Here’s another of those memories that is so deeply etched that I can tell you exactly where I was standing when I made a decision that changed my life. Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? Well, it was.

First week of college. I’m standing at the bulletin board just outside the entrance of “Old Main.” (Full name: Old Main Memorial, because the original Old Main burned to the ground and the new Main was built on its ashes — built of stone.) There are the typical freshman sign-up sheets, and invitations to join campus clubs and organizations. There is a sign encouraging new students to try out for the Vesper Choir.

Now, I had sung in the adult church choir as a high school student, having been invited by Mrs. Loomis, my seventh grade home room and math teacher who was the church’s long-time choir director. And, though I remember very little about it, apparently I had sung some in the high school chorus, at least for an Easter concert. But I didn’t have a solo voice. I didn’t read music. But for some reason, when I saw that audition notice for the larger college choir, I decided to try out. And, as I said, it was literally a life-changing experience.

I’m thinking that someone had told me that there wasn’t much to the audition. If I had thought it would be a humiliating or personally threatening experience, this introvert never would have gone down to the Westminster Conservatory of Music to try out. I’ll bet that I had gotten the word that all we had to do was sing a verse of a hymn, something familiar, and in our range. That turned out to be the case, and Clarence J. Martin, professor of music, couldn’t have been less threatening. I sang a verse of a hymn or two while he accompanied me. He was warmly supportive, and he made me feel welcome. Later, when the new basses were posted on another bulletin board, there was my name.

And it turned out to be (ready?) “a life-changing experience.

The Vesper Choir rehearsed once (or twice?) a week to provide music for the Sunday night Vesper Services in the college’s Gothic chapel. There were well over a hundred voices in that group, and we sang from a rich catalog of classic anthems and serious religious works. The service was fairly liturgical for 1960s Presbyterians, with an introit (echoing from a hallway elsewhere in the building, various musical responses throughout the service, and, as I mentioned, some challenging choral classics.

The first year I sang with the choir, we rehearsed for and performed at a choral festival held at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. It was glorious! Not life-changing, but an unforgettable musical event. Later in my college years, we would sing the Brahms German Requiem, which remains one of my favorite choral pieces. And speaking of “glorious,” the annual Christmas Concerts absolutely made Christmas for me, and now and then, all these years later, I’ll hear a Christmas anthem we did in that Vesper Choir, and I feel as if I have found my old homestead after wandering aimlessly in a dark, thick forest. Almost life-changing…but not quite.

At this point, I have to credit Mr. Martin (whom many called Clancy, though students would not have done so to his face). It was he who let me join the choir in the first place, seeing perhaps some potential for growth. It was he who nurtured my musical vocabulary for the rest of my singing career in church choirs. It was he who chose for us great, lasting, serious, challenging, inspiring, and uplifting music. It was he who helped us grow in worship, and in music leadership of all those services. Plus, he was fun to be around, almost all the time. For example, I recall his telling the basses to help nearby tenors hit higher notes on pitch through this unorthodox method: “Goose ’em, basses!”  

Nested within the larger Vesper Choir, was the smaller “Concert Choir,” made up of  music majors and accomplished singers, all potential soloists, whose voices buttressed the more modest efforts of the rest of us. I mention that because of two things, one of which changed my life! First, the minor reason. Mr. Martin, as we were rehearsing some major work, once actually asked me to sing louder! “Jeff, let me hear more of you,” he encouraged. I may have overdone it, because a page or so later, he said, “OK, Jeff, that’s fine…a little less now, please.” But that meant that maybe I was bordering being “good.”

Now, here it comes, that cantus firmus of this entry. Because Mr. Martin let me pass that first audition, and because our singing for him was such a great pleasure week after week, and because his Concert Choir was within our midst, I was there, just outside the large rehearsal room in the Conservatory when Joan Maisch, a soprano voice major and Concert Choir member, was waiting for me. Or, was I waiting for her? Anyway, we met, we talked, we had a date, and we’ve been meeting, talking, and dating for almost 44 years.

Clancy, thanks for your affectionate tutelage of Joan as a voice major, for letting me enjoy singing in the same rehearsal room as she each week, and  for creating a sacred musical space where the God to whom we all sing moved Joan and me toward one another, truly a life-changing experience! It was a pleasure following your baton!