The acoustics in the communal shower of Stearns Dormitory on the Amherst College campus were superb, like singing in the chapel of an Italian monastery.
One morning in the spring of 1959 I was standing with hot water jetting on my body and singing “Ave Maria,” hitting every high heavenly note that Bach and Gounod had written into that sublime song. The notes bounced off the tiles and resounded out the window to the sidewalk below.
I heard a voice outside the shower. “Hello, hello. Excuse me. Do you always sing so high?” He stuck his head around the corner. “I’m sorry to intrude. I was passing by and heard you singing. Is that your normal range?”
“Yes. It is how I sing,” I replied.
He was an upper classman, an African American guy. I recognized him as the assistant to the director of the Amherst College Glee Club.
“We need voices like yours in the Johnson Chapel Choir and in the Glee Club too. Would you be interested?”
By now I had turned off the shower and was dripping in all my stark nakedness.
“Yes. I would. Both.”
That is how I became a member of the Chapel Choir. In those days, chapel attendance was required. Religious chapel was twice each week and the alternate days a secular program was offered for those brief, as I recall, half hour observances.
I arrived in the wee hours of the morning and stood with the other members of the choir behind the pulpit and sang: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow/Praise him all creatures here below/Praise him above, ye heavenly host/Praise father son and holy ghost. Aaaaamen.”
For performing this sunrise service, I satisfied my chapel requirement and was paid 60 cents each morning I showed up. It was modest compensation but I was a dirt poor scholarship student and every penny helped.
Soon I was also recruited into the Amherst College Glee Club. We practiced regularly and even though I could not read music, I memorized my part and sang with lust and much joy in performances both in Amherst and elsewhere in New England. Since Amherst was a mens college, we teamed up with the choir of Pembroke College, an all-women’s college in Providence, Rhode Island for some of our most memorable performances.
The town of Amherst was celebrating its bicentennial in 1959. The great composer, Randall Thompson, was commissioned to put music to a collection of Robert Frost’s poem to celebrate this event. The result was “Frostiana.” We practiced singing these lovely songs for weeks and Randall Thompson came to Amherst and led us in the premier performance of this great, original work.
My best friend at Amherst, Alec Stewart, a physics major from Ellensburg, Washington, heard me sing in the Chapel Choir. I visited him often in his room in Morrow Dormitory.
“Tim,” he said one day. “You have a great voice. Would you like to have my autoharp? It was given to me when I was in high school. I never use it. It’s your if you want it.”
He pulled from his closet a music instrument case and handed it to me. I opened it. Inside was a shiny black instrument, an Oscar Schmidt autoharp. I was over the moon! I accepted Alec’s gift.
I pressed the button for the G-Major chord and strummed my finger across the strings. A heavenly harmony filled the room. A musical instrument that virtually played itself. It was a miracle.
I started teaching myself chord progressions immediately and soon I was singing the folk songs I had grown up singing acapela. I’ve been singing and strumming my autoharp, especially at family reunions where my father, Joyce, our daughter, Susan, our sons, Morgan and Nick, and many cousins sing joyously and loud enough to lift the roof or even the open sky.
Yet never have I sung with so much joy as that day in the shower at Amherst College when I stood in all my naked glory, hitting every high note, as free and innocent as Adam before his expulsion from the garden.