On Sunday mornings when my church youth choir took the stage to sing, Kendall joined us. Though she has cerebral palsy and her speech was limited in everyday conversation, when she heard the piano start playing something happened. A smile spread across her face and her head leaned back as she turned from side to side. Her mouth opened wide and a series of sounds that followed the general tune of the song flowed from her lips.
I had seen and heard it time and time again and yet I was still amazed. Music had this unique way of opening her up.
The same is true for the members of Inner Rhythm Choir. For the past 37 years, the choir has been a community for about 20 adults with a range of physical and mental disabilities. Each Monday they gather for rehearsal at The Annex, a building owned by Centenary United Methodist Church that is located on Fifth Street. A handful of the members from the founding year are still in the choir. Others have since passed away and new members have joined.
“I think music is this universal language,” said Jacki Rullman, who has served as the choir director of the group for the past 30 years.
I hadn’t thought about Kendall in a while but when I visited Inner Rhythm’s rehearsal on a rainy Monday night in late October, my memory of her came back. Rullman’s words rang true.
When Kendall joined us on stage or in rehearsal it was a language she felt, and the rest of us felt it too. I can still hear her howls of excitement echoing throughout the lofty sanctuary as a song reached its climatic bridge. Though her pronunciation of consonants was not crisp and her vowels were not perfectly rounded, her voice and her presence were an integral a part of our choir.
That same kind of individuality is evident among the members of Inner Rhythm Choir. Each member has a different talent that they bring to the group. Not every member can sing as well as another, but they are not turned away. Their other gifts are celebrated.
Valerie Williams’ ability to keep a steady beat shines as she taps the djembe for “Soon and Very Soon.” No matter if the group speeds up, her rhythm is unfaltering. Then there’s Greg Silvernail, who walks around the room at the beginning of rehearsal with a blank sheet of white paper and a blue pen. His smile spreads from ear to ear as he makes sure everyone present in the rehearsal room signs their name. He makes everyone feel like a part of the group and its loving community–myself included.
“You don’t recognize the talents that are in these folks,” said Jane Davidson, the treasurer of the choir who has also served as the bookkeeper, performance coordinator and most importantly, a mother to one of its former members over the last 30 years. “Just to look at them, you think ‘my goodness, they have no ability.’ But, you know, there are roses out there, which you saw today.”
It is true — even though I’d seen it happen with Kendall the effect was not lost.
I was moved.
On a particularly rainy and windy Monday evening in late October, the Annex on Fifth Street was filled with metaphorical light. As interim director Ronda Beasley raised her conducting hand the group knew that it was time to sing. The choir’s rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ wasn’t perfectly in tune. During the solos of ‘Alleluia’ some members joined in at first, thinking it was time for the whole choir to sing. Sometimes the group as a whole sang too loudly. But these small imperfections contributed to the beauty of Inner Rhythm Choir.
In my youth choir, I was obsessed with perfection. Hitting the right notes. Getting the rhythm down pat. In my mind, all of these details were what made up a great song and an even better performance.
It wasn’t until Kendall started coming to rehearsal that I realized the key to any great performance: Joy.
Throughout my years of singing, I’ve found that pitch can falter and rhythms can be off by a half-beat or more and it doesn’t defeat a performance. More likely than not, the audience will never notice. But what they do notice is the feeling that is brought to a song. They can see emotive facial expressions and feel the inner joy that shines through when a singer connects with what they’re singing. And when that joy is tapped into, all of the other aspects seem to fall into place.
“Music just opens people up and you don’t know which ones are the roses in your garden,” said Katherine Hughes Cheney, a caregiver of a choir member who attended Inner Rhythm Choir rehearsal on the rainy Monday evening in late October.