How singing in the Pennsylvania Youth Chorale taught me to live

I’m beginning to think that what we become is the sum of our childhood lessons. For better or for worse, they are there, stitched into our lives like patchwork. In my early years, I didn’t notice, but as a 35-year-old aunt and stepmom, I witness the kids in my life changing and growing. I see their exquisite patterns forming. As I recognize the shaping of my own years, I now know what moved me closer to who I wanted to become.

As an 11-year-old, I was unsure how to focus my love for music. My mother understood. In red pen she drew a circle around an announcement in the local newspaper for Pennsylvania Youth Chorale auditions. From the first rehearsal, directors Eileen Finley and Eileen Fields elucidated their philosophy: that what we love shouldn’t come easy; that music, in its infinitude, is the perfect channel to challenge oneself. For hundreds of children over the years, the choir became a training ground for life.

When I chose to join, I made a commitment. But I hardly knew what commitment meant until I learned that we weren’t excused from a rigorous rehearsal schedule for play practice, a softball game, or a birthday party. We were interlaced in each other’s lives, and missing an afternoon on the risers resulted in a singer who didn’t know her part. We learned to want to commit to the high standards that the conductors expected. I let go of the things I might be good at to make way for one thing I might be great at. Even now, when I take on a task, I draw upon a stalwart stick-to-it-iveness that I might not have developed without the Eileens.

Some of our regular gigs involved singing at nursing homes. “Hold their hands. Elderly people crave touch,” Ms. Finley said. I defied my shyness and squeezed an aging woman’s fingers. They were cold and dry. When she squeezed back, her palm was warm.

At post-concert receptions, if we were caught chatting with friends, Ms. Finley nudged us to disperse and mingle. Now I’m unafraid to start a conversation with strangers. How many connections would I miss as an adult if I hadn’t learned to reach out?

Just as my life grew richer with each new person I encountered, I also grew stronger with the tiniest threads of learning. Even small lessons were big. When traveling, before we left a host family, we were told to ask if we should make or strip the bed, to never leave a mess. We were reminded to drink water, to comb our hair, to iron our blouses, to tuck in our shirts. We wrote personalized thank-you notes. We enunciated — when we spoke and when we sang. We stood up straight. We listened to each other. The rush of euphoria that came after a successful performance was not possible without good manners and healthy habits.

And we weren’t afraid — to try haggis in Scotland, to pet a tarantula in Arizona, or to ride a rollercoaster with five loops. To audition for a solo for a haunting Irish lullaby. To feel the excitement of getting it, and to accept disappointment when we didn’t. When something good happened to one of us, it happened to all of us.

We wanted to know everything about the material we were learning and becoming. Before we started a new song, Ms. Finley told us about the composer, the message, the meaning she found. On tour, when we stood on the banks of Loch Lomond, bellowing the beloved Scottish folk song of the same name, I knew what I was singing about. With the slate sky above us and the icy water rushing at our feet, I imagined the two lovers torn apart by political unrest. Even though the music was mournful, it consoled me. Ms. Finley told us that music always retrieves something, it never takes away — that it doesn’t remove pain or loneliness but allows us to accept it. The same goes for joy.

And for love. We knew we were loved, which seems simple enough. But for a teenager whose first kiss just told her that he didn’t like her after all, it meant everything. Once, after a concert, I saw my parents and Ms. Finley talking. She said to me afterward: “Your parents are so proud of you. Just look at them.” I’d never seen their admiration for me through someone else’s eyes like that.

Accepting love meant accepting criticism. Ms. Finley blatantly pointed out when we needed to do better. But we knew it was only because she believed we could do it. There was no limit to how far we could push ourselves. Ms. Finley wrote in the concert program book: “These children deserve our praise and encouragement.”

Twenty years later, at the Eileens’ final spring concert, I knew it was they who deserved the praise.

Every year, before the choir left for tour, we’d sing to our parents a melodic, wistful arrangement of the Irish Blessing. For the Eileens’ retirement, their alumni planned a surprise: We gathered on the second level of the concert venue in a semicircle. With the opening chords, we stood. Ms. Finley beamed. She led us one last tearful time through our goodbye song. Our voices soared over the balcony, blending with younger generations of singers below. The harmonies were etched in our heads. I sang beside a best friend I had met 24 years ago in the choir. I had been her bridesmaid, and she would be mine. Her 3-year-old daughter sat between us, holding our hands. I remembered why being part of this group had followed me to Los Angeles, where I now make my life. There was a lesson in everything.

As I looked at the risers filled with this year’s choir, singing below me, I saw an animated girl with curly dark hair in the alto section. She reminded me of me. Was she shy and reserved before she joined the choir? Did she bloom to sing solos, to trust her voice? What about 20 years from now? What will she do and where will she live? What role will music play in her life? I hope that she’ll turn to art when someone breaks her heart. That she’ll know she has all she needs.

Soon, I’ll take my boyfriend’s 8-year-old son to try out for the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. Whether he joins or not — whether he ends up loving music or soccer or Tae Kwon Do — I hope he finds as much meaning as I found in the Pennsylvania Youth Chorale. I hope there are lessons he gathers now that will sustain him always.

Lauren DePino is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. Her ultimate dream is to write original songs for Disney movies. Her essays have been featured in The Washington Post, Yahoo! News, Elephant Journal, Scary Mommy, Ravishly, and more. 

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