Magic in the Music

By John Piotti | Dec 12, 2013

The snow this past Monday pushed Mount View High School to cancel all afternoon activities, which meant the Chamber Singers would not be traveling to Camden for one of their “Carols in the Round” concerts.

It was the first night in a week my son has had off. From the Saturday after Thanksgiving until a few days before Christmas, the Mount View Chamber Singers perform two dozen public concerts, plus sing at several nursing homes and a few private functions.

It would be a demanding schedule for anyone, let alone twenty high school students who also need to do homework and sleep. But the kids don’t complain. They all seem to love it.

I know John appreciated his night at home—the way we all appreciate snow days. The extra hours allowed him to eat a real dinner, and to complete his calculus before midnight. Still, I know he missed singing.

There is something magical about how David Stevenson, Mount View’s Choral Director, gets teenagers so enthusiastic about singing traditional Carols, many with sacred texts in Latin, German, or French. Yet he’s now cast his spell on a generation of Waldo County kids — including many who grew up in poor homes with no exposure to what might be termed “culture.”

At my public high school, the music teacher was often the object of derision. But at Mount View, Stevenson is — ironically — a bit of a rock star. He plays the role the football coach did at my school. And in fact, his music program in some ways resembles many good sports programs, with broad involvement across three levels: Chorus, Chorale, and then Chamber Singers — the equivalent of the varsity squad.

Stevenson’s success is clearly due in part to his passion for what he does, as well as his ability to connect with teenagers. But I feel that his success is also due to the music he chooses. Good music has the power to inspire and transform.

Last weekend, the Penobscot Bay Singers performed Handel’s Messiah. My wife Susan, who sings with the group, has been passionate about this piece since college — seeking opportunities to sing it or hear it performed whenever she can. On more than one occasion I’ve come home to hear the stereo blaring Messiah, with Susan signing along. After thirty plus years, she has the score practically memorized.

If you attended Saturday night’s performance, Susan was the one who was always smiling, often broadly. You can see her smile so clearly because she seldom needed to look down at the score.

Complete with professional soloists and strings, Messiah was an impressive event for our little corner of the world — another success for director Rick Dostie and his singers. The previous night, I had attended the group’s practice session. (Susan called it a dress rehearsal, but I’m not sure that’s the right term here.) Susan was convinced that I would want to attend because the soloists and strings would be there, and how, after all, could anyone ever pass up a chance to hear Messiah complete with soloists and strings! Two nights are indeed better than one.

Neither of us could attend Penobscot Bay Singers’ performance on Sunday, because Susan had a conflicting concert with another group, the community choir in Unity. (You may be getting the idea that it is not just my son who is flat out in December.) Susan is committed to the Unity group and, in particular, to the group’s director, Theo Vandeventer.

The Unity choir that puts on a Christmas concert each year is musically diverse, with some experienced singers and many novices. Theo is the glue. She has endless patience, and a great attitude. Susan has been extolling Theo’s virtues as a choir leader for years. I’ve known Theo as a neighbor, and have attended many concerts she has led; but until this year, I had never seen what she puts into this community choir.

That changed last weekend. Breaking with the format of previous years, Theo had decided that the choir would focus on a single piece — a cantata in multiple movements, complete with narration. And Susan volunteered me to narrate. Thanks, dear.

Initially, I wasn’t too excited about this role, or the time it would take me to practice and play it. But I was intent on making it work. I attended the rehearsal last Saturday in a good frame of mind. What I saw impressed me.

Susan is right: Theo is amazing. She is a skilled musician who is constantly teaching, doing so with a smile and an even hand. But she’s also the group’s biggest fan and a great motivator. Just before our second run through, when many choir members’ heads where reeling with details about notes and rests, entrances and phrasing, Theo brought us all back to what we were doing there. She told us — in the type of speech that could have been artificial or melodramatic, but wasn’t — to loosen up, to not get bogged down in details, to simply sing from the heart. And it worked. In the next run through, I could see and hear the difference.

Theo is the perfect coach, helping a ragtag team work together to perform well beyond what many would think possible.

What is it about these choral directors? Clearly, they are all talented. But I have to think that part of what leads each one to such a level of success is being surrounded by and moved by music. They are part of a positive feedback loop. The music shapes and inspires them, which allows them to get the most go out their singers, which, in turn, inspires them even more.

Perhaps that’s a stretch — I don’t know. What I do know is that music is magical. It can help us think deep thoughts, connect us to something bigger than ourselves, restore our spirits.

Last week, I attend two concerts with my 93-year-old mother: Messiah on Saturday and a Chamber Singers concert two days before. How she delighted! She had a glow about her long after the performances ended. Is music also the fountain of youth? Perhaps.

You, too, can experience the power of this music. The Mount View Chamber Singers have concerts most nights through Dec. 22.

Come to reflect. Leave smiling!

John Piotti of Unity is the president and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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