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.
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.
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.
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!