Miriam Feder home


Singing in Hawaii

I flew to Hawaii on election day. This was the first genuinely exciting election for me since 1968. Our bright shining star was hopefully being elected and here I was, flying all day. I consoled myself that it seemed appropriate to fly to his home state on the day of his hoped-for election. Besides I had been such a radio junkie in the last couple of weeks it wouldn’t kill me to miss the incessant repositioning of the half-known bits of information that would trickle along until we would all know what we needed to know. And someday it will end for you too, Minnesota.

I had picked up a $1 radio the day before I left, anticipating the radio jones I’d feel. When I arrived at my destination I quickly unpacked the one of my bags that managed to take the same route I had, changed into a bathing suit and ran straight-away into the ocean. First things first. Then I figured out how to balance the little red square of plastic on my wet belly and tune in NPR. Pennsylvania immediately rewarded me by coming in Blue.

As hotels get nicer, listening to the radio gets to be more difficult. The hotels with numbers in their name offer easy-to-operate clones of my first college clock-radio. Luxury hotels position obscure little boxes with buttons that do everything and nothing that result in early morning jolts but not current reporting. This enormous complex has such an extensive big brother television presence that it is also difficult to find news on the TV, despite it’s plasma magnificence taking up much of one wall. So onward through drinks, showers, missing bag research and the evening banquet.

After dinner, a series of phone calls revealed that yes Virginia, No Palin-monster; the U.S. would be joining the 21st century and keeping Moose radar out of the Naval Observatory. All to the backdrop of a perfect pink sky on our far Western border. It was surprisingly touching. And I could ask the bellboys what they thought about a President from Hawaii while we waited for the adventuresome bag.

I came to Oahu to sing at International. That’s shorthand for the Sweet Adelines International competition. I sing with a large women’s a Capella chorus that landed in first place in regional competition. Twenty months later I would take the international stage at Honolulu’s convention center, a dismal concrete fortress where you wouldn’t want to go to listen to your favorite music, under normal circumstances. Only if your favorite music is that created by large (100 to 180 member) women’s choruses that compete for placement, ribbons, and a certain amount of fame.

This trip as been anticipated, planned, prepped, rehearsed, budgeted, shopped, shipped ahead—our sparkly costumes, thank goodness– like no trip I have ever taken. Not by me of course. I just arranged for a ticket so long ago I can’t even remember, and then rounded up all the flowery flowey summer clothes I could raid from my daughter’s left-behinds.

This is not my favorite music, I feel compelled to say. My tastes in music are quite diverse, though I find myself increasingly seeking the classical music I grew up with, for comfort when my brain or body gets rattle-y. Perhaps a little less Verdi and a little more Schubert, on balance, but familiar and non-invasive music. Broadway musicals are my not-so-secret passion. I like pop/rock ballads descending into some janglier rock and roll. I crave occasional long stretches of Springsteen and Stones, the Dead—the anthems of my generation. African rhythm connects to my feet, Latin dance-beats swing my blood. Melodies of my own spin through my brain. And many more kinds of music delight me. My God looks something like Dr. John. But four-part harmonies of early 20th century song—I know the songs, I love the songs, I sings the songs, but…. That’s only on Tuesday nights and my daily rehearsal times as I drive to hell-and-gone along my life’s auto routes. However, they are mostly beautiful well-built songs. It’s amazing how they become part of me as I sing them.

We stay—four to a room—in one of those never-leave-the-grounds resort perfections that included penguins, ibis, conference rooms, multi-Starbucks, fancy stores for Japanese tourists and overpriced fast food, for rushed American’s on tight budgets fearful of ubiquitous Korean BBQ. That would be our group and many of the thousands of other Sweet Adelines from all over the English-singing world.

Luckily this over-the-top complex also includes fabulous unchallenging beach. We sleep just a few feet away from welcoming rolling salty ocean barely cooler than the air. We go in whenever we can to roll in salty waves—ofte late at night and well-lubricated. Our never-see-the-sun-bleached Northwest skins know a far-different pacific—an ocean we wouldn’t dare offer ourselves to so robustly in November.

We rehearse each day in a room outfitted with risers for this purpose. We are the lucky ones. Everything about our timing here—our control of our own risers due to the prescience of a member, our draw in the order of choruses, and later in the order of choruses in the final round of competition, conspires to allow us to rehearse at reasonable times. Well, personally I’d rather end a rehearsal at 10:30 p.m. than a.m. When we are not rehearsing, we have other Adeline activities: quartet competitions and finals; partying; occasionally eating; and occasionally hearing the outrageous from our three roommates. Well, you do hear that when you room together and share a wonderful, stressful, disorienting and emotional five days with people. Someone is bound to let slip. And that someone probably has no idea that their minor colloquial mention set off a fire truck in your ears.

There is kindness, love, mismatch, cornball, tenderness, support, superstition, hurt, triumph, calm and hysteria. And there is that wonderful ocean beckoning me to loosen my twisted spine. There are brisk walks between facilities, and strange choices for breakfast.

We perform on Thursday afternoon. Members of other choruses will have to begin curling their hair and gluing their lashes in the wee morning hours, but not us. Preparation time varies. There is not much good in putting it off. The day of performance is all about performance. It takes an entire day for the 127 of us to go onstage whenever that occurs. It’s the same day if we have one show or two; the same if we begin at 9 or at noon. Some begin upon rising and sit and wait calmly for the moment of truth—the make-up and hair inspection. Some crash into the inspection in crisis-mode, as we approach every other deadline in life. Some skip it altogether. We’ve been asked to submit. This request has relieved me of my personal load of rebellion. Not so for everybody.

We swarm through the maze of well-planned steps, squeezing bodies big and small through a traffic pattern—literally referred to as “the pattern,” remarkably enough— through restrooms, sequins, and sausage-casing undergarments, thick orange stage makeup, hair piled into 1970’s prom limos, false lashes, pink clown cheeks, red lipstick and tutti frutti tonga nail polish. Our eyes fasten to our director’s trusted hands as we inhale to sing sweet songs from another century to detail-crazed judges and appreciative fans of the genre, wanna be’s, shleppers and shleppees.

For some of us, the two song performance, the culmination of at least 80 hours of rehearsal, flicker by so fast we cannot remember it at all. For others, our focus on those hands that sculpt our musical fate and whole chunks of our lives etch slowly into our fiber. The hands belong to a very talented young man who can effortlessly draw each woman’s best from her in a performance. Of course we all know that only tremendous effort can result in effortlessness. When we leave our cloud-stage and enter the house side of the hall we are announced as members of the top ten.

We shriek and jump up and down wildly. This is what we wanted, in that woo woo and goal setting groupthink way. And this is what I wanted: to perform again on Saturday with a clutch of unrelated but fun-to-sing songs. It was worth it.

And this means two more days of rehearsal. Well if you’re here you might as well be rehearsing and performing, by gum. I feel camaraderie with the penguins on display: in the know, on-stage and grateful for the climate.

We repeat the performance day ritual on Saturday, this time donning swoopey red-sequined tunics over our black velvet pants. And we sing with our voices, our faces our bodies and our time-jangled souls. And drink. And swim. And wonder when we last had lunch.

Two weeks later in Portland for playback, the hi fi sound seems disconnected from anything we’ve ever heard before. Our contest set—code name for Thursday’s two songs—sound almost exactly as we wanted to hear them. Well, to me they did, at least. And the Saturday package that was fun but slightly under-rehearsed?

Oh we are critical, so critical of all the super-technical points we have learned so carefully at our leaders’ behest and the incessant insistent coaching of judges and choristers. I’ve never competed in anything before this dive into the Adelines. I wonder if all competitive souls clamor to destroy their own performance by carefully cataloguing each imperfection. I’d almost prefer a bit of male arrogance to this distinctly female picking. Certainly this is competition’s brutal side.

And we are sprung free—unhinged from our consuming rehearsal schedule and relieved of our weekly commitment, the friendly smiles and well-wishes, the frustrations of windows and neighbors and homework assignments. Off to cook and clean and make a holiday season in an inhospitable economy. All this time at home with family, with loved ones, with bills and frustrations and windows and neighbors and homework assignments. It’s almost a guarantee that singing next year will look like a welcome escape.