Angels Sing, Boys Cry

Elihu is in the next room. It’s his first rehearsal with the Saratoga Children’s Choir. It might be his last too, we’ll see. We’re in the one of the classrooms in the Methodist Church – home to many cultural programs in this town. Elihu is nervous, and he’s not happy about being the ‘only second grader’. I don’t blame him, for being the youngest brings him some attention, the kind one doesn’t want as one begins a new pursuit. It’s not comfortable to negotiate a new skill with an audience. That’s how it feels to him, and as his possibly over-mothering mother, I’m sensitive to it. All I can do is send him my love from one room over, hoping it helps in some unseen way.

Just heard the first group ‘ooh’ and I smile inside. This sounds fun. This sounds good. It’s been years since I’ve heard a chorus. Kinda reminds me of the Peanuts Christmas special. Yet I can’t relax yet, my son has a hard time with his head voice as I always did. I didn’t even sing in a head voice til I was in my late 20s. Really. Strangely, the older I’ve gotten the higher my range has gotten. Maybe it’s because I’m not talking all day at school. Or partying all night and shouting over the noise of a bar. Elihu has a limited range, and like me, he favors his chest voice. I’m aware of his concern about this, and so I worry just a bit.

How is it that my sweet seven year old boy hasn’t got that pure angel voice? Does that voice not belong to all the young boys who can sing? I began to wonder this when we’d listened to the Vienna Boy’s Choir and I realized that he could not match their high pitches. As I hear the high “oohs” next door I cannot help myself, I must snoop as a mother. I will just peek in. I hope not to see my son tilt his head to the side as he strains to find the impossible note.

Well. It is neither possible for me to peek, as the doors have no windows and are shut tight, nor is it possible for me to understand what they are singing, for to my surprise – it is in German! I hear Sue coaching them on the pronunciation of the words that will take the place of the oohs they had just sung. Wow. So, that’s how you do it? Teaching a group of kids to sing parts, and in tune, much less in German, seems like magic to me. It did just occur to me, however, that maybe if you’re concentrating on the language instead, it might make the singing of pitches more natural. Often the less you think the better you perform. Just thinking. Man – what an interval! How high they are! I wish I could see him – how on earth is he doing in there?? When we are reunited – and when I take him for a special fried chicken dinner that I can’t afford at Price Chopper – he will recount everything for me. I am praying it will be an enthusiastic recounting. There are other ways it could go.

I feel lucky not to have had a daughter. I couldn’t take all that tension, the hormones, the moods, the levels of strategy. And yet, if you can believe it, my young son often reminds me of a pre-teen girl. He is so dramatic, so large and loud in his expression, particularly when he’s upset. While I understand that comes from a desire not to lose control over his life, I also wonder at why on earth his emotional riots are so violent, so unstoppable, so angry. It is this kind of riot I’m hoping doesn’t result from today’s choir rehearsal. While our dinner at Price Chopper might be one of our special mother-son moments, it also might not be. His reaction may come suddenly after rehearsal, just when he’s quite sure there’s no one left in earshot, or it might gestate a while and surface in the supermarket. I will simply have to wait and see. One never knows, do one?

Well, this chorus rehearsal is a lovely thing to hear… I so hope that he didn’t hate it. Just as we dropped his father off at the train station (just day before yesterday, and now he’s in Indonesia, what a strange world) he insisted that Elihu do two rehearsals before he made a decision about not doing it. I should mention here that I had just happily announced that the choir director was going to admit Elihu based on my vouching for him – as the youngest member – and rehearsals were to start in two days. This resulted in one of his signature pre-teen girl explosions. Ranting and crying, sobbing protests, cries of “I’m not going” and such. I believe he reacted this way because I had not prepared him for this by way of interjecting it into our phone conversations during the week. (He had been in Chicago with his father for the winter break.) He had known about this, and been excited too, but I’d let too much time go without reminding him about it. Had I gently re-introduced him to the chorus idea slowly he might not have reacted like that. But sometimes I just don’t have my mommy game on, and I just like to get on with things. To coddle, or not to coddle… Just when I think I’m doing too much of it, I’m not doing it right. Oh well.

Fifteen minutes to go. No wi-fi with which to distract me. Ah, they are embarking on a new song. A pop-ish sounding song. What is this? Mmm. I am now imagining my son, the earnest look on his face, hand on his chest, singing for me what he can recall of the song he just learned. This too might well be the outcome. Oh how I wish the door had a window, or a crack. Is this the beginning of something new? Is this a day Elihu will always remember? Will it be a fond memory? Or not? My mother once left me at a skating rink all by myself. I was good at meeting kids, I knew how to skate, she wouldn’t be gone long. How old was I? Maybe 7. It was cold, my feet hurt. I didn’t know anyone, and I was sure everyone knew I was alone and self-conscious. I went to the little warming hut and waited alone for a long time. I was alone, sad, forgotten. The feelings distilled into a memory I can recall keenly even now. I don’t want to create that kind of memory for Elihu. They are singing about ‘flying away’… oh, but how can his spirit not soar to sing those words? We saw a hawk on the way here, and he dropped his head down for the rest of the ride, imagining what it is to fly. I just know. He does this a lot, he flies. I never want to clip his wings, nor confine him to a cage.

The director is wrapping things up. Rehearsal is over. She’s saying something about an arts fest. Does she know that my kid played his djembe on the street at the last town festival and made $80? He’s a natural on his own, this group thing is so different. Can he learn how to work in a group? Can he switch gears now, learn this new skill and assimilate? Just a few minutes more…

The Result? Tears within minutes. In the hall he collapsed and began to cry. “I don’t want to do this! How long was I in there?” he cries, dramatically sprawling on the hallway floor as children walk around him. “Three hours?!” The reality is sinking in for me. It was a bit intimidating. This group, save two others who are also new, has been singing together for a semester already. I look at his book, the print is small, it is written in three staves – even as an adult I’m still not good at picking out my part from music written like this. “Mmm”. I answer him as I peruse the charts. I offer that we can make the print larger – that it’s an easy thing to do. But I know his pride is bubbling to the surface and wants to prevent me from making any special modifications. He needs it, but won’t accept it. “No, I can read it easily” he sniffs. Tears well again in his eyes. “Honey, how bout I just make a sample page with larger text and we just check it out to see?” I ask. He stops crying, and considers it. “Ok” he says. That’s better. That also confirms for me the vision thing is part of the mix. Sue sits down with us in the hall and she kindly speaks to him in a bright, hopeful way. She has authority in her voice and I think that helps him. I explain a bit more about his vision – that he can’t see any color. She’s a bit surprised, but it really isn’t the main issue, so we move on. The head voice. “I just can’t sing that high” Elihu says. “I just can’t!” I know so well his frustration. She offers a little help. We all ooh and ahh together for a bit, practicing a technique for relaxing and letting the pitch come. He’s calmed down. He lays heavy against my arm (that feels so good – the older he gets the less he rests on me, the less we snuggle as part of our day) because he is so tired. Still on Daddy time, having gotten to bed at 11:30 the night before, and after his first full day of school in a week, he is wiped. “I’m so tired, I want to go right to bed” he says, angrily. I know. He feels he has no control. We wrap up and head out to the night. We have no food at home, once again I’ve run out of food a week shy of our food stamps. “All I have is chicken soup, sweetie” I remind him. But he wants to go home. No over-budget fried chicken tonight. We go home. And we have chicken soup for the third time in a row. But we made it. Finally in bed, after some drawing time and a little reading, and we’re lying in the dark talking. I finally get him to smile, even to giggle. Ok. A new chapter. Rocky start, but a start, nonetheless.

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