Tomorrow I sing at Grace Cathedral as a sub for fellow Yalie and Bohemian John Kelley. He’s one of the few people I know, who can sing all four parts. I sub for him as an alto. After singing at Grace in the choir of Men and Boys for more than two decades, I finally left in 1995, primarily because of conflicts with multiple commitments on Thursday nights. But today as a sub for three people, I’m able to choose when I sing at Grace, so the conflicts are more manageable. For a few years as a child, I was a boy soprano myself.
John Fenstermaker, former organist and choir director at Grace Cathedral, used to say that boy sopranos are judged by absolute standards and not given allowance for their age as boys; that –unlike sports, or even playing musical instruments— singing as a soprano in a cathedral choir is one of the few circumstances boys are judged by adult standards. Jeffrey Smith, the current organist and choir director at Grace, certainly maintains and promotes that performance point of view. I was not able to sing in the choir at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania –my home town— because my Dad was minister at Grace Methodist Church a few blocks away.
In the summer of 1960 before going to New Hampshire and Canada, I spent five weeks at the Columbus Boy Choir Summer Camp at Fred Waring's estate at Shawnee on the Delaware near the Delaware Water Gap. It was my first time away from home or the family. (I was there at the time of the Republican and Democratic political conventions for Nixon & Kennedy.)
I loved the singing and the music. We lived in tents and rehearsed in an old barn, where we had movies on weekends. I especially enjoyed Erroll Flynn in The Prince and the Pauper.
I brought my 'cello, and practiced once in a while. I also brought along three volumes of Will Durant's History of Civilization, which Mother and Dad had bought me from the Book of the Month Club, as I had requested for my tenth birthday. One of the adult counselors recommended Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, which I read, but didn't fully appreciate until I read it again at Mercersburg.
In my free time I built dams on one of the creeks, and used Mother's brownie land camera. We went swimming in the river and took canoe trips.
Some of the boys liked to enact wedding ceremonies. One boy pretended the piano was an organ and would play the Wagner and Mendelssohn wedding marches— and I would be the minister.
At the end of camp, we gave a final concert around the pool of Fred Waring's Hotel. We sang a Bach Easter cantata, Mozart's Ave Verum and several comedy numbers. The Director, Mr. Bryant, wanted to talk with Mother and Dad after the concert. He was about to offer me a scholarship to their school in Princeton. Sherry had just finished his freshman year at the University, and I was thrilled at the prospect of going to the Choir School (today called the American Boys’ Choir.)
I saw Dad. I had never seen him look like that before. He was sporting a Van Dyke beard. He had grown it for the Harrisburg Centennial. I was such a little twirp. I didn't like Daddy's beard, particularly, a Van Dyke. (Today, they're back in fashion, and look rather becoming on some people. I had my first Van Dyke a month and a half ago to disguise a black and blue chin after fainting from some of my heart meds and hitting my chin against the marble sink at home. I shaved it off – keeping only the moustache – as soon as the black and blue cleared up, but that was because it was too gray.)
Anyway, Mother and Dad said they would consider the offer; but I don't think they ever really did. Mother had gone away to boarding school at the age of twelve, and I think she regretted it. I was the youngest child – I don't think Dad wanted me to leave home yet. It was a big disappointment.
So I went back to sixth grade at Steele School. I was in the Special Interest Class (meaning accelerated –but we were conscious about not saying so). The spring before, I had been interviewed by a school psychologist to be eligible for the program. He had given me a battery of tests –including several free associations. I figured I was supposed to impress the guy; so in the midst of other things, I listed the first six Roman emperors and several of Napoleon’s marshals. I have no idea what he actually thought of me. I would be startled if a ten-year old did that to me today, and would think he probably needed some help with self-esteem.
I sang in the chorus. I remember auditioning with "Hello Young Lovers" from The King and I. (I had played one of the princes in the Harrisburg Community Theatre's production back in fourth grade, when I had to dye my hair black, and received special permission to arrive late to school after long rehearsals.) I tried to sound like Deborah Kerr as Anna in the movie. Little did I know that the singer was actually Marni Nixon, who also dubbed for Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. (Did you know the origin of the title of that play, derived from Shaw? Professor Higgins never calls Eliza his fair lady. Instead, Eliza was a cockney girl from Mayfair. So with a cockney accent, she was a 'M’eye-fare' lady – anyway, that's according to my actor, solicitor, friend, Jeffrey Hardy).
In the autumn of 1960, Robert Clippinger, my Dad's church organist, asked me to sing the boy's role in Felix Mendelssohn' oratorio Eljiah with Grace Church choir and another Methodist church in Williamsport, near Woolrich. Dad said I had a very lovely voice; but I should learn to project better. That could still be said about me.
[It's funny about opera singers: they can have serious problems with intonation, have too wide a vibrato, have little sense of line or language, certainly be deficient in theatrical skills and physical good looks, not even have a pretty voice; but if they can be heard over the orchestra, they can make it to the top. If not, why even bother. On the other hand, groups like Chanticleer, Episcopal men and boys choirs, and the Schola Cantorum—with whom I currently sing— do very well with moderate dynamics and a pure, clear sound. They depend, however, on appropriate settings and supportive acoustics.]
A few weeks after I sang the boy in Elijah, I went to the Camp Curtin Junior High School football game against our city arch-rival, Edison, and screamed my little heart out. I strained my vocal chords so much, that the doctor told me I shouldn't sing for a year, or I'd never sing as an adult. So that was the end of my career as a boy soprano.