This past Sunday was the day of my church’s cantata. Our choir director, Jeff, had chosen a high-energy cantata called God Coming Down, which was co-written by Travis Cottrell. It was gorgeous music, sometimes bordering on rock and dangerously danceable in places–at least for a Baptist church. I was asked to lend my tones as the narrator for the whole shebang and as the soloist on one of the quieter pieces called O Bless the Lord. We had been rehearsing this cantata since early October and despite getting snowed out for one rehearsal, we were ready to go on Sunday. I was also honored that Jeff had asked me to sing O Bless the Lord during the Sunday morning service as a preview to the evening’s performance. It went pretty good, too, if I do say so myself. I’d spent the whole morning avoiding things that would gum up one’s voice, such as not eating any cheese and not drinking any caffeine that might dry me out. I wanted my vocal cords properly moistened and warmed up for both morning and evening performances, cause the message of the song deserved it and I wanted to sound good in delivering it.
Let me back up a second.
The very first solo I ever sang at this church was in a Christmas cantata, round about the year 2002 or so–which was, basically, when I joined the church choir. Our choir director at the time assigned me two fairly short lines in one song and I managed to choke on the second of those lines in both performances we gave. The first, and most memorable of the performance chokings, was at the Alderson Federal Women’s Prison, 20 miles away in Alderson, WV. Now, there’s a chance you’ve heard of this place because of its most famous inmate of recent years, one Martha Stewart; however, Martha was still a few years away from her stay there. Our church choir of 2002 was invited to come and sing our cantata for the ladies of the prison and they, in turn, would sing some Christmas music for us. I was a bit nervous, having not sung a solo publicly since participating in one of those wretched high school show choir medley shows, featuring snippets of over-baked songs from the `50s, a show I was forcibly drafted into participating in because my third-string drama class didn’t have a play to do instead and they needed to give me a grade for doing something. (This was in the dark days before the TV show Glee, when such show choirs were not cool at all.)
When it came time for me to sing my first line at the prison, I sang it clearly and, I thought, pretty well. What I wasn’t prepared for was the response this well-sung line–well sung by a male, no less–would get from the ladies of the prison, for they gave off whoops and hollers and began applauding like I was Usher. When it came time to sing my next line, though, I was seized by nerves and my voice warbled like a pubescent Peter Brady. It killed all cred I had just built with the ladies in the audience. There was almost an audible sound of disappointment. Two days later, with that memory still fixed in my head, I did the exact same thing in front of our congregation at church, only without the whoops and hollers in between. It’s that memory that I’ve tried to live down in all future church performances.
These days, I’m old hat at singing in church and have even turned my singing talents back to the stage, with several professional productions at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, some of which have been musicals, one of which was an opera. I tend not to choke when it comes to singing.
This past Sunday night, at 7 p.m., the cantata service began. Instead of being in the choir loft with the rest of the choir, Jeff had asked me to start my narration from the back of the sanctuary, where I could walk down the aisle in darkness, creating an effect. I’d even memorized that particular narration, since I wouldn’t have any light to see my words by (though the words were, thankfully, printed on the overhead projected image of the cantata DVD just for backup). The cantata started, I said my words flawlessly and headed up into the loft to join the choir for the first song. I didn’t think I felt nervous, but I must have been for my mouth had gone very dry. I had some water there in the choir-loft, though, so it would just be a matter of finding time to sneak some. Didn’t find any after the first song, because I had to step down to narrate again and then step right back up to start singing with the choir almost immediately. The second number was a gospel-themed title song, God Coming Down. It’s probably the most challenging song of the whole cantata because it’s very fast and with a lot of ad-libbing on the part of the soloist, but with lots of business for the choir as well. Think big black gospel choir (only one of which was actually black, and that wasn’t the soloist) and you have a decent picture. The song builds to a huge ending that is designed to leave the audience cheering. And we followed that design, because they were indeed cheering. The song doesn’t actually end there, though. After the audience has clapped a bit, the music is supposed to start back with a reprise of the chorus–only even faster than before and with the lyrics starting almost immediately.
This is where I made my mistake.
I tried to sneak some water during the applause, knowing I had another narration to do shortly. So I brought my water bottle up, thinking the sound guys were going to let the applause go for a bit before starting the reprise. I was wrong. They let the DVD run on for its 4 second pause, enough time for me to get water into my mouth, then the drum beats kicked in and the choir started singing. In my haste to swallow and start singing again, I inhaled a little bit of water. And suddenly, my vocal cords seized up I couldn’t sing anymore.
I tried to put a game face on and continued mouthing the words to the song, but every time I tried to sing any of them the sounds came out sounding more like Gollum, from Lord of the Rings, than me. My high range was shot, my low range was shot and the middle range area was really really clunky. I tried to cough the water out, but this seemed to make things sound worse somehow. Then the song was over and it was time to go narrate again. It sounded awful, though I managed to get all the words out more-or-less. Great, now I couldn’t sing or speak and my solo was a mere four songs away.
Throughout the next three pieces, I continued to try and clear my throat, occasionally sipping more water to try and remove whatever crud was on the vocal cords, or just sooth them from the punishment they had endured. Didn’t seem to be helping. I then tried to relax and just mouth the words, saving what little voice I had. When I gave it a few test notes, though, it still sounded terrible. I couldn’t even sing falsetto to hit the higher notes, cause that sounded worse than full voice.
My speaking voice cleared up a little bit, but it was certainly not what I’d call good and my ability to match the energy of Travis Cottrell’s intent was waning.
How was I going to get through my solo? It was going to be a train wreck and there was not much I could do about it. Was it possible to somehow communicate with Jeff using sign language that I wasn’t going to be able to sing? Or was it wise to just go up to him before my song and tell him that? Could he pinch hit for me?
I did the narration for the song right before mine, a duet, half of which was sung by my friend Brian and the other by a lady named Jane. I knew they would knock it out of the park and it was one of my favorite moments of the whole cantata. I couldn’t even enjoy it, though, because every note brought me closer to the disaster that would be my song. Half the crowd had heard me sing it that morning. They knew what it was supposed to sound like and I was not about to deliver that.
I began praying–which I should have been doing all along–and just asking God to clear my voice. I figured there was no easy way out of this mess, so I was going to have to try my best and croak it on out, hoping that at least the message of the lyrics would be heard even if they weren’t pretty. And the notes remained very ugly indeed during the choir parts of Brian and Jane’s song. My favorite tenor note in the entire cantata was in there, too, and I couldn’t hit it at all.
When the song ended, I walked down the steps of the choir loft and toward the stage. My mind was spinning. Should I say something beforehand? Should I explain that I’d choked on water during what was practically a spit-take in Johnny’s song? Should I warn the audience that they were about to hear something that was going to sound like Clarence “Frogman” Carter’s younger less-talented brother “Tadpole” Clem, after being punched in the throat? Should I apologize? Or, should I see how it turned out, and apologize only if it was the horror show I suspected it was going to be? Or, and here’s a thought, should I just have faith?
As I stepped onto the stage, Brian was there holding the microphone for me. As he passed it to me, I whispered, “Pray for me,” and gave him as serious an expression as I could. He nodded and said “Will do.”
I read the long narration before my song. My speaking voice sounded about 70 percent of good to my ears. I was, oddly, not nervous at all about singing in front of so many people. I was nervous that the mechanics of it would work at all and that was more then enough nervousness to deal with.
The music began to play and the moment arrived… “O Bethlehem,” I began. And it worked! The voice was working! “So small and weak,” I continued in, essentially, the same note range. The voice worked. “Open your arms. Receive your king. Redemption cries. Salvation breathes. O, bless the Lord.” My voice was working for all of it. I would certainly not call it 100 percent, but it was passable–it was passable! In my head, I thanked God and continued on through my first verse. The voice worked.
Once the chorus began, though, the notes became higher and I could feel my control breaking down again. Fortunately, the choir also sang on the chorus, so I just lowered the microphone and let them do the heavy-lifting as I tried to sing along. I could feel and hear, though, that what I was doing wasn’t working. The higher range was still very very sketchy, but at least I wasn’t on mic singing those sketchy notes. I just mouthed the words until the next verse began, which dropped me back into the passable range. From what I could tell in the moment, and what I was able to confirm once I returned to the choir loft, any notes above or below the range of those sung in the verses of my song did not work well coming out of my mouth. All the notes of my verses–the ones the audience could hear me singing solo–worked. It was like my voice was temporarily damaged in such a way that I was still able to sing my song. And if this is any sort of evidence of a miracle–which I contend it is, cause that’s what it felt like–it means that I was assigned a song that fit the exact range I would need to have in the moments of the verses, while everything else was problematic at best. Whatever the case, I praised god in mind and song.
The second chorus I did again off mic, resting my voice because I knew the third verse was supposed to be as piano as it gets, leading to the forte final chorus. The voice worked in the much quieter tones, too. It sounded a little smokey, but was respectable. In the final chorus, I was so grateful to have gotten through it all that I just dropped the mic to my side and gave it my all to sing the chorus. It was not great, but it was also not amplified.
On my way back to my seat, Brian gave me a thumbs up and I mouthed “thank you,” back. After the cantata had ended, I told Brian about my choking spit-take and the damage it had wrought. He explained that he’d heard me sound a bit off in my narration and realized something bad was happening with my voice. When he’d returned to the choir loft after my request for prayer, he’d rallied the other tenors near him to join, so I had at least three people praying for me.
“I’m calling it a Christmas miracle,” I said.