On a Sunday morning in March, a beam of sun struggled into the basement choir room of St. Giles Episcopal Church. Ralph Willis stood at the upright piano. A slender man with a lively manner, he wore a black cassock and white surplice. He called it his ecclesiastical clown suit. A shock of sandy hair tossed to and fro on his forehead, like a spray of grass in a gusty wind.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please! You, too, Mrs. Thompson. Sadie was a lady according to the song, but who knows?”
Sadie Thompson broke off her conversation with Abigail Flibbert, who was in the middle of a blow-by-blow account of her grown daughter’s abrupt disappearance and subsequent long-distance phone call from an undisclosed location. As Sadie fumbled for her music folder, Abigail hinted that there was much more to the story.
“You don’t need a folder. No need to be with your section. Time is a-wasting, time to warm up. On your feet, please. Clear the cobwebs from your vocal chords. Cough up those frogs and spiders and whatever else you ate for breakfast this morning, and vocalize! Mi me ma mo mu!”
Now forty-three, unmarried, Ralph had held a number of jobs in churches and schools across Virginia, then fetched up in his home town, nestled in the Shenandoah Valley. During his absence, Hapsburg had transformed. What was once unbearably provincial was now madly picturesque. St. Giles was the oldest church in town, built of local limestone, and its pipe organ was the best in town. If he had to settle, this would do.
Ralph pounded scales and arpeggios on the piano, modulating up a half step each time. He raced through a series of vocal exercises, as the dozen men and women followed. A latecomer hurried in and pulled off her gloves. She stood in her coat next to Sadie Thompson, and Ralph motioned for her to join in.
“Goodness gracious, what a sorry sound! Are you all suffering from the rigors of the season? Too much fasting and self-flagellation? It’s Sunday, people. Didn’t anyone tell you? You get a day off from the penitential routine. Or did you start early, reckoning the day from sunset like our Hebrew brethren? You look hung over, Gary, and you, too, Art. Whatever you gave up for Lent, it wasn’t alcohol.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” a bass voice said. “We’re Episcopalian.”
“Of course, Henry, what was I thinking? Are those dark circles under your eyes from a binge last night, or did you borrow Mrs. Lowe’s eyeliner? Take off your coat and stay a while, Miss Tharpe. It’s cold outside but in here, it’s sizzling. We all want to see what outrageous ensemble you slapped together this time.”
Laetitia Tharpe, a dignified woman of seventy-two, a retired schoolteacher who favoured long woolen skirts and thick sweaters to conceal her bony figure, slipped off her coat and draped it over a chair.
“That’s more like it,” Ralph said. “Do I see a hint of décolletage? What do you think, fellows, is she presentable?”
“Once we put our robes,” a young alto voice said, “no one can tell what we’re wearing.”
“Is that so? Do you mean to tell me you could be naked under all those yards of fabric?” Ralph fanned himself with a sheet of music, as though thought made him hot and bothered. Everyone laughed.
“I mean . . .” the voice said, then trailed off in embarrassment.
“That’s all right, Kate,” said Laetitia, “we know what you meant.”
“Grab your folders now, hop to it. Let’s run through the hymns then work on the anthem. Hurry!” Ralph held up his left wrist and pointed at it with his right index finger. As people scrambled to find music and seats, he launched into the first hymn, taking it faster than the normal tempo. After the first stanza, he cut them off.
“Piece of cake. You all know it. As you turn quickly to the next hymn, a word to the wise: Enunciate. As in consonants. I want to hear every G after every N, Raising not Raisin. Those are two entirely different words. Spit out those final Ds and Ts. What I don’t want to hear is R. You may be a pirate with an eye-patch and a wooden leg, or fresh from the hills of Appalachia, but here we are all very proper, very Anglican. Or Southern—suit yourself. Sing Deah Redeemah and Puah of Heaht.”
Ralph ran through two more hymns, playing the voice parts as he stood at the piano. He glanced at the hymnal, reached up suddenly for a downbeat, and shouted remarks on diction and dynamics. He made the same remarks at every rehearsal in a world-weary tone, as if he hardly expected anyone to pay attention.
“It’s perfectly acceptable to sing loud or soft according what’s marked on the score. You can even watch me for direction, as I wave my arms like a madman.”
Yet they did pay attention. The choir of St. Giles, all amateurs, managed an impressive range of choral literature, from sixteenth-century English to contemporary American. Their diction, if not flawless, was understandable, they stayed on pitch, and the parts were in balance. Under Ralph’s relentless teasing, the women giggled like schoolgirls and the men squirmed, but in the chancel they performed beautifully.
“No screeching, please,” he said midway through the anthem. “If you’re not quite sure about that high note, sing softly or just open your mouth. I’m not going to publicly shame anyone in the soprano section, because you know who you are. And please, no warbling. Pretend you are a choirboy, a pre-teen innocent who has not yet heard of hormones. Think pure thoughts. That is asking a lot for some of you, I know. Let your voice soar, easy and relaxed. Not too relaxed—I still want to hear you. Try it without words on La.”
They sang the passage again, and again with the words.
“Much better,” Ralph said. “If I weren’t staring at you, I could swear I just heard a choir of angels. One last time with words, from the top. That’s showbiz talk for page one, measure one. Remember, breath control! Intonation!”
The whole group sang the anthem to its end.
“What a heavenly sound! Sing it exactly like that, and you’ll have them swooning in the aisle. Refresh your makeup, if necessary, and line up in the narthex.”
He glanced at his watch.
“Five minutes. Just enough time for the organ prelude. I must dash.”
“You’re always dashing,” said Kate.
Ralph wagged a finger at her. “Altos—such deep thinkers.”
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His academic degrees are Harvard B. A. 1974 and Yale M. Arch. 1978. His articles, essays, book reviews and short stories appear in: Atticus Review, Bangalore Review, Bloodstone Review, Conclave, Digital Americana, Grey Sparrow Journal, JMWW, Lowestoft Chronicle, Montreal Review, Mouse Tales Press, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Outside In Literary & Travel, Poydras Review, Ray’s Road Review, The Rusty Nail, Short Fiction (UK), Slippage.