Friday, January 20, 2006

The Choir Bonus


I don't know if you know it or not, but I "edit" the Alabama ACDA newsletter. Jessica Hall, choir director at Jeff State, wrote a beautiful and personal article for the upcoming issue that I asked to share with you. She graciously allowed me to do so:

The Choir Bonus

Over the last 18 months, my choir and I have had to deal with something I naively hoped would “never happen to us”…the sickness and death of one of our own. In October 2004, Eric, a happy-go-lucky 20-year-old tenor, was diagnosed with lymphoma, and, though he fought bravely, he died in August 2005. I remember so clearly the day he called to tell me that he was sick. His comment was that “he wouldn’t be in choir that week.” Having difficulty imagining what could possibly be more important than my rehearsal, I asked him to explain. He told me he had a tumor, it was cancer, he was in the hospital, and would I please tell the choir. BAM! Choir-life as I knew it was over.

I walked into rehearsal the next day and, rather than beginning warm-ups, I asked the choir to sit down and listen to me. I told them about Eric, specifics on his cancer, and his comments of concern and love for them. What happened next was a learning activity that could have never been planned. These 18 to 24-year old college students stopped everything in their busy lives and rallied around their friend and each other. Through tears, they came up with ways to make his hospital stays more comfortable, such as buying a mattress pad and donating their DVDs. For Eric and his family, they sent cards, wrote silly and encouraging messages, added him to every prayer chain imaginable, visited him in the hospital, and called him (from choir rehearsals!) to tell him he was missed. For each other, they told stories and made plans for “Eric Happies.” For me, they gave hugs and offered to help.

Between rounds of chemo, Eric, his head hairless and shining, made it back to a rehearsal. The choir welcomed him with open arms! He sat in his old chair, shared music with a neighbor, and sang right along with us. During one of his later trips to the hospital, the choir sent him a video message of them singing, smiling, and waving to him. When I showed it to him in the hospital, Eric, with tears running down his cheeks, commented on the “nice tone of the tenors” and how much he missed singing with them. The choir’s spring concerts were dedicated to Eric, and we all cheerfully went into the summer celebrating his marriage and hopeful for his full recovery. Eric was such an integral part of our choir, and our choir was such a part of him!

Word came just before fall classes began that he was dying. Again, the group came together to say goodbye to our friend. Though Eric died, so much of his memory still lingers in our group. We still laugh and tell stories about him. Some songs can’t be sung without mentioning him. His energy even inspired the development of a new male ensemble at our school. And those are wonderful ways for him to be with us. But that is not what impresses me most.

A choir rehearsal is a place for hard work, dedication, and focus, as well as academic and performance growth. However, unlike other academic areas, it is also a place that thrives on the social and emotional involvement of the participants. Though I sometimes get frustrated when a choir member’s inside joke finds its way into my rehearsal, I am beginning to understand the WHY of that. Yes, a choir’s goal is to learn together, work together, and make beautiful music. But a choir’s bonus is the dedication, support, laughter, and tears that come from the friendships built while making that beautiful music. My students worked hard and sang well last year…they learned to sing beautifully together. However, I think what they will remember even more about last year are the lessons of friendship, dedication, vulnerability, fear, and triumph they learned from Eric and each other.

When I came back from class today, Brittney was waiting for me in my office with a plastic bag in her hand. “Ms. Hall,” she said, “I have you a present that you are going to love! I was going through pictures the other day, I found this, and had to make a copy for you.” Before she even showed me, I knew what was in the bag. It was a framed picture of a healthy, smiling Eric. Brittney and I grinned, shared a happy memory and a hug. Then it was back to work. But that picture is sitting on my desk. Yes it is a constant reminder of Eric and the remarkable young man he was. But is also reminds me of the all-important “bonus” material we are blessed to be able to provide our students.

There is so much more than music that we can teach. Lessons we may never have planned present themselves in the classroom and rehearsal each day…lessons for our students and for us. We so carefully plan our instruction on notes, rhythm, diction, and intonation. We spend hours researching music and practicing our conducting techniques. These are essential to the overall musical success of our students! But I think it is important to remember that sometimes the unexpected lessons are the most powerful and long-lasting. And though we cannot always plan them, we should look for those learning opportunities for our students, as well.

I am thankful for Eric and the lessons of friendship, courage, and faith he taught us. I see those effects in current and former students every day. I am also thankful for Brittney for reminding me that so much more than music happens in a choir rehearsal. There is definitely a choir bonus.


Clayton said...

Wow. This story really makes me think about how much I value the people around me. It makes me think of my close family, my wonderful fiance, and my exceptional friends. I am proud to say that being a part of the UAB Concert Choir is like being a part of a family. I dont think every choir achieves that "family bond", but I think it is needed to make wonderful music and lasting memories. Thanks for sharing the story!


Sam said...

I cried. That is a beautiful story Dr. Copeland. And what makes it beautiful to me is the hope inspired by its truth. The world is becoming increasingly unfriendly and hard. What people once called "pessimists" are now making excuses for it by calling themselves "realists". Like it makes it better. But, every now and then, a single fleeting moment like Eric's precious life reminds us that there is still people left in the world who don't look to the faults in us; people like Eric teach us to see what's underneath, to the good stuff that's still there. Both in others and in ourselves. This is what makes us a family. The fact that we see that good place inside and seek to celebrate it with music and joy. That is a kind of fulfillment that not everyone will know. Which is why in class we need not get caught up so badly that we forget the reason why we are there. To make music and joy. Eric's life was not fiction, but a real story. It is one of God's ways of talking and comforting us. Helping us see what we are sometimes incapable of seeing ourselves.

Lauren Davidson said...

Yeah, i'm with Sam, that story definitely brought tears to my eyes, but for another reason. It made me realize that in 4 short weeks i'll be leaving the choir for awhile and how much i'm going to miss everyone and long to be with you all for the duration of the semester. I know going to Chile is going to be an amazing exerience and i'm so blessed to have the opportunity to go and study Spanish there for 4 months...but those months will be void of the opportunity to sing in this choir that has become such a vital part of my life and my emotions. People have questioned why i'm still attending "class" 3 days out of the week when i'm not even enrolled, they say i'm not required to be there, and the only answer i can give them is, "i just can't NOT go to choir" if UAB concert choir is rehearsing and i'm not there i feel like my day has missed out on something very special. I'm honored that Dr. Copeland even let me BE in choir this year, it brought tears to my eyes when there was the possibility of not being in it at all because i can't finish out the year, Dr. Copeland i want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for letting me be in your choir. I'm looking forward to making some amazing music, and memories in this next month! ok, now i'm gonna go cry. i love you all!


Ashley W said...

I actually knew Eric. We went to church youth camp together every summer for about 3 or 4 years back when we were still in high school. He did have a wonderful voice, and was a great example for those around him. It was very difficult to hear of his illness and's still hard to imagine that he's not around anymore. Eric touched so many lives...more than he could have probably even imagined.