Gold in Culture and Ideas : Notes into Lines

By Hannah Sheldon-Dean

In the middle of the St. Charles Bridge on a warm day in Prague, we wait with our binders of music, wondering if anyone will bother to show up. There are five or six of us here now, out of perhaps twenty-five. We’ve been singing all week, and this is our day off; we wouldn’t blame the rest of our friends for not coming. The tourists take pictures of the statue above us, and the jazz combo carries on down the way. You wouldn’t blame the tourists, either, if they didn’t want to pay attention to us, but we’re hoping they will.

In New York, I practice my choir music at home alone between rehearsals, coaxing my brain through a process that still feels alien, even after two years. Because I didn’t learn to read sight-read music when I was younger, I’m still learning now. It’s the difference between knowing a language well enough to translate it in your head and knowing that same language well enough to understand the words’ meaning with immediacy, without having to translate. There are so many words, each with so many significances.

In front of my keyboard on the floor of my apartment, I stitch the notes together slowly, learning every line as if it were a melody, even though it usually isn’t. Sometimes, it’s like trying to tie a knot using only one hand. By the time rehearsal comes around on Sunday evening, I’ve woven the lines into my brain, so that they’re waiting for me when I open my folder full of sheet music. It’s a joy every time, to stand among the other altos and hear myself singing the same thing that they are, proof that I’ve done my work well. It’s a way of immediate understanding that doesn’t come along often, in my experience. Even better is later, when I can turn my attention away from what I am doing and toward what we are doing together as a choir, a much more elaborate form of breathed pattern-making. It’s an exhilarating thing, hours and hours of practice spread between twenty-something singers, condensed into a few minutes of rare cohesion.

Our first audience in the Czech Republic was an auditorium full of school children. Little kids, maybe ages six to twelve. Our repertoire for the week-long tour is heavy stuff—lots of dissonance, lots of minor keys, lots of songs that stretch beyond the five-minute mark. Anxious about holding the kids’ attention, our conductor cut the program short, down to about an hour. The school was quiet as we made our way to the stage, fighting off jet last night’s jet lag and wondering what we were doing there.

In New York, we beg all around town to get attendees at our concerts. We’ve sung with some great musicians at some great venues, but when it comes time to fill the pews at our home field, the Shrine of St. Anthony of Padua, it’s never as many as we hope it will be. Our own friends and family make excuses more often than not, but I don’t hold it against them. It’s hard to know what to make of us, a gang of young, pretty, secular people singing old, strange, sacred music in a giant stone church. Sometimes it’s new music, actually, but it all tends to sound foreign to pop-tuned ears. It sounded that way to me, before I joined, and the mystery was part of what drew me to it. If there’s a place in the United States where audiences might bother to seek us out, you’d think it would be New York, but as it happens, they generally don’t. The ones that do come applaud politely and tell us afterward that the concert was beautiful—that’s what friends are for.

In the auditorium at the school in the Czech Republic, the children looked just like American children, like there could easily be whispering and giggling hiding right beneath their polite surface. Then we began to sing, and the children stayed quiet. They did not squirm in their seats. They knew when to applaud, and they kept their eyes on us for the entire hour. We glanced at each other in awe between songs: Where did we find an audience like this?

When our translator asked them, at the end of the concert, if they had any questions for us, hands went up all around the auditorium. How often do you practice? Is it hard to learn so many songs? What’s that thing you hold up next to your ear at the beginning of each song? When our conductor passed his tuning fork out into the crowd, the children rippled toward it in a murmuring wave, as if he’d brought them candy. And when their teacher asked who’d like to perform for the visitors, a gang of kids appeared on the stage almost instantly, singing folk music by heart.

When we left, they followed us out to our bus, asking for autographs. One little girl drew a picture of a bear and gave it to our conductor, with the words For your teem written underneath.

New York, everybody knows, is a mecca of culture, a land of opportunity for the artistically minded. But New York had nothing on the towns we visited. At the end of our second concert, a tearful teenage music student presented us with flowers and an angel figurine, and thanked us for one of the best nights of her life. The next night, the entire population of a small town in the countryside came to see us sing, and afterward, the mayor invited us over to his office for drinks. “These cakes,” said the mayor’s gangly young translator, gesturing to the silver trays of pastries on the table in front of us, “were made for you by my mother!” Not to be outdone, the mayor informed us that he loved to sing, and usually did so publically only once a year, at the town’s annual cheese festival. “But tonight,” the translator told us, “he makes an exception for you!” The staff pressed more slivovitz on us, as the portly mayor launched into an aria.

Don’t they realize? I thought. I thought of myself alone in my apartment, building my notes into lines.

The next city we visited, Karvina, was like a life-sized toy; everywhere we went, the stores and restaurants seemed nearly abandoned, and around each corner we’d find ourselves running into each other and no one else. Even on a prominent billboard in the city’s central square, there we were, looking back at ourselves out of an oversized black and white print of our group photo. But that night at the church, there was everyone who hadn’t been wandering around the city earlier, listening, applauding, caring that we were there.

I had a nagging feeling that we were cheating them: Listen, I wanted to say, in New York, we’re nobody. But there was something else: we sounded beautiful. We were signing as perfectly than we’d ever sung. Later, back in New York, we found a point in one concert recording where every woman in the group sang a single glissando, a sliding note, in exact unison. We replayed it three or four times to make sure, because how could that be? How could so many of us have become a single voice?

Our final concert was the biggest, the reason we had come on the tour in the first place. We were one act of an opera festival honoring Czech composer Bedrich Smetana in his home city of Litomysl. As a choral group, we weren’t sure we’d interest many opera fans—and they didn’t know who we were, we hadn’t begged them to come, we hadn’t been marketing ourselves; this wasn’t New York.

There were hundreds of people there, filling the interstices of our largest Czech venue.

These are my favorite moments: when my voice fits so snugly with the others that I’m no longer sure I’m singing. I can feel the sound, but barely hear it. At the end of the back row of altos, I was so close to the front row of the audience that I felt sure, at first, that they must be scrutinizing me, noticing each breath and snag in my voice. By the end of the concert, I was certain that they could not; I was barely there, anyway.

We finished the encore for this last concert and left the church, back out onto the cobblestones outside, heading for the vestry where our New York skins were waiting for us.

“Come back—you have to come back! We’re going back inside.”

We stumbled back on the slippery stones, to the sanctuary where the audience was still on its feet. We were happy and unprepared; when had anyone ever demanded a second encore of us? We sang a pretty Spanish song, straightforward and cheerful, that we’d learned for Christmas shows and for anytime we needed to sound like we knew what we were doing.

There were two options, to my mind: We had fooled them, or else New York had fooled us.

That evening, we sat outside at a Cuban-themed bar where they stopped serving drinks at eleven. Along the wall behind our table, there was a wooden support beam just a few feet higher than the backs of the metal chairs. I climbed up onto it and sat there with my knee leaning against my boyfriend’s shoulder, swinging my other foot and drinking a minty cocktail that cost me the equivalent of about two US dollars. I’m happiest, always, sitting just a ways apart from others, looking at things from an angle that no one else can see.

“Man, guys,” I said. “In New York, someone would have told me to get down from here by now.”

Just then, a Czech woman hurried over to us, looking like maybe she worked at the bar. I braced myself, ready to apologize, to get down and sit in a chair like a civilized person.

“I don’t speak English,” she said, in English. “But—sexy girl!”

“Thank you!” I said, and meant it, while my boyfriend smiled. In New York, we would have been offended.

That was last night, before we left for a final day in Prague before the trip’s end. Here on the St. Charles Bridge, we know we’ve had our moment; this, now, is just for fun, and to see if we can get the tourists to toss us enough koruna to buy a single round of insanely cheap beer. It’s 5:30, the appointed time. If it’s just six of us, that’s okay; none of these people knows our name, and there’s no pressure to do well.

It’s Sunday, and the bridge is packed with crowds in both directions. Unlike the other cities we’ve been in this week, it’s easy to lose each other here. But then Garrett appears, and Carah, and there’s Justin. Steph, Lindsay, Alyssa. Audrey and her husband Gordon, and even Adam, who said earlier that he was tired of singing and wouldn’t come. One by one and a few at a time, we all materialize, as if required to do so. We fan into an arch, and place a straw hat in the middle with a handful of change inside.

By the third measure—just seconds into the song—a crowd has gathered, curious and eager. We have only a few binders of music to go around; we’re peering over each other’s shoulders and laughing when we miss entrances and sing the wrong notes. We’re a mess compared to the rest of our performances this week, but the crowd just gets bigger. An hour passes and we run out of material, and no one hesitates to start the entire set over again. As we sing through our opening song a third and final time, a man in the front row of the crowd stands with eyes closed and spine straight, choosing our voices over a stunning view of an entire city.

When we pick through the hat later, there is Czech money, Euros, Turkish money, American money, and even a single British pound. At one point, a family from Minnesota comes over talk to us between songs, and when we say we’re from New York, they’re so happy to hear it. “You’re doing our country proud!” they say.

Nothing will be different when we return to New York. It’s not as though the mayor’s translator’s mother is going to tell all her friends to pack the pews at St. Anthony’s next time we have a concert. We’ll never see those schoolchildren again, or that family from Minnesota, and we won’t put their words on our website. To New York, we’ll appear just the same as ever. But New York to us, or to me anyway, will look different; I’ll understand, I hope, that it has edges, and that it ends. That despite what it says to us with its winking skyscrapers and infinite currency, New York is not the world.

As I sit alone in my apartment in Brooklyn, stitching and unstitching, I am someone, and if I forget myself as I hope I can, there is every chance that some other one may close his eyes and choose to listen, and women I’ve never met may bake cakes with me in mind.


Hannah Sheldon-Dean is a generalist to the core, and splits her time between freelance writing and her studies in the master’s program at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work.

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