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Voices of love

Scott Boyle | Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When I was a kid, I thought the music my parents listened to was boring. So whenever I found myself without something to do, I would crank up the VHS player, go to the cabinet and reach for my favorite tape: “Peter, Paul and Mary in Concert.” I would sit on the floor, head in my hands, and watch (with occasional dance breaks) as PP&M sang songs like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “If I Had a Hammer.” I watched that video countless times, so many times, in fact, that I could proudly give minute-by-minute breakdowns of what was coming next.

But there was always one song that gave me pause: Mary Travers’ cover of John Denver’s “For Baby.”
The staging was simple: Peter and Paul exited while a rocking chair was brought onstage. There was not a dry eye in the room as Mary quickly invited her granddaughter into her lap, intertwined her hands with hers and sang the song.

And I cried too – every time I watched it. I couldn’t help it. Both of my grandmothers used to hold me in the same way. I can still remember the feeling of their hands with mine. Their hands were veiny but firm, weathered by countless years of caring for children and grandchildren of their own, weathered, no doubt, by the demands of love.

On that stage, Mary’s song gave love a voice. Her music brought me back to those living rooms, those kitchens, those places where, in that unity of hands and those tender gazes, I first experienced joy as “a reflection of the love in [my grandparents’] eyes.”

In “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” Albus Dumbledore made the observation that music is “a magic far beyond all we do here.” And it was through Mary’s performance that I first fell in love with this magic, too. Mary’s song was a consistent reminder that music could be a familiar friend, one that would always be showing me the reality of love, God’s love, was never far away.

At the beginning of my sophomore year, I joined the Notre Dame Folk Choir. Little did I know I was entering a community that would bring me back to these childhood moments, consistently reminding me the magic of music was still very much alive.
My time with the Folk Choir was a journey of self-discovery. Although I love music and performing, I never have felt confident with my voice. More specifically, I have always had a huge fear of mistakes.

Consequently, I have always preferred singing and performing as a part of an ensemble rather than through solos. I was quite content to have my involvement with the Folk Choir remain that way, too.

But I quickly realized that is not the way that the directors, Steve Warner and Karen Schneider-Kirner, run the choir. They work actively to make sure that everyone, regardless of ability, has a chance to solo. I learned this rather unexpectedly when I was assigned to solo for a psalm during communion at Mass a few weeks into my sophomore year.

As the day approached, I was incredibly nervous. I ran through the solo many times in the privacy of my dorm room and even ventured into Alumni Hall’s chapel to plunk out notes. But that Sunday, my legs were trembling as I held the music and stepped up to the microphone in the loft of the Basilica.
Unfortunately, my worst fears manifested midway through a verse. I lost pitch and stumbled over the words.

As I finished the song, I was dejected and disappointed. I nervously looked towards Steve and Karen as the music faded, expecting a frown or a disapproving look. I got none. Rather, Steve looked over his guitar to give me a satisfied wink. Karen, meanwhile, peered from around the organ to flash me a smile.
“Hadn’t they heard my mistake?” I wondered to myself. It was only later that I realized it was never about any mistake, only about me finding my voice.

Steve and Karen guided us all as we found our voices, both inside and outside of the choir. Any given Sunday, some of us would make mistakes. We would misplace a vowel, sing a wrong word or miss a note. But we’d still get the same looks. They loved us no matter what.

Sidney Lanier once noted, “Music is love in search of a word.” Steve and Karen, however, never needed words to show us that we were loved. They loved us through their leadership in song, reminding all of us despite our mistakes and doubts, we all have a place and a part to play in God’s great symphony.

Thanks, Steve and Karen, for once again opening my ears to that magical reality.

Scott Boyle is a graduate of Notre Dame and intern in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at sboyle2@nd.edu   

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.