by Kathryn Graham - 2008

My earliest memory or hearing a reference to Saint Olaf’s was in a scene long ago on the now defunct but still very funny television show, The Golden Girls. The characters, three unique and individually powerful women, live on in reruns that become ever more pertinent to me as I near their golden age. That female trio’s “innocent” was played with deadpan seriousness by Betty White. She and her home town of St. Olaf became the subject of much eye rolling, tongue clicking good humor. I actually thought St. Olaf, Minnesota was a fictional destination until I met Eunice Williams. After I met her, I became pretty convinced that St. Olaf’s most significant contribution to society is St.Olaf’s Academy of Music.

Williams is the dynamic leader of another powerful female trio. She, and her associates, Vickie Heinz-Shaw and Naomi Hobbs form a powerful musical triad that combine discipline, skill, and patience, to direct and teach a unique group of singers, the combined Cedar Chorus and the Pacificaires that meet under the auspice of the San Diego Community College District.

On any given Thursday a trip to a rather large church hall will find seventy five to one hundred adults engaged in vigorous singing and learning. The unusual part of this is that most of us are not musicians and did not grow up singing in church choirs or performing in community theatre productions. Rather, we came to this by different routes and with a variety of skill levels. At the front of this assemblage is a very small woman standing on a box to be seen who is most definitely in charge and commanding our attention to her. That would be Eunice Williams. The unique thing about Williams is how she uses all of her professional skill to draw out of each of us what little talent we may have. She then considers that small glimmer golden, and using magic of her own, she schools us and we grow.

Director Williams is the contact back to St. Olaf. She received her undergraduate in music from what I now know as St. Olaf’s esteemed Music Academy. I, and others, make an annual homage to the Saint Olaf touring choir program series when it visits San Diego each year. It would be hard to be disappointed by their inspiring presentation, and I leave each year mystified, and awed by the talent on stage. I find this group to be so forceful and engaging that I am sure they sang just for me. I have often wondered if that personal connection is part of choral singing; not just using your voice as an instrument, but somehow sending out hidden laser connections to at least one listener, speaking a language only the two of you know that is discreetly hidden in the music. You may not acknowledge it afterward, or even think much about it, but that little message rests in your heart forever.

Williams is the daughter of a minister, and so is her equally talented accompanist, Vickie Heinz-Shaw. Williams and Shaw speak their music language to each other like an old married couple. They have no need to explain a meaning or finish a partial sentence when only one or two words, a hand signal, or a look are necessary to convey meaning. They must have spent many hours in church and in choirs before they were women to learn how to do this. Now they can sit down at a piano and play any tune at will. Their language is full of its own shorthand. They seem to communicate this way with just about all of the members of orchestras that accompany us as well. They talk about writing scores for music like as if it were as easy as practicing the alphabet they require us to sing in ascending and descending scales. Both women have advanced degrees in piano, and directing. They each individually teach and perform. Each has her own special “I will not negotiate on this” musical issue.” It is a joy to watch this, and if we singers don’t know what the “non-negotiables” are we will learn rather quickly.

My friend took me to her rehearsal one day. I didn’t just wander in the door, but once I was there I thought it was rather fun. No one seemed very judgmental, just really helpful and kind. They still are. I noticed how Director Williams asked if I would sing a few bars for her now and then, and the rest of the group would join in, of course. It was her very gentle way of assessing my voice. We don’t audition, but she knows all of our voices and is very careful in how she places her personnel for the performances. I love that, because it means things are based on merit, and music, and yes, professionalism.

When you are a small woman, as is Williams, you must use all of your body, eyes, hands and face to connect with those you are directing. Williams sometimes climbs stairs and then onto her box to be seen. When finally tall enough, she becomes a presence, a whirlwind of expression. She raises her arms and reaches for the singers. She alone is permitted to draw out the sound, to push it away, to soften it, to shape it, to give life to the notes on the page. And if there is an invisible electrical synapse it comes from her vision, through her hands to our voices, and to that one listener who hears their own private translation and finally back to the singer. Imagine the power in the room. It would be wonderful to be able to see all those lights flashing around above our heads, rather like the wispy zingers that fly from the wizards’ wands in a Harry Potter movie, all very friendly, of course. But ultimately it is a private matter, something to be felt rather than seen.

I now think of singing as a gift and a risk. I have moved beyond mere fun. I have grown to have a conception of what I don’t know, and of how that affects the group as a whole. I care about my fellow risk-takers, even the very proficient singers who take a risk on me. I didn’t understand the meaning of being a team player until I learned this. I have always worked in groups, but now I believe that I just did my own work in a group. It isn’t teamwork until you really have to depend on others for a measure of your success. That’s risk taking. Knowing someone is taking a chance on you, depending on you, is humbling. Simple fear of failure would be enough to make me walk away. But then there she is again, Williams, that small, large director who thinks a smile is golden even if it doesn’t come with a voice, who raises her arms high and sends those synapses flying around the room, who starts that hidden language, who makes you laugh, and makes you try again. And then you stay, and learn, and make music.

Comments

Pacificaires Nov. 11, 2009 @ 4:44 p.m.

Kathryn, thank you for describing an interesting portrait of belonging and singing on a team. As a member of both choruses, I can attest to the fact that if you come to the rehearsals with little or no musical training at all, Eunice Williams, our wonderful director, will teach you AND the group will raise your self-esteem and enlarge your circle of friends. Thanks to Director Williams, Pacificaires and Cedar Center choruses ARE a community. Ellie Vivino

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