“Stand up from the waist,” the tiny round-faced woman demanded. “Sit on the part of the body God gave you to sit on, and I don’t mean your back!” She always said it with a scowl that she could never hold without breaking into an infectious grin. For more than fifty years I have heard that voice in my head and scooted to the edge of my seat to comply every time. How can anyone pretend to sing slouched in an armchair?
Elise Marshall, my high school music teacher, formed me as a singer. She taught me to use my diaphragm, an open throat and a loose jaw.
She taught me German, French, Latin and Italian pronunciations, plus a smattering of old English for Benjamin Britten’s gorgeous Ceremony of Carols. She made me a life-long lover of serious choral music who more than fifty years after leaving her teaching feels compelled to drive an hour each way to rehearse weekly with a quality community choir. (Or at least, I did before Covid shut down our rehearsal hall at the community college.)
Mrs. Marshall, as she will ever be no matter how old I get, picked me to sing the part of Fiona in our high school production of Brigadoon. She pushed me to come out of my introverted shell and pretend I was someone else while a whole auditorium of people watched. I even had to kiss a boy on stage. Okay. Well…that year we did a really bad fake kiss that made my cousin on the first row throw his hands over his face and the rest of the audience laugh out loud. But the next year in Carousel I did kiss the boy (no fake!), and I don’t recall anyone laughing. All credit to Mrs. Marshall.
Everyone in our Tudor Singers ensemble hated one particular piece. We groaned every time Mrs. Marshall asked us to practice it. It was all tight harmonies and dissonances. But once we learned it, we couldn’t get enough of it. We would watch each other and delight in holding our own notes and making the audience wait for the resolution.
The summer after I graduated from high school, Mrs. Marshall organized a trip to Europe. We attended concerts and the Salzburg Music Festival and made some music of our own. It was not a Tudor Singers trip, but we had a nice balance of parts, and she got us singing in parks, the bus, and a boat ride on Lake Constance. (A good thing she had gotten this introvert to open up a bit.) People seemed to enjoy it. I dredged up the memory of one naughty little Italian girl we met in one of those parks for a character in my latest work-in-progress.
In 1972, several years after I graduated, she founded the Indianapolis Arts Chorale. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana became their signature piece with Dance Kaleidoscope, a modern dance company, expressing the music in body movement. She stretched my mind with both the music and the dance. I joined that community choir an hour away precisely because they were going to be doing Carmina Burana that spring.
I no longer live in Indianapolis, but I visited Mrs. Marshall two or three time in the last few years when I returned to Indy to see my father. Her mind was still sharp even if her hearing was not. Her smile was as impish as ever, and it was fun to hear stories of people we both remembered and the years between.
Elise Marshall passed away this week at age 92. I can’t help but wonder if she is now demanding that the angel choirs stand up from the waist when they sit to rehearse and sit on the part of the body God gave them to sit on. She doesn’t mean the back.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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