Sunday, April 11, 2010

Brothers in Song

It's said that music touches something deep in the human heart, summoning emotions that we don't always realize we had. When music has been a large part of someone's life, familiar sounds can also trigger memories that envelope the soul and, if you're lucky, can make the years disappear.

This was the case for me this weekend, when I returned to a glorious weekend of fellowship and musical communion with my college choir, the Michigan Men's Glee Club. It was wonderful seeing familiar faces, including many that I hadn't seen for nearly forty years. They're older now, of course...and one of the things we found we shared was the experience of a naive college kid looking into the mirror at some aging stranger each day. But when we sat down and began to sing, time simply melted away. The music all came back without effort, and raising our voices in songs we'd sung together brought back more than our youth: we found ourselves moving with the same nuances and swells we'd shared in another day, and spent the entire weekend helping each other make the audible magic that human ears recognize as music and our hearts feel as love.

The event itself was a unique confluence of events: it was the Glee Club's 150th anniversary, and the Club and some of the alumni had spent the last five years planning to bring us all together. Some arrived on Thursday, many from far away --- in all 35 states, and a half-dozen or so countries --- and we spent all day Friday, and much of Saturday preparing a concert. We divided into groups by generation, and except for the oldest group (whose director, Philip Duey, passed away years ago) we largely sang with the same directors we sang for in college: my group was the only one with three directors, as we spanned a time of transition for the club, during the 70s and 80s.

Each group sang three numbers, pieces we'd sung together as kids in college, at a time in our lives when the entire world was before us, and life and reality hadn't yet made us come to grips with careers and families, mortgages and responsibilities. Mine sang two spirtuals from the Club's repetoire --- Ain't Got Time to Die, and Soon Ah Will Be Done --- as well as The Last Words of David by Randall Thompson, the piece that clinched our place as the best men's choir in the world back in 1971, and ensured my group's place in Glee Club history. Our rehearsals were like time machines: before long we found ourselves once more moving through time and sound as a single group, focused and intent on making beauty come alive in song.

We also worked up several numbers as a group --- a number of old "Michigan Songs" that the Club always sings, and the Ave Maria by Franz Biebl, a piece some of us had never done before...and which, quite frankly, scared some of us, at least a little: it was a piece that was new to many of us; it involved an antiphonal choir (the current Glee Club, which would be performing from the balcony); and we had only two days to pull it all together!

We had a wonderful banquet on Friday night, and as Saturday's concert approached we all knew we were creating something special. But as much fun as the rehearsals were, they could not approach the magic of the concert itself, which was remarkable: our sound was as incredible and thrilling as ever. Each group had a different sound...the older singers enjoying a rich bass sound that only comes with the years, and the younger singers possessing a lighter, more youthful sound that was just as entrancing.

My wife and son, who came to hear it, said it was amazing and moving. They were awed by our dynamic range, and the breathtaking precision we showed throughout the concert and across all the different groups. And both were entranced by the sound of it we were ourselves, since many of us had forgotten (or, perhaps, never realized) just how good we sounded back when we were kids, or how forgiving Hill Auditorium is to a singer. We sang in voices as low as whispers, and in ringing crescendos that shook the foundations and hung in the rafters. The effect on the audience, as well as the singers, was electric. And in the end, the Ave Maria...the piece I was so worried about...moved my wife to tears.

Blended together by shared memories and traditions, united by a common love of singing, we spent the weekend working once again toward a common goal: sharing the joy we find in singing with anyone who wanted to come and hear us. And for a few hours Hill Auditorium was bathed in sound, as memories washed our souls and made the years melt away like mists on a foggy morning. We were, for a time, home again...young...and timeless.

Of course, as the sun falls and rises, reality always returns. And after the weekend there will still be jobs and families, mortgages and responsbilitites for all of us. But just as hearts are only as old as they feel, I hope I discovered the secret of eternal youth, something I can summon on command for the rest of my life simply by remembering this weekend, or hearing that glorious sound rising once again. There is, I think, a secret corner of the human soul that awakens whenever we come in touch with ourselves, giving us the power to make time vanish by tapping into something that makes us feel fully human, makes us part of something greater than ourselves, and connects us to others around us. I suspect we all have many such corners waiting to be discovered, needing only the barest trace of a memory to blossom into joy and wonder. One magical weekend showed me one such corner in myself: it seems I can make time disappear simply by waiting for a downbeat, opening my heart, and joining my brothers in song.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a retired public prosecutor from Michigan, writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.


Unknown said...

It was a fantastic weekend and wonderful singing.... to see a (I made it so I can say it, poor video, good sound) video of the "Ave Maria" go here:

Unknown said...

This pretty much captures it for me...

Hurrah for the Yellow and Blue.

Hamilton Chang
UMMGC Past President and Prior Friar.

firth5 said...

So well said, so true, so true. Thanks Jeff for putting into words what so many of us experienced this weekend. Brothers in Song, Sing On!
--Eric Vesbit, '94

Steve Johnston said...

What stood out for me were the rehersals- the commitment by our brothers as well as the conductors. We could have just sang - but the drive that made us Champions (I was in 78) really made me appreciate the attention to detail and thought that brought us togethe in a way very few things can in life. The experience in the Glee Club - seen with the lens of the years - brought a focus to what is important in life- creating something- sharing it and celebrating life with those friends - old and new - that made it all the more real and therefore , special.

J Fluke said...

It was an amazing weekend and I thank God for blessing me to be a part of it. I will never forget it!
John Fluker

Jamie Turner said...

Great post, Jeff.

I was struck by the number of times I heard the alums say how impressed they were by the current club (or any version of the club subsequent to when they were involved) and that they were certain they were never THAT GOOD when they were in school. I heard it enough times to come to the conclusion that it's a natural reaction, caused by being away for all of these years, out in the "cold, cruel world" that chips away at our confidence and our belief in ourselves. What the anniversary weekend did for me was refresh the belief that yes, I once was good enough to be a proud member of the glee club, I once was a world champion and that ... if there's enough belief and faith still inside me, I can be once again.

This was the most emotional weekend of my life, and I have all of my old brothers to thank for it. My appreciation almost goes beyond words.

Jamie Turner/'78
Tis of Michigan We Sing

Jonathan Shandell said...

Snaps to your post!

Stu Ryckman said...

Brought my Dad (Stan Ryckman) up for the reunion and concert...he was in the Club from 1945-47. He was an officer and was on the committee that interviewed and selected Phil Duey to be the new director. As far as I can tell, Dad was the third oldest guy there. I only wish that some of his classmates could have been there. I was very proud of him that he made it through all the rehersals and the concert. It was a magical, remarkable weekend. Thanks to all the UMMGC members and alumni for making the weekend so special for my father.

Bob Acker said...

Your comments pretty well summed up my experience as well. As I stood on the Hill Auditorium stage, I felt transported back 40 years to when I sang with the Club, in the first row, no music in hand, and blending with my brothers in song. Thanks to all who made this a wonderful experience! As I remarked to Brad Bloom on my way out the door, "Let's do it again next year!"
Bob Acker, 2nd bass, '69

Rudy Bickel said...

Thanks for posting this. It brings tears back to my eyes again.

What a wonderful weekend!

-- Rudy Bickel '59

Jon Tomlanovich said...


Thanks for expressing the great joy so many of us felt at this wonderful event. Words cannot capture the emotions and feelings of being together again, but you got awfully close! It was great to see you again. Go Bule!

Jon Tomlanovich, '71

Mike said...

I've been doing my best to convey to my family and friends what an overwhelmingly emotional experience our reunion was! Your words capture the weekend so well ... and I'm thankful for your blog. It helps a little to convey how magnificent the weekend truly was! Thanks so much ... and Go Blue!

Mike Foley '80