It Runs in the Family

Being one those geeks in the school chorus: Priceless

By John Addyman

March is “Music in Our Schools Month,” and it’s important that we all go out and celebrate it at a school near you…or far from you…it doesn’t matter.

I was one of those kids who was lucky to have teachers who saw something in me I didn’t. In high school, our music teacher, Mrs. Martell, told me to join the chorus. 

“You’re a geek,” she said. “We have lots of geeks in the chorus. They look awful but sound great.”

She really didn’t say it like that, but I knew what she really meant.

Mrs. Martell also happened to direct the annual musical, and she convinced me that I needed to be part of that, too. “You’ll be rubbing elbows with the best-looking people in school in the musical,” she promised.

And she was right. I made my debut as one of the cowhands in “Oklahoma!” and because I was little and geeky and thrilled in the essence of twerpitude, I had a big moment in the play. 

Right before the musical number, “The Cowman and the Farmer Should be Friends,” there’s supposed to be a tussle on stage. And with Mrs. Martell’s artful directing, somebody had to get tossed from stage right to stage left.

Me.

In rehearsals, I kind of got rolled across the stage, like Apollodorus unfurling the rug with Cleopatra in it before Caesar. 

But when we got to dress rehearsal, the guys who had been rolling me — some of them football players — either get nervous or athletic, and I was suddenly airborne on the toss. For the next three performances, I was propelled to a higher altitude each time, and I had the splinters and bruises to prove it as the guys started to get interested in the geek-tossing world record.

Our choir director was very busy, and rehearsals often started late. I was a tenor, and as we waited for Mrs. Martell, we’d start singing the doo-wop songs of the day. “I Wonder Why” by Dion and the Belmonts was a favorite because if one guy started the song, we immediately broke off into the other choral parts, and I could easily do the falsetto. We weren’t singing under a street lamp in South Philly – we were in a corner of the cinder block choral music room — but the sound was good. And the girls liked to hear us go off like that. Those were great, brief moments.

Mrs. Martell also gave me one of the purest compliments I ever got. “You’ve got a perfect tonal ear,” she told me. And after she explained what it meant — if I heard a tone I could replicate it precisely — I felt pretty good about myself. But then I’d think about “The Cowman and the Farmer Should Be Friends” experience and the compliment sort of faded away.

I sang in a college choir but got unfriended pretty significantly when I got mumps and had to stay away from everybody for two weeks. I remember singing my behind off in a Christmas concert and loving it, but I was only at that college for three semesters.

As life wore on, I met a girl who can’t sing at all — that doesn’t prevent her from trying — and we had four kids, all of whom have beautiful voices. Guess who wears the genes in my family…

My kids were cantors at Mass, and sang in their high school choruses and choirs and in musicals. 

One of the best moments in this dad’s life was listening to my oldest daughter, Amy, sing “I Feel Pretty” from “West Side Story “and “One Hand, One Heart” on stage and feeling the audience around me hang on her every note and syllable. 

My middle daughter, Elisabeth, sang a duet with her brother, Mike, in a school recital. They stood alone and beautifully voiced “A Whole New World,” and the kids in the audience and onstage cheered.  

And my youngest daughter, Mary Kate, came to life in church choir, even though she protested doing it. She has the incredible ability of listening to a song twice and knowing all the words, and remembering them forever.

Now it’s my grandkids’ turn, with my granddaughter, Lucie, the eighth-grader, making her second appearance on stage in a musical and I couldn’t wait to hear her. My grandson Jaden helps me with my job sometimes, and lately, he’s taken to singing in the back seat while we’re traveling. I smile every time he lets loose. Jaden doesn’t think about singing, it just comes out of him. He doesn’t have his mother’s pitch, but he sure has her volume.

Grandson number two, Jeremy, inherited Amy’s voice and the outgoing personality of his dad, Chad. Amy has chronicled Jer’s bursting into song — and dance — on any significant occasion. We can’t wait to see what he’ll do in middle school and high school. 

Each one of those moments is so special, so memorable, and they wouldn’t have been there if our schools hadn’t found and kept gifted music teachers. I worry about schools that have special music programs today, wondering if they’ll survive when the inevitable cost-cutting really starts in earnest as school enrollment continues to drop in our area. The day is coming.

That would be a shame. I know that somewhere, out there, there’s another geeky guy who could remain a geek forever if he never gets the chance to get tossed across the stage in “Oklahoma!”

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