I was a giant choir nerd
I’m eleven years old. The sun has set, it’s cold outside, and I’m in my elementary school music classroom. Like the other boys in my grade, I’m grabbing a red bow tie and cummerbund from a plastic bag. Unlike the other boys in my grade, I know how to put them on. I know how to put them on because I am a choir kid, a certified music nerd.
On this night, I’ve convinced my music teacher to let me sing a solo in front of my entire school. I’ve chosen “O Holy Night”, the version with the extra-high note, two As above middle C. My greatest hope is to get the sort of applause usually reserved for my nemesis: Paul F.
Paul and I sing in a community boy choir together, and he’s the only untouchably great musician I know. He’s a rich kid with a soprano voice the likes of which I’ve only heard on recordings. When I was eight and all the choir nerds went out for the lead role in Oliver, most of us were nervous and timid. We slouched and squeaked-out half-hearted versions of Oliver’s signature song, “Where Is Love?” But Paul’s audition was like one of those America’s Got Talent moments where the judges drop their jaws and the teenage girls burst into tears.
I wanted to be Paul F.
And that December night, after three years of working and practicing and taking piano lessons, I’m finally becoming the singer I want to be. Instead of feeling timid or afraid, I let my inner Paul out. I stand up tall, open my mouth wide, and sing my heart out. I get the first standing ovation of my life, and it feels great. I get compliments from all my friends. Grown-ups seek me out to shake my hand. My parents even have to give me a talking to for getting a big head. It was a wonderful night.
A few months later I get the chance to sing a solo of my choosing on the same stage as Paul. It will be during one of our boy choir concerts, and rumor has it he’s going to sing “Where Is Love?” I’m determined to blow him away. I start looking for songs that are all heart and soaring high notes. But there’s one problem: I had just sung the part of Winthrop in The Music Man, and my dad has a different idea.
He knows despite all my work, I’m no Paul F. He wants me to do a comic routine where I play the parts of Harold Hill, Marian the Librarian, and Winthrop. He thinks I should go for laughs, not tears. I hate the idea. We argue, he puts his foot down, and after some tears of my own, I give in. When we start to rehearse, it’s worse than I thought. I have to run around the stage, march, do my silly Winthrop voice, then bat my eyes like I’m a girl. I know I’m going to look like a fool, but it’s too late to learn something else. I’m committed, for better or worse.
The night of the concert, the dads are in suits, and the moms are in dresses. I’m as nervous as I was a couple years earlier at those Oliver auditions. The choir sings a few songs, then Paul sings. It’s beautiful. Passionate. Perfect. He gets a standing ovation, and I applaud too, because he deserves it and I know it. He’s everything I wish I could be, and I both love and hate him for it.
Then I take my place on stage, heart pounding and visibly shaking, knowing I can’t compete with what I just heard. I watch my dad take his place at the piano. I pull it together as the music starts.
I do my turn-of-the-century-salesman voice: “Look, whadya talk, whadya talk, whadya talk / He’s a music man and he sells clarinets and the big trombones and the rat-a-tat drums and the big brass bass, big brass bass.”
I warn the parents: “You got trouble right here in River City / With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool! (Stands for pool!)”
I lisp, “Not Louisiana, Parith, Franth, New York or Rome / but Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana / my home thweet home.”
And the grand finale, when I run from one side of the stage to the other, singing Harold Hill: “76 Trombones trombones led the big parade…”
Then Marian: “Goodnight my someone goodnight my love…”
Then Harold: “With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand…”
Then Marian: “Sleep tight my someone sleep tight my love…”
Then center stage: “I wish I may and I wish I might / So goodnight, my someone, goodnight!”
I end, exhausted, to resounding applause. My friends in the choir whack me on the back like I just scored a touchdown, and I know I’ve done something really special.
In that moment, I no longer thought I had to be Paul to be worthy of an audience’s love. But I started thinking that being the anti-Paul was my lot in life. From this moment on if I couldn’t be the hero, I’d just be the comic relief. If I couldn’t take first place, at least I could find a place for myself.
As life has gone on, I’ve met plenty of Pauls. I’ve zigged and I’ve zagged, always basing who I should be and what I should do on the actions and opinions of others. But I hope I’ve learned, and am still learning, to be myself, to let who I truly am come through, and to stop taking all my cues from the Pauls of this world.
Tell me about your “Paul”. What was that person like?