never comfortable. This is a life lesson, if you aren’t an alto, don’t sing alto. It wasn’t until years later, yet another church, yet another choir, that I decided to drop the attempt and go with telling my new choir director that I thought I was a soprano. Guess what? I was! Oh, heavenly day. It wasn’t just being able to hit comfortably higher notes, but it was the dirty little secret that sopranos mostly sing the melody. My playing by ear stood me in good stead. Remarkably two things happened. One, I learned how to really read music; and, two, it turns out, I am a passably good second soprano. This means I don’t have to reach those stratospheric high notes and I have learned how to distinguish the fine line between a first soprano and a first alto. I can parse the distinction and, glory be, sometimes people lean in toward me. A third remarkable thing happened, I realized that, even more than my years playing flute in the band, it was singing that I loved. And when the opportunity to sing more arose, I was there. 

For the last twenty years plus, I have been a devoted member of the Island Community Chorus. It’s more than just making beautiful music, it is the best of my social life. Like a Venn diagram, my fellow choristers intersect with my life. My doctor sings bass, a fellow member of Bonsai club sings alto. There’s one of the local vets, and beside me in the soprano section is my now 30-something-year-old daughter’s former preschool teacher. Most of my church choir buds are in the chorus. Over the years we went from one concert—the annual singing of the Messiah—to three very different concerts a year. Our skills blossomed under the gifted direction of our inestimably patient director. Our repertoire expanded to include new composers, even participating in a commissioned cantata which we debuted to the public in 2019. 


And then COVID-19. At first it was a matter of a couple of cancelled rehearsals. Then the cancellation of the upcoming spring concert. That there would be no summer concert was very quickly a given. Then came the awful realization that, given our demographic which tends decidedly toward the vulnerable population (a/k/a old), could we ever reconvene? We all had heard about the Washington chorus that became a superspreader early on in the pandemic. We are 100 members strong, older, packed into pews cheek by jowl every Monday evening for two-hour rehearsals. Then came the articles declaring singing as one of the most dangerous activities in this plague year. How could we ever go back to singing?


Even more than the loss of the chorus, losing my church choir was worse. Choir is devotion, it is faith and it is worship. Suddenly having none of that was devastating. Virtual worship without raising our voices in song is only a shadow of the experience. Even as our diocesan leaders struggle with how to re-gather, it is clear that raising our voices in song will not return any time soon.


I was thumbing through Facebook one afternoon when I came upon a post with a link to a virtual choir singing a piece we had sung in Chorus years ago. And suddenly, I was in tears. The magnitude of my loss, the world’s loss of the act of human voices raised together—in the same place—singing praise and love and tragedy and hope and glory was overwhelming. Beyond that, the words to this particular song, from Psalms, written in 1869 by a Baptist minister, ring with such a relevance to our current situation, that it is an act of hope to hear it. 


How Can I Keep From Singing?

Rev. Robert Wadsworth Lowry


My life goes on in endless song
Above earth´s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness 'round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I´m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?


"How Can I Keep from Singing? - The Podd Brothers

(Video courtesy of Adam and Matt Podd; Music arranged and produced by Adam and Matt Podd; produced and edited by Joe Gabriel)



Susan Wilson

The Podd Brothers


Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine. Her latest novel, The Dog I Loved, was published in November 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.