After a successful surgical procedure earlier this year, a 4-year-old Michigan girl with cerebral palsy took her first steps, and her proud mother recorded every "step" of the …
“And all meet in singing, which braids together the different knowings into a wide and subtle music, the music of living.” ― Alison Coggon, The Naming
South Miami Senior High – Mid-December 1981
Since South Miami Senior had a student population of over 2100, the school’s various performance groups in the music and drama departments usually had to do several daytime shows in the auditorium rather than just one. This was because the rear section of the auditorium usually had a partition to make classroom space during much of the school year.
This partition was raised only for nighttime performances to add more seats for an audience, but since the Winter Concert was scheduled to take place during the regular school day, it remained locked in the “down” position. So, instead of doing a single “all-school” assembly on Wednesday, December 16, we in the various choral groups had to do four separate concerts over two days.
Our chorus teacher, Ms. Joan Owen, had created a program that featured the various singing groups, which consisted of:
- Men’s (or Boys’) Ensemble
- Women’s (or Girls’) Ensemble
- Mixed Chorus I (the ensemble I was a member of)
- Mixed Chorus, Advanced (the varsity squad, if you will)
The passage of time has sandblasted most of my memories about our concerts so I can’t write much about the 1981 Winter Concert program. It was a Christmas/Hanukkah-oriented show, so it probably included two religious/spiritual numbers, several secular holiday songs (“The Little Drummer Boy,” “Jingle Bell Rock”), a medley of short Christmas carols, and three or four solo numbers. The program had to fit one 50-minute class period, and each of the groups was allotted some time on stage.
On the day of the first performance, I was unusually nervous. Even though I had been Ms. Owen’s student for almost a year and had sung in the Spring Concert in 10th grade, I had a kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttering in my stomach.
I felt comfortable singing in the bass section of our mixed choir (the safety in numbers thing) but wasn’t too thrilled about singing Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a soloist. Ms. Owen had talked me into doing it only a week and a half earlier, even promising me that I only had to do it one time. I liked my chorus teacher and didn’t want to let her down, but my insides quivered as if they were made of Jell-O.
On that Wednesday in mid-December, everything was going well. We rehearsed in the band/chorus practice room during our regular class period in our best outfits: the girls were asked to wear nice dresses for the concert, while we guys were told to wear brown slacks and white button down shirts. Ms. Owen then told us to wear the official school band blazers.
These orange-colored blazers were snazzy; they were made by Pierre Cardin and bore the SOUTH MIAMI COBRAS logo on the left breast pocket. I have to admit…we guys looked rather sharp in our school color outfits.
The rehearsal went well – we sang our assigned numbers to Ms. Owen’s satisfaction, and I managed to get through my last practice solo without forgetting the lyrics or going slightly off-key. I started to feel a bit more confident about the “real” concert, which was now only two hours away. Maybe it was because I felt like a million bucks in my chorus “uniform,” or maybe it was because I was still convinced that the solo was a one-shot thing.
I don’t remember much about the interval between our last rehearsal and the start of our first concert. I do recall that I wondered if Mom would attend this concert; she had skipped my first on-stage appearance because of the never-ending war between Joe B. and me; Mom’s only reply to my queries on the subject was a cryptic “We’ll see.”
Fourth period arrived. After a quick lunch, I put on my blazer and made my way to the school auditorium with the rest of the Singing Cobras. There was the usual pre-performance backstage banter and kidding around; I remember telling a 10th grader to overcome his stage fright by imagining that everyone in the audience is wearing underwear. To this day I don’t know if my advice worked or if I warped that kid’s mind.
As I made my way to my usual onstage place in the bass section, Ms. Owen took me aside for a last-minute briefing. “Listen, Alex. I know you’re nervous about your solo,” she said reassuringly. Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.”
“I hope I don’t look like a dork, though,” I said. I had terrible visions of being made fun of by students in the audience who had never seen a singer with cerebral palsy before. I didn’t dare say it quite like that, but I think my chorus teacher knew what I meant.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” Ms. Owen said in a calm, soothing voice. “When I start playing the vamp to ‘White Christmas,” you walk over here – “ She pointed at the edge of the stage close to the stairs – “and sit right there at the edge. That way you can relax and not worry about your stance. Just remember to breathe in the right places and use your ‘chest’ voice rather than your ‘head’ one. You’ll be fine.”
I wasn’t too sure about that. Still, I kept my worries to myself and simply said, “Thanks, Ms. Owen.”
I walked back to my spot with the other basses and baritones while Ms. Owen sat at the black Kawai piano off to one side of the stage. As I nervously scanned the audience to see if I could recognize anyone, I thought I had spotted a familiar middle aged redhead sitting in the second row. Is that Mom? I wondered.
I looked again, trying hard not to get too emotional before the concert. She was talking animatedly with someone – a teacher, perhaps, or another visiting parent – and couldn’t see me, but yes. Mom was there. My spirits rose a bit – it had been five years since Mom had last heard me sing in public, and I wanted her to be proud of me.
Our ensemble sang a medley of popular holiday songs and a Mexican Christmas carol, then we ceded the stage to another of the choral groups. Some of the juniors and seniors sang their solos, then it was Mixed Chorus I’s turn to sing “Winter Wonderland,” the number that preceded my solo. That one was fun; it has been a favorite of mine since I was 10 or 11, and we sang it well and enthusiastically.
As soon as we sang the last refrain of Walking…in a winter…wonderland, Ms. Owen started to play the vamp to “White Christmas.”
Oh, man! I thought. That’s my cue!
Singing Solo and Cerebral Palsy
I was petrified. Part of me wanted to slink backstage and away from the audience, while another part of me wanted to simply run up to the edge of the stage, sit, sing the darned song, then melt back into the crowd of my fellow singers. But the slow tempo of Ms. Owen’s piano playing and an inner reserve of common sense allowed me to walk to “my” spot near the steps, sit down with a modicum of dignity, and start to sing.
My heart pounded like a jackhammer, but I took a deep breath, listened to the vamp, and channeled my inner Bing Crosby:
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/just like the ones I used to know…….
My left leg started to tremble. It wasn’t as if I were having a spastic seizure; it was more of a twitch in my upper thigh muscle. Be still, I thought to myself as I sang Berlin’s WWII-era holiday classic and tried to inject that longing for home and family that the song evoked back in 1942.
Where the treetops glisten/and children listen/to hear sleigh bells in the snow….
I didn’t think I was giving the audience a show-stopping performance. To this day, I still don’t. I think my rendition of “White Christmas” was enjoyable but nothing to write home about. I wasn’t trying to imitate Bing Crosby (except, perhaps, in the pacing of the delivery). I sang the song honestly and with feeling, nothing more.
“White Christmas” usually takes about three minutes to sing, depending on how its arranged. When I’d rehearsed it as a pure solo, it had taken me around two minutes because of the instrumental bridge and the reprising of the second verse. Here, it took me three, because Ms. Owen and the rest of the choir joined in to do a vocal-instrumental arrangement.
Whether this arrangement was spontaneous or prearranged, I have no clue. It sounded nice, though, and it gave me the strength to finish the song:
May your days be merry and bright/and may all your Christmases be white.
The song ended. I got up and started to walk back to my place in the bass/baritone section. I heard a loud round of applause…a few whistles and cheers…and more loud clapping from the audience. Curious, I turned around and saw everyone – students, faculty members, administrators, and parents – standing up and clapping. And in the second row, beaming with pride, my mom looked at me with tears in her eyes.