My earliest memory of singing in a choir is also a memory of the kindness and stubbornness of Missoula school teacher, Jim Cole. Mr. Cole taught choral music in in Missoula in the 1960’s-70’s at all the elementary schools. Choir was both fun and scary when Mr. Cole stood in front of us, thumping his yardstick to keep us in time, and in line!
I was a shy, bookworm-ish kid, in a family who listened to AM Country radio, and watched Lawrence Welk on Sundays. Pop music was not really on my radar, although I did have a few favorite 45 records, including The Beatles’ I Wanna hold your Hand/I Saw Her Standing There. Dancing in my basement with my tiny record player blasting was a good way to keep the brothers from interrupting my inner life.
So, about the day I almost died - with embarrassment:
In choir class, Mr. Cole called me to down to help teach (i.e., sight -sing) with him. I stumbled over the 100 or so other middle -schoolers on the risers, sniffed the ditto sheet he handed me, and felt the sweat run down the back of my knees. Yesterday. All my troubles seemed so far away…
Did I know this song before that day he asked? No. Did I know this song was by… THE BEATLES? No. But, I did know some Beatles’ songs! I Wanna’ hold your Ha-a-a-a-and I sang… Red faced, I realized my mistake. Snickers & guffaws from boys in the “change” section. On the spot, Mr. Cole asked me to join the Missoula Choraliers – and my blush turned from embarrassment to excitement. The Choraliers got outfits!! Embroidered pink peasant tops for the girls! And they travelled to perform for other schools!! And, best of all, they sang pop music like … The Beatles!!
That day was a good day – but later, after I got my pink peasant top, and after I had attended weekly rehearsals in the basement of the MCPS Administration building, and after I had memorized a concert-full of songs (including Yesterday by the Beatles!!), I disobeyed some silly rule of my parents. Such a silly rule that I do not remember it 50 years later. But it was an important rule at the time. My punishment? No Choraliers tour to Kalispell for me the next week. And, I had to tell Mr. Cole.
Mr. Cole was unimpressed with my parents’ plan to deny Kalispell the beauty of all the Choraliers’ singers. Mr. Cole also happened to have shared a few pack-trips through the Bob Marshall Wilderness with my father. Mr. Cole knew how to get my father to back down!
Each day that week, I walked straight home from school, no dawdling, best behavior, to try and sway my parents into letting me go. I set the table, weeded the garden, and babysat my younger brothers without complaining. They were unyielding. Then one day, I arrived home from school to find two mules picket staked in our front lawn.
My mother was in the kitchen on the phone calling my dad. “Yes, there are two mules on our front lawn… staked.” Her voice pitched louder, “No, I don’t know who put them there. Come home right now – and find out how this happened!” The mules were casually munching the grass and pooping to the delight of my brothers and assorted neighborhood kids.
My dad arrived home, and while he was looking for identifying brands, blustered a few ripe words about “who would leave perfectly valuable mules in our yard?” Just about then, Mr. Cole pulled up with his horse trailer in tow, his head out the window and in his booming bass singing Mule train!! Hyah! Hyah! Git alo-ong, Mule Train! He threw open the truck door and strode to my father’s side, laughing loudly and slapping his knees. We are friends now, aren’t we Bob? And you wouldn’t want to ruin our little choir tour by being a *mule* would ya’, Bob?
My mom came out of the house with a bottle and two glasses, and miraculously my father finally said, OK Jim, just this once. Robbin? You are hereby un-grounded – only because I have nowhere to put these damn mules!! The neighborhood cheered as Mr. Cole loaded up those mules and drove off.
I got to go on the Choraliers Choir tour!!
That was over 50 years ago. 21 years ago this fall, I invited some friends to a potluck to find out if they would help me start a choir in Missoula for anyone who wanted to sing. They said yes! and Missoula Community Chorus has been singing together since 2001. Now, we are starting the Missoula FORTE Children’s Choir for kids in grades 1-5. We have sibling-discounts for families with more than one singer, and needs-based scholarships so that every interested child can participate. Choir is one of the best places to learn teamwork, gain self-esteem, and help make the world a more harmonious place.
How would my life have been different if Mr. Cole had not secretly staked those mules to our front yard that day? What a funny thing to do, and how did he know how to jolly my father into letting me sing with his choir? My life has been filled with music, and singing, and choir tours, and I would not trade a minute of it. Music can take you places - Let’s go!!