From the Viking Choir to the Masters of Harmony–Returning to the Choral Sea

A chance encounter at one of my recent networking groups leads to my rediscovery of choral music, and a sea of musical memories from my earlier life. This post is dedicated to the memory of Walter Rodby–who started it all.

I remember going to the audition with a sense of resignation.   I was determined to do my best, but I really didn’t have any expectation of making it.  It was the end of freshman year at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, and Walter Rodby was holding tryouts for members for the introductory Male Chorus to join the premier high school chorus, the Viking Choir.  Normally, you needed to be in the intermediate chorus called the Mixed Chorus first.   Only about a dozen slots would be open for those in the Male Chorus who were good enough to pass the audition and go straight to the top choir.

For the audition, we had to sing a passage from some recognizable tune to make sure we at least had the minimum vocal quality that he was looking for. But Mr. Rodby required more than just a pleasing voice. He was a stern taskmaster, and he required that those trying out for chorus to learn how to sight-read music so that the choir rehearsals were more about harmonizing with the other parts than pounding out your own.

It was my turn to enter the room.  Mr. Rodby sat with military bearing at the piano.   He asked me to sing the passage and I was a bit wobbly at first, like one of those fawns trying out its legs for the first time, but then ended literally on a more confident note.    Then he handed me a sheet of music.   Ah, the moment of truth!   I tried to sing my part off the sheet of music, and hoped my practicing had paid off.   I did okay on the first half, but then flubbed the end of the short passage, at the end of which Mr. Rodby politely said, “thank you very much” meaning “the audition is over.”

I don’t know what came over me, but rather than leaving I said, “Mr. Rodby, I know the audition is over, but I think I did the last part of that passage wrong and would like to do it over so that I can get it right,” with my voice showing a determination that came from somewhere deep inside of me.   I redid the passage, and this time, what do you know? I did it perfectly!   I thanked him for allowing me the opportunity to get it right.    “Oh well,” I thought as I left the room, “too bad I got it right AFTER the audition was already over.”  I put it out of mind, and prepared to join the middling Mixed Chorus the next year.

One week later, the lists of those who passed the audition were put on the wall…  All the boys crowded around, and there were many disappointed looks as they returned from scanning for their name.   To avoid the embarrassment, I milled around until most of them had cleared away.  There were a couple of boys who were high-fiving each other for having made it.   I finally decided to get it over with and looked at the list of baritones and at the very bottom was the name … Jerome Rowley.   I made it!   I honestly was more stunned than happy.

Later on, I think that Mr. Rodby passed me on the audition, not because of my non-existent technical brilliance, but because I was determined to get it right.  That extra quality of tenacity was what put me over the edge, I think, and is something that I have never, ever forgotten.

The Viking Choir made history in 1970 by being the first American high school choir to tour behind the Iron Curtain. A few years later when I joined the choir as a sophomore, we went on a tour of the Netherlands and Germany, with a short stopover in France. It was the first time that many in the choir had been to Europe, and I remembered it as a time of music … and magic, as we explored castles, sailed down the Rhine River and sang in cathedrals, and went to restaurants with our choir guides and were served that ambrosia called wine. It was that experience that made me determined that when I returned from Spring Break, I would start learning French and German in addition to the Spanish I was already studying.

The person who was responsible for my success was Walter Rodby, who instilled in me a sensitivity to musical phrasing, which I can only describe as having a musical passage grow and then die down like the blooming and dying of a flower rather than being strictly played according to the rhythm and dynamics as noted in the music. This musicality combined with the dedication and discipline that I had already had in embryo as a member of the Male Chorus caused me to have the wonderful sensation of having fun while working hard together with others as a member of the chorus.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago: I was in a circle of people in a networking group I regularly attend, when we were asked to name something memorable about ourselves.  A guy named Brad said he loved to sing, and was a member of a men’s chorus called the Masters of Harmony, and wanted to know if anybody else in the group sang. “I did,” I volunteered. Or I used to—it had been two decades since my last choral singing in college and graduate school.

He invited me to go to a rehearsal that the Masters of Harmony were putting on in preparation for the International Choral Championships to be held over the 4th of July. Something in me just decided to be adventurous and to try it. I went there on a Wednesday evening and everybody was very friendly and welcoming.   And then they went to the risers and I stood among them as they started to sing …

They were amazing!  I didn’t know until I went home and checked them out on the internet, but they are Southern California’s Premier Men’s Chorus, and were the 2011 International Chorus Champions.  This makes them ineligible according to contest rules to join the international contest again until 2014, but they are going to the international contest to literally give their swan song tribute to whichever chorus wins this year’s competition.    Here’s the link for those who want to take a look at what the chorus is all about:

I sang for three hours and all of the musical director Mark Hale’s comments about singing musically reminded me exactly of what Walter Rodby used to drum into my head for the three years I was a member of the high school chorus.   And the excitement of being part of a group of guys all trying to do their best was just … exhilarating.

When I was done with that one rehearsal, I knew I was hooked:   I knew that whatever it takes, I have to be part of this organization. That yammering little voice I’ve learned to hate over the years started saying, “hey, it’s been over two decades since you’ve sang.” But within me, something deeper, that determination I pulled from the depths of being that one audition day back in high school said, “I will at least try out for it. I will give it my all and do my best—then I can rest.” After that wonderful experience at that rehearsal, and all the memories that it unleashed in me, I cannot NOT go through with it.

We’ll see where this musical road takes me. But even the road in front of me is new, the territory seems very familiar, and I am looking forward to exploring it. For two decades, my musical voice was hidden, but now I MUST sing.

2 Responses

  1. Like Mr. R always used to say,”Keep Singing”

    Maren (Dwyer) Yeska – Fellow VC Alum (75 and 76)

  2. I just came from a holiday concert and listening to the choir reminded me of my two years in Viking Choir which brought me to an internet search where I found your post. I also remember my audition very well. One of the parts of the tryout was singing the whole tone scale. Mr. R nodded to the accompanist who played it. Twice I attempted to sing it and blew it both times, and with the accompanist (who I knew) snickering in the background Mr. R said in exasperation “do you know what you are trying to sing?” Yes I said, it’s the whole tone scale. “Then sing it, dammit!” he yelled. I sang it the next time perfectly.

    VC alum ’69 and ’70

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