(HOST) As the holiday season goes into full swing, Commentator Vic Henningsen reflects on that crucible of childhood, the Middle School Christmas concert.
(HENNINGSEN) Where I went to 7th grade in the mid-1960’s two groups took Boys’ Chorus: those who were no good at sports and could get out of most of the Phys. Ed. requirement by singing; and those who were only good at sports, for whom Chorus completed a schedule filled with P.E and shop. It was an odd, uneasy mixture. Most of us couldn’t sing a note; none of us particularly wanted to.
The teacher was a pudgy, bespectacled Texan named Byron McLean, a man of wit, talent, and surprisingly effective authority. He managed not only to keep order but to actually teach us something about singing.
Although most of us learned to carry a tune, my neighbor Leon was tone deaf. That made no difference to McLean. “Leon,” he would say, “you’re presidential material. President Grant said that there were only two tunes he knew. One was Yankee Doodle and the other wasn’t. And you’re going to learn this bass part if it kills us both.” He didn’t say what would happen to the rest of us.
Although we sang carols, the Christmas concert was heavy on McLean’s own arrangements of hymns he learned growing up in Texas, with a few Broadway show tunes mixed in to give the audience a break. But the high point was the finale: Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.
McLean loved the Chorus; he particularly loved the Mormon Tabernacle Choir recordings of the Chorus and played them regularly to us for inspiration and, I think, because it gave him
the strength to go on.
In rehearsal, he would yell, tear what was left of his hair, plead, and turn on the Mormons when desperate. “I’m turning lead into gold here, but you’ve got to work with me!” At the start of each run-through, he would say “All right, make me believe it.” When things really got rolling, he’d shout “Make me believe it!” In concert we’d see him mouthing the words “Make me believe it!”
The audience consisted of our parents, relatives, townspeople with nothing better to do, and all the teachers who lost to McLean at cards. Did we make them believe it? Hard to say.
But McLean made “us” believe it. Somehow, when we got out there and let go we felt like a real chorus. When we tenors jumped in with “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” my hair stood on end. Below me, Leon was booming away on the one thing he knew:
the bass part.
Today, I can’t listen to the Hallelujah Chorus without joining the tenors, and I still get a tingle of the electricity I felt in seventh grade. I can’t go to a holiday concert without thinking of Byron McLean and wondering if those kids up there have come to believe the way we did.
I hope so.
This is Vic Henningsen, in Thetford Center.
Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.