Alleluia, Amen

One autumn in Maine

Shirley, Jeff, and Sue


Listening to Judas Maccabaeus this morning I realized how powerful a force music has been in my life.


The previous winter I had taken a graduate course in psychology at the University of Maine. The course was taught by Geoff Thorpe. It met for three hours one afternoon per week. Coincidentally, Geoff lived on Phillips Lake just up the road from our house. My driver would drop me off at the university and Geoff took me home at the end of the class. It was about an hour’s drive which gave us plenty of time to visit. On the way home one afternoon Geoff mentioned that he was going to choir practice that evening. I asked Geoff about the group with which he sang. That’s how I learned of the Acadia Choral Society.

The Acadia Choral Society sang two concerts a year, one in December and one in May. As the summer passed I kept telling myself that I needed to call Shirley Smith, the director. Geoff had given me Shirley’s phone number months ago. Finally, in August, I picked up the phone.

“Hi, Shirley, my name is Sue Martin. I took a class from Geoff Thorpe last winter. He told me all about the Acadia Choral Society. I’d like to see if I can sing with you this fall.”

“Well sure,” began Shirley. “Tell me about yourself. Tell me what experience you have.” I told Shirley about singing in the choir at St. Mary’s in Birmingham, singing with the elite Octette at summer camp, and singing with the Sewanee choir. “Well sure, we’d love to have you sing with us. We want to give the opportunity to anyone who is interested.”

“Oh, great,” I began. “Can you tell me a little bit about the music the group will be singing this semester?”

Shirley named the three works that would be on the program in December. I was already familiar with one of them, and I knew I’d be able to find recordings of the other two.

“There’s one other thing,” I began. “I’m blind and I haven’t done this kind of singing since I became blind. But I’m sure I can do it. As long as I can get recordings of the works we’re going to sing my husband can help me with the words. I’ll just braille them out myself.”

Then I held my breath.

After a minute Shirley said, “Do you by any chance work a guide dog? A German Shepherd guide dog?”

This was such an unexpected question that I was taken aback.

“Well, yes, yes, I work a guide dog, and yes, she’s a shepherd.”

“And did you recently move to north Ellsworth, somewhere near Winkumpaugh Road?”

Mystified, I said, “Yes, we bought a house on Hanson’s Landing Road last October.”

“Then I’ve seen you. I’ve seen you working your dog. I live in this neighborhood.”

Shirley and I chatted for a bit more. She asked if I’d like to ride with her to choir rehearsals. I thanked her and told her that I’d be riding with Geoff.

The second Tuesday after Labor Day rehearsals began. The first thing Shirley did was pass out cassette tapes.

“You’re singing soprano, right?” said Shirley, offering me one of the tapes. It turned out Shirley made a recording for each section of the chorus. She’d play a professional recording of each work while playing the notes sung by each section on her digital keyboard. This was perfect for me. It made learning the music much easier.

I loved choir rehearsals. We didn’t just learn the music and sing it, there was much more involved. Shirley taught us about the music during rehearsals. Sometimes she would bring in recordings of other works for comparison to the works we were singing. She taught us breathing exercises. She taught us that there is no long A in Latin.

“No, stop,” said Shirley. “There is no long a in Latin.” We had done it again. “It’s not kyri-a,” and she stressed the long a sound at the end, the way we had just sung it. “It’s kyri-eh,” she said, making a soft e sound at the end of the word.

The next time I was in the office, I had an idea. Photocopying the necessary letters from a large-print calendar, I made a little sign. When I was done, I had the words ‘There is no A in Latin’ on two pieces of paper. I took them home, stapled them to two pieces of cardboard, and stapled the cardboard to a small stick. In the end, it looked like the kind of sign protesters carry.

At the next choir rehearsal, I waited. Sure enough, when we sang the Kyrie, enough of us sang it with the long a for Shirley to stop us in exasperation. “Okay,” she began.

Interrupting her I said, “Here Shirley, this might help,” and I handed over my little sign. Laughing, she held up the sign and the entire chorus broke into laughter. For the rest of the rehearsals that little sign lay on the piano, ready for deployment should we forget how to pronounce Kyrie.