by Lauren Roget
For nearly two months, we had practiced Handel’s Messiah, with its forceful bow strokes and complicated fingerings, in preparation for our Winter Concert. As the fourth winter concert for most of us, it was starting to feel as if the only point of going through the redundant practices was to get the Domino’s pizza Mr. Casey had promised to give us after our concert. Mr. Casey, our Santa-bellied, always-chuckling orchestra teacher, was finishing his last year of teaching; he announced in every class how many days there were until his retirement, punctuating the announcement with a different jig or joke each time. At Forest Park High School, Mr. Casey was one of three teachers in the music program, each one responsible for a different section: choir, band, or orchestra. I was in the top orchestra—the consort orchestra—with maybe twenty-five other talented students. As a group, we didn’t really get along well; Forest Park was an extremely clique-ish, upper-middle class, white-dominated school. Everyone had his or her own groups of friends. All the friends had matching outfits. Half of the students took the orchestra class because it was an easy A, not because they thought the music was beautiful and not because they were decent players. The band and chorus kids were quite the opposite. Band and chorus were two of the tightest families in Forest Park—wherever one band or chorus student was, another one was surely not too far away. Orchestra students were nothing like a family; we were too different from one another and preferred to stay with our own herds of friends outside of class. Most days playing felt mechanical and that feeling radiated off our instruments. There were some days, though, when a few of us would wiggle in our seats, consumed by the music, feeling it flow in and out of every cell our of bodies. Some days. Some of us. Sometimes.
The week before the concert, Ms. Brittan, the chorus teacher, pulled Mr. Casey aside. Everyone agreed that Ms. Brittan was somebody you just learned to put up with for your own good. Any of the chorus kids would tell you in a heartbeat how strict she was, how she was always right, how her corny dance moves were annoying as hell, how her need to control everything drove everyone batty, and how she would flip out at you at the drop of a hat. Mr. Casey came back into the room, trying to smile away his annoyance with her as he announced Ms. Brittan’s grand idea to have the three music classes join forces. He said that she had heard us playing the “Hallelujah Chorus” and thought it would be wonderful for us to all play together . . . an idea none of us agreed with. We moaned, we groaned, we expressed our genuine sympathy for Mr. Casey himself, and then we played our way through an extra practice under the direction of Ms. Brittan.
That extra practice was the most painful that any of us had ever experienced. Ms. Brittan conducted awkwardly and faster than we were used to with Mr. Casey. The baton flew out of her hand repeatedly, hitting those of us who sat in the front on the head. And then she lost it. She yelled at us that with just one performance we were going to ruin everything she had worked for. Most of the students did not care what she had to say or how she felt. As for me, I was annoyed at the whole situation, and her clumsy conducting and condescending attitude did not help any.
The day of the concert, I cursed Ms. Brittan in my head all afternoon. That night I grudgingly donned my awkwardly-cut, black consort dress complete with long, nylon sleeves that almost suffocated me any time I dared to raise my arms. Once at school, I sat through the chorus concert and watched the performance of the familiar Christmas tunes, complete with choreography that could only have been by conceived by Ms. Brittan. I remember making my way to the pit with the rest of the orchestra, most of us still grumbling and peeved. I tuned my instrument, set my violin upright on my left knee, and looked up at Ms. Brittan, waiting. Ms. Brittan turned to the audience and announced that our final piece would be Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” She reminded the audience that Handel had originally conducted The Messiah in front of the royal court, and, as the first sound of the trumpet vibrated through the people and against the walls, King George II himself stood up, as did the rest of the room. The audience stared back at Ms. Brittan, bewildered, so she asked them to stand, reminding them of the custom.
Then Ms. Brittan turned to us and raised her hands as she lifted herself onto her toes. We mimicked her by raising our instruments: violins and violas under chins, cellos between legs, basses upright, brasses and winds up to lips. Together we sat straight, our bows gingerly placed with the horsehair nearest the frog, in anticipation. We held our breath, the entire orchestra and chorus waiting for her to give us our first downstroke. The second her hands fell and the first few notes vibrated through my body, I knew that whatever we were going to play would be the most beautiful sound I could ever hope to hear. I had always appreciated my instrument for what it was, but on this night, in that moment, my simple violin—with its hand-carved scroll, gracious curves, vibrating strings, and taut bow—seemed bigger than anything I could ever comprehend or hope to control. The voices from those on stage emitted a strength and grace that were not their own. The wind and brass instruments neither hid nor outdid the other sounds, and the strings vibrated more powerfully than ever before. In that moment, we were not aware of our unique skills or our specific talents—we were not even aware of our individual selves. For the first time ever, we played as one. We were one sound.
The story goes that Handel, after composing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” was found one day by his assistant, crying. When the assistant asked what had happened, Handel held up the musical score he had written and said, “I thought I saw the face of God.” Perhaps that is what happened at Forest Park High School that day. Perhaps what we were feeling was the strength of Handel’s emotions that found their way to us and needed to be played. Perhaps we saw the face of God.