I took a trip down to Batavia, Illinois today to visit the Varsity Choir at Batavia High School, directed by none other than my former student and now good friend Paul Marchese. Paul is in the midst of his first year at Batavia and enjoying some fine success already, but he was feeling a little concerned about his Varsity Choir- a group of 55 singers that is essentially one step down in prestige from his Chamber Singers and which as a group tends to sell itself a bit short and also (despite Paul’s effort to the contrary) slides into an “always the bridesmaid/never the bride” mindset. Paul decided that a way to boost the morale of the group would be to give them some sort of special project or some special opportunity not given to the other ensembles- and Paul quickly settled on the idea of having me compose something for them to sing on their spring St. Patrick’s Day concert . . . and then come down there to Batavia to introduce it to them and work with them a bit. And how could I possibly resist such a request or such an opportunity?
And as it turns out, aside from the miserable drive down (with bumper to bumper rush hour traffic) the day turned out fantastically well. The group was everything Paul said they were: well-endowed with some fine voices, equipped with better than average musical skills, and hungry for something which would say to them, in no uncertain terms,
“You are Special.” And much to my relief, they (and Paul) liked both of the pieces I brought with me. One was a rollicking piece based on a traditional text celebrating the legend that Saint Patrick drove all of the snakes out of Ireland:
St. Patrick was a gentleman
who through striving and stealth
drove all the snakes from Ireland;
here’s a drink to your health.
But not too many drinks
lest we lose ourselves and then
forget that good St. Patrick
and see those snakes again.
And then I added a refrain of my own:
Do not forget-Do not forget-Do not forget St. Patrick
Do not forget-Do not forget-Do not forget this godly man.
Do not forget-Do not forget-Do not forget St. Patrck
and how he drove the snakes from our land.
It went over like gangbusters, and what was especially fortunate is that it seemed to fit their ability level quite nicely. (If it had been too easy or too hard, it would have not been so successful nor so well received.)
The other is a benediction song based on a text by Burns which I just love- and I think I may make this the benediction for my Musici Amici group as well. The text is:
May soft gentle breezes brush o’er your face
for each loving touch is God’s warm embrace.
May you have enough for all that you need
and never be hurt by another one’s greed.
The Lord keep you safe from terrible things
and at the end of this life, lift you upon His wings.
Some benediction texts seem so ancient and/or stuck up in an ivory tower, away from the real worries and dangers of the world. . . but this benediction I think speaks so beautifully to us and to the turbulent times in which we find ourselves. Anyway, the choir did nicely with this as well, although I would guess that they probably enjoyed the other piece even more. But actually, in all of my collaborations with Polly and her choirs at Tremper, I am often quite encouraged by her students’ capacity to appreciate and really like quiet, soothing music. Just because most of what they listen to on their iPods could sterilize a horse does not mean that they don’t sometimes appreciate shifting gears and allowing a bit of quiet music into their lives. So it was today in Batavia with these young people and this very quiet and tender piece of music. They gave it a chance and sang it well.
And I was reminded all over again that sharing something you have composed with a group of high school students leaves you feeling about as vulnerable as if you were parading naked in front of the student body or forced to sight-read rap in front of those crabby judges from American Idol. And when they like you and like what you’ve written, it is the sweetest feeling in the whole world. Well, the feeling was mutual today- I liked them and how well they sang, and I didn’t have to tell a single white lie as I affirmed them and their collective talents – and I hope this was just the first of many trips I’ll be making down to Batavia, IL – traffic jams and all.
pictured above: Paul’s Varsity Choir. They have 55 singers and very good balance between the four sections.