Wednesday, November 28, 2012

let's talk about school choir.

Ask my parents: I used to sing ALL the time. I sang the classics, like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but I was quick to incorporate songs from whatever Disney movie I had seen most recently. My singing didn’t end with mainstream music: I would also make up my own songs and warble them horribly off-key. Dad loves to tell me that “there wasn’t a bucket big enough” for me to carry a tune.

I’m not sure when or why, but one day, I stopped singing. There were no more concerts from the back seat of the family car (and I’m sure my parents weren’t disappointed), and I stopped composing my own lyrics to serenade whomever would listen. When my solo career stopped, it stopped for good.

In elementary school, choir was a required class. I didn’t mind; all we had to do was sing simple songs in a group so our parents could ooh and ahh over how cute we were. As the years went on, we got less cute, but we still sang the cute songs for the elementary school concerts. We never learned anything too out of the ordinary, and nobody was complaining. Choir was a cakewalk of a class, and we all wanted to keep it that way. Sadly, all good things must end.

At the beginning of sixth grade, things took a turn for the worse: we got a new choir teacher. He was a plump, angry man with fingers like sausages, and (due to lack of imagination) I shall refer to him as Mr Chubs. Mr Chubs had a whole closet full of Cosby sweaters and a glare that was slightly distorted through his Coke-bottle wire-rimmed glasses. It didn’t take long before the whole class developed a profound disliking for him, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

Mr Chubs would begin each and every class by scowling at us as we filed into the choir room. He would never say hello to us: to signal that he was ready for class to begin, he would clap a series of a rhythms. We would then clap the rhythms back to him, and he’d bark that we’d better start behaving or we’d be sorry.

It’s not that we were poorly behaved; at least, not any worse than your average energy-filled preteens. Unfortunately, Mr Chubs was not blessed with a single ounce of patience. By bellowing at us as soon as we set foot in his room, he figured that he was being proactive.

In fifth and sixth grade, our classrooms had adopted a rudimentary capitalist system. Each student had a job in the classroom, and jobs that entailed more work paid more. Yes: paid. We got little laminated pieces of fake money that we could spend at the “store,” which stocked erasers and pop and the like. Every member of the class got a set amount of fake money every week (sort of like passing Go on a Monopoly board), but a job was a way to supplement your income. The jobs ranged from animal caretaker (of the class hamsters) to janitor (which nobody wanted) to accountant (who distributed the fake money). To get a job, you had to apply, which was simply writing down why you’d be good at said job. Every so often, the jobs would switch, so everyone would get a chance at every job.

The most sought-after job was the job of the police officer, only because it paid the most. The police officer was in charge of keeping track of the fines. Yes, our capitalist system included fines: you could be fined for bad behavior or for not turning your work in on time.

So that was a rather lengthy explanation for a rather small part of my story: whenever Mr Chubs felt that we were getting a bit too rowdy, he would jab his chubby finger at us and yell, “FINE!” Not “fine” as in, “fine, now you’ve done it,” but “fine” as in “I am threatening to hand out fines if you don’t shut up.” Nope, he’d just roar “FINE!” and hope that the threat of losing some of our hard-earned fake money would be enough to get us to behave. Normally, it would’ve been, but Mr Chubs’ specialty was the empty threat: I don’t remember him handing out a single fine.

As we migrated into junior high, the fake money and fines were left behind in elementary school. Instead, little pieces of paper called referrals became the new disciplinary measure. Referrals were given out for the same reasons as fines: tardiness, missing assignments, and bad behavior. If you were given a referral, your punishment was to write some smarmy garbage to appease the principal: you had to write about what you did wrong, WHY it was wrong, and what you will do better next time. The more referrals you got, the more questions they added on. Too many referrals in a set period of time meant Saturday school, which was a fate worse than death (unless you were a member of the Breakfast Club, but we weren’t so lucky in small town SD).

Mr Chubs had a tough time remembering which form of punishment he was supposed to dole out. He started off the school year shouting “FINE!” as he always had, but it eventually hit him that we no longer received fines. Mr Chubs would then try and play it off as a “fine, now you’ve done it” fine and add on “referrals FOR!” like he was about to list off the names of people who would suffer the wrath of the referral. He would huff and puff and jab his finger like usual, and he’d holler “FINE! Referrals FOR!” as his face turned red and his crazy eyes darted around the room. Once again, I don’t think anyone ever actually got a referral (except for maybe my friend Sarah, who loved nothing more than to push Mr Chubs’ buttons).

Though he was slow to hand out school-approved punishment, there was a time with Mr Chubs enacted a penalty more terrible than any of us had anticipated. We were singing a corny song called “I Love Ragtime”: I can still remember most of the song thanks to this traumatic experience. 
(this is some other choir, but now you can get an idea
of this painfully dorky song. you're welcome.)

Just like every other day, the class was ignoring Mr Chubs’ threats. Finally, he snapped. He spluttered that every student must come up to the piano and sing their part… INDIVIDUALLY. My face went white. I stopped singing alone in front of an audience before I entered kindergarten. Even now, I have nightmares about being forced to sing solos. I would rather drink sour milk and pet tarantulas than sing by myself.

Most of the class shared my feelings about Mr Chubs’ sadistic singing, and we showed our displeasure by giving him a collective stink-eye for the remainder of class. He called us up in alphabetical order, so I was one of the first to be put on the chopping block. I snaked my way out of it by claiming I had a sore throat, but many of my compatriots weren’t so lucky. Some sang in a dull monotone, while others whispered or mumbled with their heads lowered. One poor kid even cried. Mr Chubs loved every minute of it.

Choir was still a mandatory class in junior high; otherwise, we all would’ve dropped it right then and there. We slogged through the rest of the year and rejoiced when we found out that Mr Chubs would not be returning for the next school year.

During the three years I suffered through choir with Mr Chubs, I don’t recall learning a single thing. Thanks to the previous choir teacher, I knew very well how to read music (I even won the contest we had to make as many words as possible using only note names: ABCDEF), and I knew the order of sharps and flats like the back of my hand (Fat Cows Graze Daily And Eat Bales!). If I hadn’t been in band at the same time, I could’ve very well forgotten such basic elements of music: we NEVER went over notes or rhythms, besides Mr Chubs’ clapping at the beginning of class. I would bet that this man had no idea how to teach a class: this was the teacher who set aside an entire week of class so we could do the Macarena.
Every self-respecting pre-teen circa 1995 already knew the Macarena.
We got a new teacher in eighth grade. Choir was still a required class, so we were all stuck. The new choir director was a bit of a whack job, but she was nothing compared to Mr Chubs. As soon as high school rolled around, choir became an elective, and we dropped like flies. Between being rid of choir and FINALLY not having to take PE any more, I was loving high school already.

Was this the end of my choral career? As a matter of fact, it wasn’t. Whack Job teacher only lasted a year or two, and yet another choir director entered our midst. My still-in-choir friends ranted and raved about her, so I rejoined choir during my senior year of high school. I sat with all my friends (the altos), and we had a great time. This director asked for our input on concert music, which was unprecedented. She taught us vocal exercises and a bit of solfege, and she managed to make choir fun.

My last foray into the choral world was in my sophomore year of college. I’d decided that I wanted to pursue a music minor, and that involved taking two semesters of music theory. Once I learned the magical circle of fifths, music theory was all peaches and cream… except for the sight-singing tests. We had little books of folk songs, and we were supposed to study so many of them for two or three sight-singing tests per semester. We tested in groups of two or three, and I was usually lucky enough to get put in a group with loud singers. I mumbled my do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-dos, and it was good enough.

Nowadays, I refrain from singing when possible. The only exceptions are a.) in church when nobody can hear me, b.) in the car when I’m alone, and c.) when there is alcohol involved. Trust me: it’s better this way. My fiancée James, the music/band/choir director, enjoys singing and is really quite good at it, so he just doesn’t quite understand. Thankfully, he has me around to provide a voice of reason when it comes to all this choral: during his first year, James was planning a class and casually mentioned that he was thinking of having each choir student come to the front of class and sing their part. “NOOOOOO!!!!” I shouted. “DON’T! They’ll hate you for it!” My story about “I Love Ragtime” and the ensuing humiliation was enough to convince him. Hear that, James’s students? You can thank me later.

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