Rehearsing for Singing the Dream 2019: A soul-transforming experience

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As the newly minted public relations representative for Singing the Dream 2019, I was simply there to do my job: get photos of the chorus and write a news release about the event. Little did I realize that I’d experience a soulful transformation. How could a WASP-bred, relatively new Catholic find herself so wonderfully immersed in a Jewish-hosted experience with people of all faiths?

There I was, sitting in the vestry at Providence’s Temple Emanu-El. I was shown to a seat and handed a thick packet of sheet music — how did Singing the Dream founder Miriam Ross intuitively know I was a soprano??  

I missed the vocal warm-up because I was too busy eyeballing the delicious snacks spread out on a table. My stomach was growling and all I could think about was that after a few hours working here, I’d go home to a hot meal and the couch. I grabbed a plate of Oreos, pretzels and fruit, and then took my place among the singers.

Now, I must tell you that I’m a professional singer in a rock band. Yup — every weekend since 1989 I’m rocking some bar stage in Rhode Island as a lead singer and keyboard player.  I’ve also been playing the piano since age 6. So, the first thing I did was scrutinize the piano player, Patrick Aiken. 

Earlier, Aiken had pointed out to the music director that a note was missing on one of the handouts. I thought, “This guy is amazing with his detail and talent, and so into what he does!” I secretly mused that he reminded me of Barry Manilow, as I ate my snacks and had a sudden realization that not one other person was eating anything. They were also not dressed like me — I came straight from the office and was way overdressed.

As I put down my plate and stood with the group in an admittedly 50-percent attempt to follow along and quietly sing (remember, that was not part of my job), I experienced the magic that is Cantor Brian Mayer. This charismatic and energetic music director said to Aiken, “Give me an A flat, please,” but before Aiken could touch the piano, Cantor Mayer was singing it with perfect pitch! What, I thought … is he a human pitch pipe??  This cannot be!

Cantor Mayer went on to lead the roughly 25 chorale members present through various phrases of the music, instructing us on the meaning behind the words, and guiding our vocal cords and lungs through the proper diaphragmatic breathing techniques to emote, properly time dynamics and sustain tone. “I lift my hands in total praise to you” went from simply being words on a page to a phrase sung with genuine, heartfelt emotion as we were told to put down our music sheets and lift our upturned hands in front of us. It was part operatic performance, part religious experience, and part sheer brilliance.

My voice got louder and more confident as we jumped from phrase to phrase and from song to song, so it wasn’t boring and kept us sharp. Soon, the harmonies from the altos, tenors and basses blended with the sopranos to create some of the most beautiful music I’ve been part of in awhile. In the process, I had found a new voice!  The voice of a soul transformation, because this was not just something that was coming out of my mouth … it was the voice of a person being unified with others through songs that have meaning.

The words took on new life.  I felt connected to all of the others, despite our different appearances. Even more importantly, I felt connected to history — back to what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of: people of all ages, races and faiths coming together in unity.

Ross had been telling me for months what this event was all about, but it didn’t sink in until this very moment. Here we were, strangers in harmony, smiling at one another, so happy in our human connection. Sharing a God-given talent, a love for music and the oneness of voice that can happen with a choral experience. 

Dr. King once said, “In a sense, songs are the soul of a movement.”  Imagine if that same harmony, that same movement toward peace and tolerance, can be experienced in our non-singing lives?

I hope you can attend the Singing the Dream 2019 concert on Jan. 27, to hear the many beautiful community voices of this most special performance chorus sharing the dream in song. 

BETTY GALLIGAN is president of Newberry Public Relations and Marketing, Inc., an East Providence-based public relations, marketing, advertising, social media and digital marketing firm.