Masked singers look forward to setting the music free

At our monthly music jam in South Beach, the talk was all about shots. Who has gotten the COVID vaccine, who has not, who is still trying to get an appointment? There were six of us. Turns out three are scheduled for our first shots this week, two are fully vaccinated, and one is still fighting the online registration system. The shots are so popular that you have to move quickly or you’re out. The first call I got came while I was driving to church. By the time I got there, all the slots were filled. The next time, I managed to respond within the first five minutes, so I got my appointment.

We are all hopeful that by the second Sunday in May we might be able to sing without masks. Oh, what a joy that would be.

You might wonder how we have continued to gather during the pandemic when we’ve been mostly in isolation. Some have opted to stay home, but the rest of us decided we could still jam with great precautions. We all wear masks, we sit far apart from each other, and we keep all the windows open, even in the cold days of winter. It’s not ideal, but we need music. Most other jams and open mics have been canceled. We have no gigs. Zoom singing doesn’t work.

I do play with the choir at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, also masked and distanced, recording Masses for people to watch online, but I miss singing for live audiences and listening to other performers in bars, restaurants, or auditoriums. I miss festivals, with crowds gathered around booths and outdoor stages, with kids and dogs and everybody together . . . remember that? Imagine standing shoulder to shoulder, singing, sharing a mic, feeling each other’s breath on our faces. Imagine all the things we never thought were special until we couldn’t do them anymore.

Masks make it hard to sing. The notes get buried in the cloth. Months ago, our church choir was given masks made for singers, with plastic frames pushing them out enough for us to breathe. Regular masks suck into our mouths when we inhale and trap the air we exhale. Soon we’re choking. This is better. Not perfect. I get a headache every time I sing with the mask on. Even with a microphone, I find it difficult to sing loudly enough or articulate clearly enough. Little things like watching the director’s mouth to make sure we start together are not possible.

I forgot my mask when I arrived at the South Beach Community Center yesterday. I had so much to carry, with purse, music, guitar, mandolin and music stand. No one said anything until I realized my faux pas and ran out to the car to get my mask. (I hang my favorite masks off the gearshift. Some people use their mirrors. Where do you hang yours?) We all forget sometimes. I know I’m not the only one who takes a few steps, then claps her hand over her mouth. OMG, forgot my mask.

In the news, we hear about other parts of the U.S. canceling their mask mandates. We see pictures of “mask burnings.” It’s too soon. Too many people are still sick. Not enough have been vaccinated. In Oregon, we’re keeping our masks on for now. We just have to wait a little while longer.

Have you heard Dolly Parton’s parody of her hit song “Jolene”? “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate . . .” Might as well have fun with it.

I sing mask-free at home. It feels good. But harmonizing with other people feels even better. Someday soon, the songs will ring out again, our mouths wide open to set the music free. Because all of us at the jam are now eligible for the vaccine due to age, occupation or special conditions, we are hopeful that two months from now, we can sing with uncovered mouths and see each other’s happy, relieved smiles.

Please, God, let it be true.

The South Beach open mic/jam happens on the second Sunday of the month from 3 to 5 p.m. at the South Beach Community Center, 3024 SE Ferry Slip Road, across from Aquarium Village. Bring your ax and your mask and join us. Wear something warm.

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We’re Never Too Old to Sing and Play

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Gus Willemin and Trish Morningstar at the South Beach open mic

 

I was sitting at the piano at the Saturday evening Mass when I got a vision of me and my three-woman choir in Newport, Oregon being echoed at churches all over the world, singing and chanting the same songs at the same Mass. It was beautiful.

Behind me that night sat two visiting couples, probably in their 70s. Both of the men sang out, one in a strong voice, the other in a reedy rasp. Both came up to talk afterward. The burly guy from Vancouver thanked me for lowering the key on a couple of the songs, making them easier to sing. The other man, thin, balding, with an earring in his left ear, shared that he is losing his voice to cancer. “Did any of you girls ever smoke?” he asked us. We shook our heads. “Well, good.”

All three of my Saturday singers are over 70. I’m getting closer every day. Our Sunday choir also has its share of septuagenarians. But none of these singers are “geezers.” Nobody is ready to settle in their easy chair to watch TV till they die. In fact, they’re so active it’s difficult to keep up with their schedules, whether they’re singing with Sweet Adelines, hosting charity events, working at the rec center, serving as Master Gardeners, taking classes, visiting grandchildren, or traveling to the Bahamas.

To most of the congregation, I’m a fixture. They only see the back of my head, if they can see me at all. The music automatically happens. Maybe the teenagers think I’m corny with my button earrings and my pixie cut hair playing the moldy old songs like “Holy Holy Holy,” then rocking out to “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness.” But I catch the little kids staring at me as they come up for Communion. When I smile at them, they smile back, star struck. The piano lady smiled at me!

Of course to some of them I’m the guitar lady because I play for the kids in the religious education on Wednesday nights. Some of our big hits are “Alle, Alle, Alleluia” and “The Butterfly Song.” The little kids sing with gusto, but when they become teenagers, they seem to lose their enthusiasm for the music. Why is that? Will they get it back when they’re old like me? It’s hard for me to understand because I never stopped loving music.

I had a very musical weekend. Every Friday from 3 to 5 p.m., the Waldport song circle meets at the community center. We have a blend of “young” guitar guys just starting to turn gray, a steady group in their 70s and 80s, and Doug, 97, who can’t wait to get to the piano. The music is rarely perfect, but it feels good.

Yesterday, we had our monthly South Beach open mic—second Sunday, 5 to7 p.m. at the South Beach Community Center. Again, it’s a majority of gray hairs. We get ukuleles, mandolins, guitars, fiddles, flutes, saxophones, cellos, and drums. We sing gospel, folk, rock, pop, Beatles, Dylan, Grateful Dead. Anything goes. We accompany each other and harmonize. This wave of sound builds up. Riding it is better than surfing, I swear.

We share a language of music in common, songs that we all know from school, church, the radio, and American Bandstand: “This Little Light of Mine,” “Mr. Bojangles,” “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” We grew up in an era when teachers made time for music. I remember loving those thick books full of songs that we sang while teachers played clunky old school pianos. “Waltzing Matilda,” “Funiculi Funicula,” “Little Brown Jug.” Do you remember? I wonder if children do that at all now.

Kids whose parents can afford it, still take music lessons, but do they get together and just sing? Are they too busy fiddling with their phones? Do they think listening to Granddad strum and sing is too corny to think about?

We old folks are still learning new songs and new skills. We battle arthritis and hearing aids. We struggle to figure out which pair of glasses will let us actually read the sheet music, but there are too many great songs to ever stop. We may have to lower the key a little these days, but like that man at church who is losing his voice to cancer, we’re going to sing until we can’t sing anymore. Then, like one of my favorite songs says, we’ll whistle, and when we can’t do that, we’ll listen.

Choir nightmares echo waking mishaps

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Valley Chorale back in the 1990s. I’m in the third row, far left.

You know those dreams where you find yourself walking into a class where somehow you have failed to show up for the whole semester and now it’s finals and you don’t know anything and the teacher doesn’t even know your name and you’re for sure going to fail because you never studied or did any homework? You know that dream, the oh-shit-I-forgot-to-go-to-school nightmare? I get those. My shrink says everybody does.

But more often I get choir nightmares. I have been involved in various singing groups since fourth grade. I sang in school choirs, glee clubs and madrigal groups from elementary school through college, followed by a serious of adult ensembles, including the Coastal Harmony Vocal Band, the Billy Vogue Country Singers, the Skillet Likkers (not the famous ones), the Lincoln Community Chorus, the Central Coast Chorale, and for 14 years, the Valley Chorale in Sunnyvale, California. I have sung in church choirs since 1989, joined the choir at Sacred Heart Church here in Newport in 1996 and have been accompanying and co-directing since 2003.

In my dreams, the church choir and the Valley Chorale stand out.

Directing the choir at a small-town church like ours means simultaneously singing, playing piano and leading the choir—which may be only two people at some Masses. It’s watching the priest and listening for cues. When he says the last Kyrie Eleison, I need to be ready to play the “Gloria.” When he raises the cup, I need to wrap up the Offertory song. These days, with our chant-happy priest, our Masses are almost constant singing. By the end of the 10:30 Mass on Sunday mornings, my throat is raw, and my brain is shorting out. I keep thinking about lunch and other non-religious subjects.

The anxiety plays out in dreams. I’m late, I find someone else sitting at the piano. I can’t find my music and the priest is already walking into the church. My hands don’t work, my voice quits, somebody moved the piano or unplugged it. I wake up with some song from church playing over and over in my head until I want to dig it out with a grapefruit spoon.

Although I have sung in many other choirs, The Valley Chorale is the one that keeps showing up in my dreams. The Chorale (not “choral,” not “corral”) is still going back in California. It was started by a group of friends with a strong religious component that has faded away over the years. I joined when I was only 23, newly married to my first husband. They called me “Little Susie.” Through the years of that marriage, the divorce that followed, and the second marriage to Fred, the chorale was my family. Under the direction of mother-daughter team Marian Gay and Cathy Beaupre, we rehearsed every Monday night, sang almost every weekend during our fall and spring concert seasons, went on a weekend bus tour twice a year, and gathered for parties and dinners, weddings and funerals.

The men wore black tuxedos. The women wore loose pastel gowns that we declared a good fit if we could get them on and they didn’t fall off. We perched on the risers in jeweled sandals at senior centers, mobile home parks, shopping centers, churches, retirement homes, and the occasional concert hall. We’d break into song in restaurants, on buses, or at people’s houses. We were not out to make money or get rich. We just loved to sing.

The concerts, billed as Bach to rock, always included some classics, some gospel tunes, some folk and pop, and a medley from a Broadway musical, complete with costumes. It was corny. Think Lawrence Welk Show, if you can remember back that far, but it was fun.

Illness forced me to quit in 1995. The following year, we moved to Oregon, where I joined new choirs, but I never dream about them. I dream about the Valley Chorale. In those dreams, I show up after years away. I don’t have the right gown or I don’t know the music. Sometimes I have changed so much they don’t know me. God knows I have changed. When I left, I was in my 40s with curly black hair and a much higher range. They have changed, too. Member have died or retired. New people have joined. They have learned new songs. But I keep going back to those dreams. I’m on the bus, I’m at the semi-annual “bash,” or we’re getting on the risers about to sing and there’s no place for me to stand.

Some of the dreams are based on reality. There’s always a moment of panic when you’re changing clothes between numbers and your zipper gets stuck or you can’t find your shoes and you’re terrified you’re not going to get back to the stage on time—but I always did. Yes, your music goes missing, you suddenly can’t remember the second verse, you trip coming down the aisle, the strap breaks on your sandal, or you start coughing and can’t stop. Stuff happens. You sing on.

This morning I had a different dream. I can’t call it a nightmare, and I can’t remember many details, but I do remember I was introducing a new, young singer to the Chorale, offering her the experience of this wonderful musical family.

That’s progress, I think. Valley Chorale, I miss you. I still have my jeweled sandals. Keep singing. And church choir, please show up for practice tomorrow night. Father P. is making us change the service music again.

What do you dream about? Do you have school nightmares? Choir dreams? Sports dreams? Dreams about your kids? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

If You Gotta Play a Garden Party Again . . .

Every year I swear it’s the last, but here I am again, playing at the annual Samaritan House Secret Garden Tour. I’m stationed in Mariann Hyland’s delightful “jewel box” garden in Neskowin.

I was definitely quitting this year after I wound up on “Scenic Old 101” driving mile after mile of winding, barely paved road. As the minutes ticked by, I knew I was going to be late due to misleading signs and not having paid enough attention to the map. I was tempted to get back on the freeway, buy myself an expensive lunch at some beachside restaurant and let the flowers do without music.

It wasn’t just me. A friend wandered the same direction, and she was using a GPS. So we were both late and both never volunteering for this thing again. Eventually, nearly two hours after leaving home, we turned around, found garden tour headquarters, got directions to our respective gardens and calmed down. The weather was perfect, the flowers were blooming, plant-loving friends were having fun together, and music filled the air. Also wine, cheese, chocolate and salt water taffy.

Neskowin is located a few miles north of Lincoln City, just into Tillamook County. My garden in the Neskowin Village snuggled in the midst of several cottages with their own spectacular gardens. As I alternated between keyboard and guitars, visitors admired the custom-made glass fence panels, the downspouts shaped like fish and turtles and the glorious array of sea air-loving plants. I disrupted the array a bit with all my gear, but at least, as you can see, I dressed in the floral theme.

You might wonder about the black armband. I wasn’t mourning anything. I’ve been suffering with an elbow problem called medial epicondylitis or golfter’s elbow for over a year now. It’s a repetitive stress thing exacerbated by playing the piano. Physical therapy has made it considerably less painful, but it’s still there and probably always will be. The brace helps, but I’m thinking the braces ought to come in colors to match our clothes. I’m going to work on that. 

Playing at the tour is always wonderful because I get to see so many great people, and so many people get to hear me. Also I get to play whatever I want. But there are challenges, too. The guitar-playing guy across the street, who knew every song the Beatles ever recorded, was distractingly loud. People frequently interrupted my music to ask questions like “Is this your garden?” and “What is the name of that plant?” There were cameras everywhere, some of them snapping pictures of me. This year, I saw quite a few people taking pictures with their iPads, too. But in the end, it’s a fun day, and it raises a lot of money for our local homeless shelter.

I came away with grooves in my fret fingers and a rasp in my throat, but ask me again if I’ll do the garden tour next year.

Probably.