Day One as a Choraleer: the almost end of my academic journey

One of my favorite scenes in The Holiday is when Jack Black’s character, Miles, says to Iris, played by Kate Winslet,

“Iris, if you were a melody…(insert a beautiful, soothing melody here) I used only the good notes.”

That’s how I had always viewed music, the good notes that live and breathe and play to describe people’s lives and situations. It was something easy, soothing, soul thrilling, and life-inspiring. All that was ever required of me was to hear a song, listen to it, fall in love with it, and then sing it. Nothing more and definitely nothing less. Until I walked into Erskine Choraleers, Fall of 2010, unawares and unarmed-who knew you needed a pencil for music?

A seat was assigned, a pack of music was handed to me, and in walked a man who would forever change not only my life but the way I viewed and interpreted music. The memory, though present, is slightly blurred. He held a pencil in hand and commanded us to stand. “Open your pack and pull out….” all I heard was Bach. That sounded familiar. Glancing to my right I watched to see which piece of music my fellow alto selected and did the same. Then I made the terrible mistake of opening the piece to reveal a sheet of paper on which an enormous ant hill had exploded. I’m sad to inform there were no survivors.

“Alright then…shall we sing?”

WAIT….WHAT?

Where was the music? You know, the part where I get to hear what I’m singing before I’m forced to sing it? Lost, disoriented, freaked out…are just a few words deemed worthy of describing how I felt.

“And if you will please in measure — that is a carry over, thank you.”

Carry over? Leaning over and whispering barely above a breath, I asked the alto to my right, “What’s a carry over?” I will never forget her reaction for it was the disbelief in her jaw drop, the roll of her eyes, and the sad truth in her voice that made me feel inadequate and unworthy.

“You don’t know what a carry over is?”

She made it sound so simple, so easy. My ignorance of sight reading could be overlooked, but not having the capability to understand a carry over was unacceptable! I was unfit to be in the same room as the rest of them; I did not deserve the title of Choraleer.

Rehearsal ended and I found myself sitting on one of the many swings afforded to us on campus, calling my mother, crying and admitting the following:

I’m just going to pack up and come home, Mama. I can’t read music…I didn’t even know what a CARRY OVER is! 

And, my mother in her wisdom asked me one simple question, “Why did you go to Erskine?”

Amid sobs, To learn music.

“And what did you learn today?”

Amid sobs with a smile, What a Carry Over is. *chuckle*

“And what will you learn tomorrow?”

Well, tomorrow and every day after that I learned that music is more than a melody we love and cherish. It is a full time commitment to a level of excellence that only a few get to experience much less achieve. Sometimes music isn’t only about “the good notes.” Sometimes they are sad, minor, dreadful moments of dissonance that collide, crash, and magically resolve. Sometimes music must first make us feel lost before we can be found.

Time hop to a small yet adequate Chorus Room at Newberry High. A young man walks in, a new student! He is joining my 8B and is looking forward to making music. Then I hand him a copy of the piece we are working on. He was lost, disoriented, and reminded me a lot of day one almost five years ago. “So,(student name), tell me, how lost and inadequate do you feel?” He replied, “Very.” I smiled, “Good!” Confused, he asked, “Good?” Opening the sheet music I replied, “Yes…Good. Because the lost can always be found. Now…this is known as a staff and these are clefs.The treble clef….”

Life lessons learned at Erskine that have managed to find their way into the new steps my life has taken. Day one as a Chorus Teacher felt very much like day one as a Choraleer: the almost end of my journey….almost.

“I hope you have a lovely day”

The bell had rung. The students, more than eager to leave, trampled over each other and chairs racing head-long to  the bus pick-up line which had suddenly become the universal symbol of freedom. As they and their tumultuous selves faded from view and (thankfully) ear shot, the following scene was born:

I have seen him only once before. Today he slipped past the mob and myself, heading straight for the piano. Fingers touching keys ever so lightly, he played a rag time. The echo from our rather old instrument filled the room with luscious tones and brought with it a sense of hope. Granted, my students are obnoxious and loud, unruly creatures of the day but that does not alter what Music is and has been in my life and the lives of so many, this young man being a prime example. Within seconds of unadulterated bliss, the melody ceased-its sounds a lingering memory-and the young man excused himself with the following phrase:

“I hope you have a lovely day.”

And I will, my friends. I will.

If ever a moment could be bottled away for a rainy day, I would that it be the moment this blonde haired, blue-eyed wonder of a human chose to share with me a piece of his happiness. Music, as I often find myself expressing to my students, should not be based solely on how it appeals to us or how it entertains, rather pleases our senses. Those are all wonderful aspects of Music which allow us to enjoy its many gifts. But there is a rather complicated and yet beautiful mystery to what Music does both in us and for us when used as a means to lift the fallen; or in my case, a rag time to revive a worn out teacher.

Prior to dismissal, my students posed a query concerning the many trophies that line a row of storage units in the far corner of the room. The most recent prize is dated at 2009 for their Gospel Choir and 2007 for their High School Chorus, more than 6 to 8 years ago. The students (being Freshmen) were alarmed to learn that other than a plaque for excellence from a Choral Festival, the remaining members of our Chorus did not have much of a legacy to leave behind. It swept silently and swiftly across their faces: this would be their fate.

And a moment was born.

“But that is their story, not yours. Music will give in return only what you are willing to invest. Next year, you will be sophomores and our Freshmen will look to you as the standard they should strive to meet; the legacy they should fight to uphold.” Pointing to the trophies, I stated, “But these will only be a shadow of what was achieved through the tireless efforts of many. Greatness did not come from winning a trophy; greatness was achieved first in this room and then acknowledged by many at those events. That is their story. What will be yours?”

So, what will be your story? Will you be the random, musical genius who tickles the ivories with some rag time treasures? Will you be the teacher looking for moments to birth? Or perhaps you are the soul dreaming of a legacy you think is out of reach?

Whatever it is, in the words of the Great yet famously unknown, “I hope you have a lovely day.”

“We pray that our lives might be Songs.”

Hello,

It’s me, again. My name is Hannah Collins, an Erskine Grad (class of 2014) and a Chorus Teacher in the making.

Recently, Gospel Choir held a concert during which the newest member of our Erskine family, El Presidente, was asked to bless the concert with a closing prayer. In the midst of his prayer the following statement was made, “We pray our lives might be songs.” Mind blown! There is so much truth to his personal conviction and I am determined to carry it with me both outside and inside my classroom and wherever my feet may take me. Our words spoken or sung impact the world around us. Our views projected or performed paint a powerful picture for those tuned in to our station.

My challenge to you, dear Reader, is to pause your playlist and contemplate the song you are singing to the world around you. Is it one of comfort and joy? Or complacency? Do you share your blessings or do you complain about your troubles? No, we can’t all be Positive Polly’s but at some point in our life we must realize that someone is listening. Our audience may not consist of the roaring crowds that welcomed the Beatles to America (er..United States of), but there is an audience and they are fine tuned to your station.

What you have been given today you will learn to cherish tomorrow only after yesterday has made them inaccessible.

Yesterday I walked the halls of Erskine’s Music Department and had my pick of six uprights and three baby grands. Today I choose between two uprights and that based entirely off of which one is less out of whack than the other. Yesterday I was the student blaming the professor for my lack of learning. Today I am the teacher striving for that one student to see their importance and purpose, being blamed for their lack of learning. Yesterday I was the voice complaining about the choral selection. Today I am the Choral Director whose choral selections have undergone much harsh criticism. Yesterday I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freshmen. Today I am a humbled post-grad wishing for yesterday to live it all again but this time make the right choice; sing the right songs.

Allow me to close with the following:

One of my students recently decided to vent some of her feelings and frustrations. She began by saying, “Ms. Collins, I’m just going to be honest with you, and truth hurts!” I prepared myself for a full-on verbal beating. She continued, “I loved (former teacher) more than any other person in this Chorus! And she connected with us. She did.” I waited…any moment now there would be that final blow to crush me. “But…you have done more with us. You taught me that I can learn to sing without following (student) all the time! That I have a voice and that my voice should be heard. You came in here and when I said I couldn’t, you said I could! (Former teacher) never did that.”

That moment exists only because on days when I said I could not there was always a faculty member saying I could. They taught me to be set apart; to be heard above the noise; to think and rethink my purpose. Always take the road less traveled and NEVER settle for the path of least resistance.

“We pray that our lives might be Songs.”

So, what song have you been singing these days?

If someone like you…

This is supposed to serve as an introduction to who I am as a person and as an Erskine alumn. So, “Who am I?” If that’s not a loaded baked potatoe then I am going on a diet! According to my psychology professor, fall semester of my junior year, “(I am) a special kind of specimen.” I took it as a compliment. He graciously informed me of the truth I had known but worked my entire life to escape: that life, rather God, had chosen to land me in the less than 10% of this world’s population; aka I would never fit in. He continued to inform me that mine was a lonely path to follow, but that he wished more people could see the world through my eyes. “I believe it would be a better place if they could.”

For the first time in twenty-seven years, I was not asked why I could not be like everyone else; rather, I was asked to stop trying to be like everyone else and to embrace the wonderful that is me. On that morning, I walked out of the Erskine building, paused under the towers and suddenly “You are fearfully and wonderfully made” became more than just words memorized by a Christian; they became truth.

Jump to May 2014:

The stage has been set, the graduates lined up in order, and there I stand impatiently waiting for my name to be called. It’s one of those surreal moments where you think you won’t remember anything, where time slows down and in the movies there’s always that breeze to wake you from your trance-like state. No, I don’t remember what the speaker said or who was standing directly in front of me. But I remember two things:

1. My best friend who was there from day one of my academic journey was sitting in the far back just to the right of the Grier statue, smiling.

2. That Erskine gave me more than a degree. It gave me the good, the BAD, and the terribly beautiful.

So, once more, who am I?

I am the baby of three forced to share the middle of four in a family of six. I am the multi-cultured, homeschooler with exceptional social skills. I am the bilingual entrepeneur who doesn’t always pursue or finish every thought that comes to mind. I am magic and Erskine is where I learned to be a wizard. I am your greatest friend and your darkest enemy. But above all, I am the child of the King of Heaven born to fulfill a purpose, called to Erskine College to earn more than a degree, more than an education; to be reminded that I am fearfully, wonderfully made. I am less than 10% but that is who God needs me to be. My oddities are the tools with which I either shape and mold or destroy the lives around me. Erskine taught me that.

My very first Erskine Experience as a prospective student was auditioning for a music scholarship. My two selections were “Time to Say Goodbye” (made popular by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman) and “Someone like You” (from Jekyll and Hyde-the musical). After entering the room, my goal became-not to secure a scholarship but rather- to make the grumpy looking man on the back row riser smile. By the end of my song and had acheived both!

“If someone like you found someone like me

Then suddenly, nothing would ever be the same.

My heart would take wing and I’d feel so alive.

If someone like you found me.”

These are the words I sang that day, knowing nothing of the truth they would hold in the four years that would follow my audition.

People often ask if there is anything I am incapable of doing. I reply “Fly!” And yet, that is what Erskine has afforded me: the ability to rise above the norm and be exceptional; to strive for excellence because it is attainable; and to finish what I have begun-nevermind the missed notes or fudged words. You finish and you do so gracefully.

So, “Who am I?”

I guess you’ll have to keep reading to find out. 🙂