Swan Song

By Nancy Crovetti

Sometimes walking from my cubicle, on some errand to a distant office or delivery pickup station, through warehouses stacked with giant shelves loaded with boxes of books, I am tempted to sing, just belt out a tune in what might be an acoustically wonderful space. But I haven’t – yet. There was a time when I would have and not cared who heard or what they thought. You get to a certain age and such things are looked upon more as aged eccentricity and less youthful exuberance.

My parents met in a concert band at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. An old yearbook photo shows my mother poised at a harp; my father holds a clarinet, instruments I never saw or heard them play. Our house had a “music” room, featuring an upright piano. The room’s large closet of many shelves held dad’s clarinet, a violin along with my oldest brother’s saxophone, a guitar, a ukulele and a set of bongos.

I would peek into the instrument cases, breathing in the musty, sad smell of old velvet casing and reeds; try to put the woodwind together or press the keys on the shiny sax, to see if I could coax out a sound. With its polished curved wood veneer, the violin was most delicate so I only dared to open and look but never touch. The old instruments seemed sacred and mystical.

Our sheet music, well worn and abundantly scotch taped, included popular musicals: Carousel, Oklahoma, Porgy and Bess. Piano lessons consisted of me wandering in from running outside with the dogs while my sister played. I watched to try and figure out the notes and fingering to mimic later. If it was too hot outside, or raining, we might sing: her harmonizing the lower notes while I stretched my voice to the high notes. Those were my singing lessons. My voice was becoming my instrument.

It was in boarding school that I had my true vocal training. I joined choir not only because I loved to sing but also for the grand entrance and exits they made along the chapel aisle each Sunday service. Class choirs wore a white shirtwaist dress, but the upper class junior and senior special choirs wore cottas: a crisply starched tunic draping a satin dickey. Hymnals perched open in their hands, heads held high, eyes forward, barely glancing down at the words or notes, in syncopated step, the choir would march in singing the Processional; then at the end of the service march out again singing the Recessional.

Every service ended with an a cappella benediction in four-part harmony echoing from the vestibule. I wanted to be part of that angelic parade, one of those self-assured songsters who led the congregation each week, then heralded the service’s end, finally to steal away down the side staircases to the basement like vanishing seraphim.

After freshman tryouts, I was placed with the altos but admiring the high notes of the upper ranges, I snuck over to the second sopranos. Before long I realized my mistake: I’d never learned to read music, something vital to singing the right harmony. Since the highest soaring notes were easy to hear and read, making first soprano became my mission.

I listened carefully to the directives about breathing and singing not from the throat but from the diaphragm. Mr. Raymond taught us to listen to one another, to not compete, but to blend, to become one note from many. Each week I practiced diligently to strengthen my range until my voice became one that was high yet strong and clear. By my junior year I had made the Chancel and Estey choirs as a first soprano.

Mr. Raymond resembled my father: tall and spare, with a quiet commanding presence that prompted our rapt attention and respect without raising his voice. In my senior year he selected me as a soloist for the traditional Christmas Vespers. That year, our school choir had been invited to perform at the First Unitarian Church in New York City where our recital would be recorded live by a radio station and then rebroadcast on Christmas Eve. To be singled out, a voice able to carry a song on your own was a scary and exhilarating honor.

We filed into the cathedral’s immense sanctuary from a side entry, to the quiet hum of the organ’s interlude, muffled conversations, occasional coughs and cleared throats from the congregation. Gazing upward at the vaulted arches, I ran through the words one last time; reminding myself: to not rush, to not stumble, to not forget any words, to remember this very moment, always. When the organ stopped, the lights dimmed. Encircled in the glow of a half dozen lighted evergreens, Mr. Raymond nodded, his baton aloft, and lifted his chin toward me in anticipation. I stepped forward.

There is a moment just before the beginning of a song, full of anticipation and fear: you want it to be over and yet want it to never end. Surrounded by the soft harmony of altos, tenors, basses and seconds whose voices gently hummed the introductory bars, I counted the notes and waited for the moment the baton would signal my start. In those final seconds I took one last cleansing breath, remembered to stand up straight, remembered to let them hear it in the rafters. Hark in the darkness…clearly sounds a cry…

Like a firefly’s flickering glow, the moment came and then was gone. The last measures of blended voices faded. Mr. Raymond lowered his hands and baton to end the song. Then, looking up, he beamed silently, gave me a proud nod, circling his thumb and forefinger together in a precise “OK” signal: well done. I stepped back to my place in the choir then turned the page of the songbook to the next piece. Singing, I discovered, is the closest I have ever felt to God: my song, a prayer. I was the proverbial duckling become a swan.

About this writer

  • Nancy Crovetti Nancy Crovetti is a freelance writer from Lamoni, Iowa. She discovered Sasee while visiting Myrtle Beach with her three sisters. Last July when the last of her dog family passed away, the kennels sprouted ears of volunteer corn, one for each of her six Rotts.

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6 Responses to “Swan Song”

  1. Nancy I am finding out all sorts of things about you.I did not know that you could sing or enjoyed music .I cant sing but I do enjoy music.Also i did not know that you are such a gifted writer.
    Thank you for sending this to me.

  2. Marilyn Guarino says:

    Beautifully written – you are such a sensitive writer and capture so many amazing feelings and experiences! Keep them coming, Ms. Crovetti!

  3. Teresa Graham says:

    Well done,I so enjoy reading the pieces you write and learn more about you with each one.God is so wonderful in giving us these special talents and to share them with others the way you did and still do brings joy to many I am sure.

  4. Mary Cook says:

    Nancy, you have once again amazed and thrilled me with your gifts…I am soooo envious! You paint a vivid picture with your words. I can almost smell the musty instrument cases! Thank you for letting me read your creations. Keep exercising your gift–and letting me bask in the reflected glory of being able to say, “I know her. She is my friend.” Well done, friend.

  5. Elizabeth Ghaffari says:

    A truly awesome tale! I too could smell the red velvet of the violin case. Your “song” is beautiful – like watching a butterfly emerge from it’s cocoon.
    Thank you for writing for us. More, Sasee – more from Ms. Crovetti

  6. Ronetta says:

    Nancy, what a wonderful story! Gives me a glimpse into your life before our paths crossed. Keep writing – you indeed have a gift.

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