Randolph College Wimberly Recital Hall

It’s no secret Maya Angelou came to Randolph College this semester. The TV crews and Police Department came that night, too, along with several thousand people and hundreds more who were turned away due to lack of seating. But what might be a secret, are the delightful Sunday concert series events hosted by the Department of Music in Wimberly Recital Hall. Over the past six weeks, I enjoyed 4 free concerts from this series. Each time, the event got me out of the house at the end of a days-long novel-writing date with the sofa. In other words, it got my toosh out the door and my mind out of fiction-land just before temporary paralysis and delusions of grandeur set in.

I can’t write with music playing, unless for some reason I’m in a distracting place and forced to use headphones to tune into classical or world music. In those cases, anything that doesn’t use the English language will do. By and large, my MO is silence. (And that means you kid, you over there talking on your cell phone while Facebooking on your laptop and ignoring your Bio II homework. Thank you.) But when it comes to taking a break from the work, exercise and music are my go-to activities. The first requires getting my heart rate up high enough (and keeping it there) so my mind can do nothing other than react on the physical level. Thoughts are gone, or, if they’re there, I’m not paying attention to them. The second requires nothing other than opening up and listening. Seeing and hearing live music has always felt like one, long, exhale to me. (Exception: fighting for my life in the mosh pit at the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert.)

As gifted and amazing as each professional performance at Wimberly has been this winter (my favorite being Kevin Ayesh on piano–90 minutes of memorized, finger-dancing, melodic, amazingness), yesterday’s student performances pulled me out of my mind more than any of the others. In “A Winter Showcase,” the majority of pieces were vocal soloists or choir, but it’s worth giving a nod to the lone, Freshman euphonium player who tried his level best. The euphonium is a brass instrument in the shape of a tuba (with a straight bell) but smaller than a baritone. It plays in the octave range between the baritone and the trumpets and, of all the brass instruments I tried as a child, it stuck. Lightweight and silver, it came with lots of bonus points as I showed it off on the school bus ride home. (Yes, I was that kind of child and, no, I did not sit in the back of the bus…though I certainly grew curious. If I broke up with my euphonium, would I have a chance to sit near the dreamy Alexander Anderson?)

Memories aside, watching this student performance reminded me about the beauty of hope, effort, and the human spirit. As the chorus took the stage, 18 bright faces looked out at our humble crowd. They wore matching, fitted black suits and dresses. This uniformity brought out their individual facial expressions even more. And, of course: they sang. High and low, jazz and hymnal, harmonized and layered. Eighteen bright faces, all of them reaching for something, necks outstretched, chins up as though they could drink from the sun. The students appeared beautiful to me in their striving. I immediately loved all of them for it.

When I returned to my date with the sofa (aka, writing), my work carried a tenderness I’m certain wouldn’t have appeared if I had not just come from “A Winter Showcase.” For six weeks, I have been writing my way toward a particular moment in my novel. It is the moment I imagined last summer, when this leap of faith first began. Yesterday, I arrived at that moment and it is painful for every character involved because they have to watch someone die–the only fatality in the entire novel about war. But just as my sentences wound their way toward death, something knocked at my conscience…something not unlike the faces of the students in the Randolph College choir. I planted the landmine in the road. I made the convoy stop. Then I wrote this: “And the only mercy in the next second as the soldier steps forward again—ready to save this boy, ready to save himself—is that it happens so fast, neither of them will ever understand what actually did it.”

It’s a bit challenging to grasp out of context, but the point is this: mercy is not something I think about every day. I probably only use that word once in a blue moon–both in speech and in writing. But it was the right word for this horrible moment in the novel, and as much as it helps the characters involved, I hope it will also help my readers carry on with enough faith to get to the very end. Did the tenderness evoked by watching “A Winter Showcase” have anything to do with this word choice, this sentiment? I like to think so.


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