ANDEAN CHOIR BOYS

Steve Dresselhaus

To a boy in boarding school there is nothing more masculine than sports and camping in the mountains.  Tubing the rapids in the  Andean rivers of Venezuela where I grew up and spelunking in unmapped caves were the chest-hair producing feats and activities which propelled us to manhood.   I couldn’t help but feel at the time that these testosterone-fueled adventures somehow made us more desirable to the girls.  In my teenaged male mind, tubing on a wild river had to be  more attractive, more alluring and  more irresistibly magnetic  to girls than writing book reports in in the school library.  On the far opposite extreme of the macho to non-macho continuum  was choir.  Being in choir was not only anti-macho, anti- stimulating and the polar opposite of outdoor adventure, it was emasculating: it was anti-manly in the extreme.  Singing in the choir was to coolness what a black hole is to light.

Because we were a tiny coed high school with around 50 students, if you could breathe and walk at the same time you were on all the sports teams.  If you could inhale and exhale in any discernible rhythm at all you were in the choir.  It was not an elective.  We were all drafted into the choir: there was no lottery, and certainly no deferments.  Regardless of talent or lack thereof, everyone was in the choir.

Since we were in a remote Andean village and there was not a similar choir of any kind for miles and miles, probably not even in nearby states, we were the best, if only, show in town.  In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king; and since we were the only choir, we were also the unrivaled, unequaled and absolutely  best choir most of the mountain villagers had ever heard.  In spite of our musical ineptitude, we always drew a crowd. It wasn’t that we were good;  as the only show in town, we were the entertainment equivalent of a straw to a drowning man.  Some misguided staff member had seen boys and mountains in the same setting and assumed we were destined to become the New World’s version of the Vienna Boys Choir.  Yes,  we were in the mountains, but they were the  Andes, not  the Austrian Alps.  The attempt to turn us into a salsa-singing version of Vienna was doomed to fail.

Our coed choir was untalented, spectacularly ungifted, and utterly nonmelodic as it toured the Andean villages in our area,  putting on what we called concerts.  To call what we did a concert was not only outrageously pretentious and over the top exaggeration; it bordered on total falsehood.  Sure, we sang a bunch of words at  roughly the same time, with a variety of supposedly blended sounds coming from our vocal chords; but the blend was seldom more palatable than mustard with whipped cream. There was always an upright piano, the kind seen in old western saloons, banging out the songs.  The purpose of the piano was not to so much to accompany the singers as it was to act like an Australian sheep dog.  As our voices fought with each other for independence, each trying to go its own way,  the pounding piano, in sheep dog  fashion,  herded the errant voices back to the main body.   Some voices never made it back, going their own way like a child’s lost balloon in a theme park.  There can be 10,000 balloons in the park, but all eyes follow the errant one  as it wafts away in the breeze.  So it was with the deviant voices in the choir, each going its own way, hijacking the attention of the crowd.

Teenaged boys in a choir are what metal sodium is to water.  It is an explosive mixture which cannot be manipulated into not exploding. To this volatile  choir mix, add  the life changes of   adolescents   who at any given moment were uncertain as to which direction their voices were going to take them.   Even had there been a desire to sing publicly, which there was not,  there was  absolutely no confidence in singing. Singing in a choir was generally viewed as effeminate, uncool and embarrassing.  Being pulled over by the cops for some traffic violation right in front of the school bus unloading zone on a Tuesday morning would be the  emotional equivalent to what we felt as we were forced to sing in public.

Then, of course, there were the choir uniforms.  Back in the early 70s the word we used to describe our garb  was  “mod.”  I’m guessing that I am not pushing too hard to think mod was an abbreviation of “modern.” One uniform in particular that I remember consisted of dark blue polyester pants, the kind where a teenage boy’s leg hairs stuck out through the fabric.  Protruding leg hairs proved to be  a temptation too strong for  teenage girls, who in some sort of prehistoric grooming carryover felt obligated to pull out the hairs one at a time in some kind of medieval torture ritual.  The shirt was a blood red polyester shape with arm holes.  It sported big spherical bright blue plastic buttons.  Buttoning our shirts by pushing the spherical buttons through the vertical button holes was like watching the birth of a hippopotamus.    The collars  on the shirts were as big as the wings of a Pacific  albatross.  On a windy day our necks seemed to stretch as  the airfoil-shaped collars produced as much lift as the wings of a Boeing Dreamliner.   Our ties back then were as wide as a Walmart shopper’s backside and as colorful as an LSD-inspired dream.  The excessive width of the ties made for massive knots the size of pineapples which served to choke us with every breath.  Perhaps because of my PTSD associated with those ties in the 70s, I am still extremely unlikely to wear ties.   Back then this outfit was totally cool, totally acceptable and not out of the norm.  So were medicinal leeches and cannibalism at certain times and places in human history.

This whole mixture of uniforms,  the emasculating obligatory  participation in the choir, and  a strong desire to not participate coalesced into  a not-so-passive-aggressive rebellion which led to more than one trip to the principal’s office.   I don’t think he liked me.  He and I had experienced numerous altercations, generally precipitated, I think,  by  what he regarded as my inappropriate  behavior towards those of our species who are of a gender different than mine.  Even so, I felt the principal, a macho, sportsman-like guy who understood the humiliation and ego blow it was for a boy to be in choir, empathized with my choir-induced feminization; he seldom punished me severely.

Being forced into choir resulted in some rather creative behavior in us boys.  On many occasions we boys, always in the back two rows up on the wooden risers,  would sway side to side in unison, looking like slow moving fields of Kansas wheat on a breezy day.   The movement did not keep us from singing, and offered proof positive that we had rhythm in our bodies.  It also  provided visual stimulation and pleasant distraction to anyone in the audience who was aghast at the massive audible  musical dysfunction they were being subjected to.  Secretly we all hoped that our rhythmic swaying would somehow strike a sympathetic vibration in the venue of the day,  causing the roof to collapse on all of us, both the singing boys and victimized audience,  putting us out of our  collective misery.

I could regale you with stories of extra-long yo-yo strings tied to the chairs so that when the choir director*  forcibly confiscated them, they would be jerked from her hand as she walked away with the pillaged spoils of our declared war against her.  Or I could talk about us taking turns singing a half note flat or sharp so that the choir sounded horrible but never from a single identifiable and therefore punishable source.  The favorite act of open rebellion, which to my knowledge was only practiced once, was  lighting on fire a large brown business envelope filled with human hair and tossing it under the risers.  The smoke and fumes halted choir that day.

To this day, I am not the least interested in music of any kind.  I seldom listen to the radio and have no MP3 player. Only on rare occasions do I listen to Pandora on my smart phone.  When I do pop in the ear buds, it is to listen Latin music, salsa in particular, as I work around the house on my “honey-do” list.  I am an amusical misfit, a Darwinian throwback who has failed to adapt to today’s world of sound.  I console myself by claiming victimhood, although, lamentably,  I have no one to sue.

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* During my years in the choir, roughly from 7th  through 12th grades, there were several different choir directors who went through the personal purgatory of dealing with us rowdy boys.   Following the lead of president Obama and his “composite” girl friends of which he wrote,  the choir director in this article reflects a composite of all the suffering saints who were responsible for trying to make a silk purse out of our pig’s ear talent.

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