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Finding our voice in the ensemble
America is like a good chorus -- but just now, the sound is dissonant
Making music in a chorus is like building a society: it takes us all. (Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash)
My side gig as a musician took off when I was 5 years old. That’s when my big brother, who was 14, taught me to confidently sing “A Teenager’s Romance,” Ricky Nelson’s big hit of 1957, before a captive audience of about three dozen at the annual family reunion. I must’ve killed it, because I considered myself a singer after that. Devotedly wedded as I have been to my journalism career, music has remained my tender passion.
Since that performance for the aunts, uncles and cousins, I’ve found myself in front of audiences hundreds of times. One result is that I rarely experience stage fright — until the other day, when I found myself in front of a consequential audience of two.
It was time to re-audition for my slot in the fine choral ensemble that has been my musical home for 22 seasons. In the big rehearsal room that’s usually filled with my fellow singers, I faced only the maestro and his assistant, who was at the piano. I had prepared the required stuff — several measures from pieces we performed this season, and a pretty tough passage from an upcoming concert — but as I heard myself singing, I suddenly wasn’t sure if I was up to the task. There, as I was tested on my range, pitch and tone, and on how I handled melisma — singing a single syllable over some quickly moving notes — I faced a question that confronts us all periodically, if we’re paying attention: Do I belong here?
Finding where we belong is a lifelong task, both because the circumstances around us change and because life’s experiences change us. Adolescents, new to the notion of fashioning an identity, tend to answer the uncertainty of their place by trying to be like everybody else. Politicians contort themselves into shapes that they figure will fit voters’ preferences. Many of us join clubs and wear certain costumes and even drive particular cars and trucks that we think will give us a place of belonging. Really, we re-audition pretty regularly — mostly in our own minds — to figure out what our part ought to be, or even who we are and what really matters to us.
A shared artistic endeavor — like a choral group, an acting ensemble or a string quartet — requires a different sort of belonging. Great soloists often detract from the musicality of an ensemble, which requires the blending of voices to create a whole sound. So our individual performances are secondary to the music itself. In fact, whether I get to sing or not matters only if it makes the music somehow right. A good choral singer knows that hearing other singers is key to the music-making — that the ears are as much a part of musicianship as the voice.
This, by the way, is my favorite argument for the value of teaching music in our schools. While a child who sings a solo at a holiday concert gets to feel a sense of personal achievement, everybody in an ensemble learns the satisfaction that comes from joining together to make something of beauty. It is the opposite of the training in selfishness that seems nowadays to bombard us all — children and adults alike — in the guise of advocacy for individual rights.
Consider the current hullabaloo over gas stoves, which right-wing commentators and politicians say Democrats want to ban. This week the Republican-controlled House approved two bills aimed at blocking the Biden administration from imposing a gas stove ban — although, in fact, President Biden has not proposed a ban and has clearly said that he doesn’t favor one. Doesn’t matter: The issue became a huge talking point in the culture wars after some California cities passed regulations limiting new gas hook-ups, noting the impact of carbon emissions in heating the earth’s atmosphere. Also, if you worry about such things, Stanford University researchers say the blue flame from gas burners in homes and restaurants emits benzene, which is linked to cancer.
But, you know, how important are society’s efforts to combat cancer and climate change compared to the right of individuals to cook their supper however they want? To belong in certain circles these days, you have to stand against shared responsibility for each other’s well-being, and against those who argue otherwise. “The goal is to dictate how you live every aspect of your life,” asserted the ban-the-stove-ban bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a North Dakota Republican.
You would think that with the effects of human-induced climate change apparent all around us, there would be some greater recognition of our responsibility to do what we can to change course. Nobody can argue about the impact we’re experiencing already — in the lower flow of the Colorado River, which provides water for seven western states; in the wildfire season that now extends longer and causes hotter and more dangerous fires that pollute the air across much of the country; in the hurricanes and tornados that blow more intensely and wreak greater damage than ever before; in the rising seas that threaten our coastal cities. Yet plenty of politicians eagerly fire up voters with warnings that fighting climate change puts their freedom at risk, suggesting that is more important than any peril that we may all share.
The warnings that Americans’ freedoms are at risk have lately become a fetish among right-wing politicians, who tend to suggest that steps kind people might urge government to take so we can watch out for each other are Marxist. Over recent years, one topic after another has been bannered by the right as an example of the assault on freedom that we’re told imperils traditional American life: efforts to control phosphates in detergents and fertilizer, for example, in order to protect clean water; standards to improve lighting efficiency, in order to conserve energy; financial incentives to encourage electric vehicles, which are aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Our coins are imprinted, e pluribus unum (out of many, one), but you’d think the national motto is really pro se quisque (each for himself).
It's not that we should expect our political leaders to be self-effacing. It takes a sturdy ego, after all, to put yourself in the public eye knowing that you’ll rarely convince more than a slim majority that you’re doing a good job. But political machinations have grown so brutal over the past 30 years, and so many successful politicians have emerged as so fully self-absorbed, that we’ve all but lost the sense of shared responsibility across partisan divides for the good of us all.
Nobody better exemplifies this reality, of course, than Donald Trump, who is surely the most selfish figure in American political history. His appeal is based on making people feel that they have been victimized, so that nothing is more important than getting what they want. His lie about the 2020 election, repeated often enough that it has persuaded most Republican primary voters, is destroying faith in democracy — though that clearly troubles him not at all in comparison to his demand for glory. Sadly, as he travels the country, re-auditioning for his old role, Trump is being aped by one Republican candidate after another, all of them trying to be offensive enough to appeal to the inner selfishness that Trump has awakened in his core voters.
Yet governing is a shared experience, in the sense that in voting for our leaders, we assume the power to create our own government. And our government exists to care for the needs of all the citizens, not to stand aside as either individuals or special interests take whatever their might enables. “Government belongs wherever evil needs an adversary, and there are people in distress,” Robert Kennedy said.
Society is like a musical ensemble, really. We each need to play or sing our part for the good of the whole, creating great music — or a just society – that inspires and sustains us all. No more than choruses want singers who are loud and off-key, we don’t need public figures who intentionally sound discordant notes or assume that everybody has gathered in the hall to admire them. Our audience assembles to share the inspiration. There’s nothing selfish about any part of that.
As I listened to myself during my re-audition the other day, I hardly recognized the voice I was hearing. I missed notes that I knew were there along the lengthy runs of melisma, and my once-rich baritone seemed to have gotten thinner. Was that nervousness of the moment, or simply age catching up with me? There will come a time when, for the good of the ensemble, I won’t belong there anymore, simply because I won’t have as much to contribute to the whole as somebody else might. I hope it isn’t soon, but, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
Many of us hope to keep singing as long as we can because the shared experience of music brings us joy. We sing together, in unison and in harmony, and sometimes through dissonance that we know will resolve in the end. It’s like the great chorus that is America: We’re all pretty sure we still belong here, but just now the voices sticking out are hard to tolerate, and we are straining to hear the sweeter notes.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Worcester, Mass. (Telegram & Gazette, telegram.com)
Palm Beach, Fla. (The Palm Beach Post, palmbeachpost.com)
Iowa City, Iowa (Iowa City Press-Citizen, press-citizen.com)
Lubbock, Tex. (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, lubbockonline.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
What the valedictorians think
The build-the-wall crowd may want to take a look at the valedictorians at the six high schools around Worcester, Mass., who were interviewed by Jeff A. Cramer for the Telegram & Gazette. Worcester is a mid-sized city in central Massachusetts where one-third of the residents speak a language other than English, and three of the valedictorians were immigrants or born to immigrant parents. One valedictorian used part of his graduation speech to say “welcome” in the languages native to his classmates — meaning that he said “welcome” 15 times. The achievers’ stories, even at such a young age, are inspirational.
Trans people fleeing Florida as anti-LGBTQ laws take effect
An estimated 95,000 transgender adults live in Florida, according to reporting by Stephany Metat in The Palm Beach Post, but the anti-LGBTQ campaign being waged by Gov. Ron DeSantis is prompting many of them to pull up stakes and try to find a home elsewhere. GoFundMe reports that the site had a 39% month-over-month surge from April to May in fundraisers for transgender people seeking to leave Florida due to the state's new laws, and about $200,000 has been raised from January to May to support them and their families. One trans woman who returned to Florida two years ago to care for her widowed father, a dementia patient, said, "I knew it was going to be bad coming to Florida, but I could have never pictured it being this bad. It's almost comically, unimaginably evil." She can no longer get the medical care she needs, and is trying to find a way to get out.
Are driverless buses coming to rural areas?
University of Iowa researchers put a self-driving Ford Transit bus on the road through rural areas almost two years ago, and Ryan Hansen reports in the Iowa City Press-Citizen that the vehicle is negotiating gravel roadways and unexpected challenges pretty well. It’s not in commercial operation yet, but the researchers say the vehicle’s performance with volunteer passengers is getting closer to the stage where its capability would make people feel comfortable climbing aboard. The challenge for driverless technology is particularly acute in rural areas, which is home to only 20 percent of the American population but the site of half of all fatal highway crashes.
After Uvalde, classroom safety comes down to panic buttons and more guns
The Texas state legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott have finally come up with their response to the slaughter of children at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School last year. As Keri Heath reports in Gannett’s Texas newspapers, a new law signed by Abbott requires a panic button alert system in every public school classroom. Florida and three other states have already imposed similar requirements. Another bill Abbott signed into law last week would give schools $330 million to build physical security infrastructure on campuses. The bill also requires school districts to employ an armed guard or officer on every campus or have at least one employee trained and armed. Last May, 19 children and two teachers were killed by a shooter with a high-powered rifle. What might we be missing here, folks? Perhaps some sensible gun control?
NOTICE TO READERS: Perhaps you’ve noticed that it’s vacation season? The Upstate American will not be published next week, to enable the author to take a few days off.
And one last note…
Thanks for reading The Upstate American, and for supporting my work exploring our common ground, this great land. Most weeks, paid subscribers will also receive the Midweek Extra Edition of The UPSTATE AMERICAN, exploring the writing of the essay. And if you’d like to learn how to write opinion essays — for newspapers, audio or digital platforms — check out the class offered by The Memoir Project by clicking below. (We’re taking a few weeks off, but we’ll let you know when the next class is coming.)