O Fortuna: The Cal-mina Bear-ana Bit

UC Berkeley campus presided over by the Campanile.

UC Berkeley campus presided over by the Campanile.

O Fortuna velut luna statu variabilis

So begins the fabulous musical work Carmina Burana with the declaration that fortunes change like the waxing and waning moon.  Boy do they, right?  And sometimes a major change of fortune can come from a trivial choice.  Like when my decision to join a university chorus and sing these words caused a sea-change in my college experience – and pretty much came to define it.

Signing up for the UC Berkeley Glee Club wouldn’t seem like a paradigm shifting move, would it?  After all, budding scholars have many more pressing decisions like what to major in, maybe which fraternity or sorority to pledge, or how to make an impact by supporting a political or environmental cause.

But for me, all that was quickly covered.  I knew my major would be English since I’ve always loved words.  (Plus I’m fairly certain the right side of my brain is the only one that functions.  Maybe if the left side worked, I could apply some logic to confirm this but, well – there it is.)  Choosing the dorms seemed easier on the ego than having to be chosen by a sorority.  And since this was Cal, there were plenty of opportunities for activism – except chronic “analysis paralysis” made me too timid to commit.  (The one campaign I did get behind was to have Cap’n Crunch served in the dining hall.  I know – not the noblest of causes, but that stuff is really good…)

So as far as the bigger ticket decisions went, I felt pretty well set and anxious to dive right in and concentrate on my studies – which I knew I’d need to do.  I was thrilled to get into Cal but plenty nervous too!  My dad was a professor there and my older brother Jack had been a Bear before me.  There was nothing I wanted more than to chart the same course – but I was afraid I might get lost in trying to navigate it for myself.

Eucalyptus Grove on campus.

Eucalyptus Grove on campus.

I started out planning nothing much extra-curricular.  Best to keep on a straight and narrow academic path, I thought.  My freshman year – the “year of living responsibly” – was 1982-83.  Yes friends, this was back in the ancient times before a single American Idol had been crowned, when “Gleek” just meant something gross, and if anyone got “pitch-slapped” they didn’t even know it.

I’d been singing for as long as I could remember.  All the way up through high school, while cramming for the SAT’s and poring over college brochures, I was also piling into school busses for gigs with the Vocal Jazz Ensemble and playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma (a performance that turned out to be the high point of my theatrical career – and the reason I never sought any sort of public life since video of it exists and might be expensive to suppress).

But I considered singing among those childish things I’d have to put away once I matriculated.  Now was the time to take careful note of all my professors’ teachings and be prepared to respond (only if asked, of course) with what I thought they’d want to hear since they surely knew better about all things than I did.

This single-minded determination went on without serious threat through two ten week quarters of school – until one night when I was working my way through a heaping plate of cafeteria pasta. (The Freshman 15?  Oh it’s for real.)  A friend mentioned she was enjoying being a member of Cal’s Glee Club and did I want to join for their spring concert?

Here’s the thing.  I find discipline an especially elusive state of being – so having been in it already for two full quarters was like so many dog years for me!  Still, I knew it was a delicate state so there was a “no” on my lips almost instantly (along with a bit of meat sauce).  And yet, I hesitated in saying the word.

I didn’t know it but I was on the verge of changing my fortunes.

Davidson Hall.

Davidson Hall.

In the dining hall, I used to heat those foil-covered rectangles of butter beneath my dinner plate to improve spreadability (serving ice-cold butter may be posh and practical, but I’ve never found it functional).  That fateful spring night, in the time it took for the butters to melt, my resolve to keep music out of my life melted too.

I chose the road a bit less straight and narrow – and it made all the difference.

I’d been familiar almost since birth with some parts of the Cal campus like Dad’s office in Giannini Hall and the basketball court in dear old Harmon Gym – now, other sections were becoming more familiar with each new class schedule.  But from the first time I arrived to check out a rehearsal at the home of Student Musical Activities (“SMAV” was the vocal component), the place became my hub and my anchor – a joyful sanctuary from study and an ideal spot for finding really good friends.

Welcome to "Student Musical Activities"!

Welcome to “Student Musical Activities”!

Oh – and it was also a terrific chance to perform great choral works like Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana!  It’s an absolutely delicious piece and if you don’t think you’re familiar with it, you probably at least know its turbulent opening theme (findable on YouTube – just search “O Fortuna.”).  A collection of medieval poems set to music, Carmina is bookended by sobering text about how basically life is hard and then we die.  But the rest is full of evocative and exuberant songs about making the most of life even so.  Of eating, drinking and being merry while we may – sentiments that resonated just a wee bit with me and my fellow students as I recall!

I wound up performing the piece with the Glee Club in a nearby church.  And though the rest of my college days were filled with a decent amount of study, they were also rounded out with more piling into busses for concerts, with obligatory (and awesome!) post-concert parties, retreats to the Marin Headlands, Mendocino and Yosemite, jaunts around San Francisco to sing Christmas carols for shoppers and shut-ins, and performances in every kind of venue from a charming church in Sonora to Cal’s mighty Zellerbach Hall.

It was glorious!

They can be challenging times as we make our way to adulthood – when we’re meant to be discovering for ourselves who we are and what we care about and believe in.

And while fine educations come in many forms, my own journey toward those discoveries was by way of four wonderful years at Cal, and almost as long and every bit as wonderful a time as a member of the Glee Club.  It was there that I undertook to find a voice.  To collaborate with other voices and try to appreciate and complement their tones.  To find confidence enough to hold to my part whether a composition called for harmony or dissonance.  And to discover kindred spirits with whom to share for the rest of my days both the sweet and sorrowful refrains of music and life.  I don’t see my fellow Glee Clubbers too often anymore – but when I do have the pleasure, fond memories of my times with them come crowding right back like the lyrics of a favorite tune.

Would I have found such another island in that collegiate sea?  Of a sort, probably.  But it’s so special to look back on those days and cherish them just exactly as they were.

Yup.  Fortunes change.  We’re up, we’re down, we’re up again.  But on the day I thought I’d give singing a try once more?  That was a day Fortune definitely smiled!

Sather Gate.

Sather Gate.



  1. Carmina Burana is truly awesome!

    1. I absolutely agree! Loved getting to know and perform it!

  2. Reading this I was reminded of a very good friend of mine at work who sings in a choir and she absolutely loves it. She has also sung her whole life – it is her outlet, her own ‘thing’ amidst the demands of family, work and life in general. She has just sung the entire Hallelujah Chorus at the choir’s Easter Concert which I find hugely impressive.

    On another note, I am not a singer yet love music…while I’m not well-versed in more classical pieces – I only know the familiar opening strains of Carmina Burana – your post made me want to listen to the whole thing…

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Terrific that your friend has that outlet! And I’d sure recommend Carmina (as you may have gathered!) – hope you add it to your playlist and enjoy it as much as I have. And thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  3. “Would I have found such another island in that collegiate sea? Of a sort, probably. But it’s so special to look back on those days and cherish them just exactly as they were.”

    Beautifully put! My sentiments…and experience too!

    Great article!

    1. Thank you very much – and glad that’s your experience as well!

  4. I wouldn’t have changed a thing

  5. You’re welcome and thanks, too!

  6. Interesting post, as always.

  7. What a beautiful campus. I loved your enthusiasm and you made me laugh too, especially at “expensive to suppress”!

    1. Aw, thank you so much! And, yes, it was a very pretty place to spend a good part of my ‘formative years.’

  8. nice memories!

    1. Indeed they are! Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Eliza Armitage · · Reply

    Hello, Amy–thanks for visiting, and I’m glad to hear how special Carmina was for you, too! I love your concept, the mosaic of your life in your posts–brilliant. Looking forward to more.

    1. Thank you very much – and I can say all the same right back to you! (Plus, I side with Friedrich too!)

  10. Amy, as always- absolutely delightful! I love your reflections… your authenticity… your voice 🙂 So very glad you share your memories and your remarkable talent on this platform!! Big Hugs–

    1. Thanks and big hugs back to you, dear Cara! And glad you’ve been performing and singing and getting your lovely voice and message out there!

  11. This post has made my day, very interesting and a few funny bits!

    1. Well thank you – and now you’ve made MY day!

      1. That’s great!

  12. What a great post! Your passion for singing and the fun times you had with the Glee Club really shine through – and although I can’t sing a note, your experience sounds similar to how I felt when I took up crafting again 😀 Thanks for sharing!

    1. Many thanks! And yes, I bet it’s a similar pleasure to begin with an idea and some materials and end up with one of your adorable Beasties – and I enjoy their outings too! Thanks again for the read and kind thoughts!

      1. Yaaaay! Thank you… And I’m looking forward to the next bit of your mosaic already 😃

  13. the “year of living responsibly” – was 1982-83.
    That was my wild time, I was still at Cal-State Sacramento but fondly remember great concerts with my fave post-punk bands at the Golden Bear and, of course, across the Bay in San Francisco at The Farm. Mabuhay Gardens, the I-Beam, etc. Thanks so much for this reminiscence.

    1. Now those are named I haven’t heard in a while! I also remember going to the Fillmore and bluffing my way at 18 into the Keystone in Berkeley. Thanks for reading and for bringing more memories back!

  14. Nice story. I heard Carmina Burana for the third time just a couple of weeks ago and it was very well done. I would love to sing it some time but would have to find a choir that was planning it – and none on the Island where I live have ever done so. Singing gives you such a great feeling – I hope you’ve kept it up!

    1. Thanks! Really hope you get the chance to perform Carmina! I’ve only been singing in the car lately but I may pick it up again one of these days – really miss the synergy of singing in a group.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: