How do you describe the colour blue to someone who’s colourblind? You can’t, of course; or at least not very easily. But once you’ve actually seen the colour blue with your own eyes, well then….
Then (and only then) the “cobalt blue” of the sea, the “blue-green” of her eyes, the “navy blue” of the flag snapping in the breeze, the pale-washed blue of arctic ice, all make sense.
That’s the way harmony singing is for me. When I was young I was harmony-blind. I listened to Neil Young and Queen and April Wine and America on the radio growing up. I enjoyed the music, and even had a fairly easy sense of rhythm. But the notes? To me they were just one big wall of sound. Then on a bus when I was fifteen, a very patient musician taught me a simple, one-line harmony to “You are My Sunshine”, and despite my adolescent laziness forced me to repeat and repeat that harmony until I could sing it on my own against the melody.
And all of a sudden I started to see. I mean hear. It was like opening up that wall and realising for the first time in your life that there are studs and beams and gyproc and insulation and wiring and a whole world you’ve never suspected, behind the smooth paint.
Probably because I came fairly late to hearing and singing harmony, I’ve never been more than an amateur at it. But even so, what a gift it’s been. And what a simple and yet profound pleasure it is to DO it, to sing in harmony with someone else. For me, singing harmony is something like dancing. Really, it IS dancing: a kind of vocal dancing where sometimes you come in close for a swing or two, then you move further away, then you mimic each other until someone laughs, or maybe – in a choir or group – you together build such a complex, shifting pattern of sound that it’s a thing of aching beauty, all the more so for its ephemeral temporary existence.
So here’s my thanks to those who taught me to sing in harmony, and to hear it in others. To that first mentor, thank-you with all my voice. To Gerry Langner and the choirs he led, thank-you. To Mark Christensen and his lovely deep bass, Alan Solheim’s baritone, to the singers of the ’76 tour, to Wanda for the duets and the Clarence Ave girls for their quartets, to the Unconventionals and to Marginal Notes for years of madrigals and magic, and to all the rest since…. to my daughter for seeming to perfect the art of harmony, and to Kathryn for singing with me recently and reminding me of all this, thank-you.
You opened my ears to a tapestry of such complexity and beauty I cannot imagine having never heard it before. And you encouraged my earth-heavy voice in its own faltering attempts to lift off. I’m a late-flyer, but I’m still in the air, and celebrating the weaving and dancing of these harmonies as they flit around each other for the sheer pleasure of being lost in the movement.