Christmas started in September that year. A friend in my singles ward—the ward choir director, and an intimidatingly good musician—approached me and asked if I wanted to sing in her Christmas choir. She was applying for a masters program in choral conducting and wanted both the conducting experience and some video footage of the rehearsals and concert, a requirement for her application. The choir would be rehearsing two times a week, an hour and a half each time, for 16 weeks. Attendance was mandatory. No chattiness. We’d all be buying copies of the music since copyright laws really were important. This was not ward choir.  

I said yes immediately. I hadn’t sung in a real choir since one semester as a first alto in Women’s Chorus at BYU, and I missed the camaraderie of a choir, the discipline of rehearsals, and the music—most of all the music. I thought of myself as a dependable musician, experienced and decently talented. I’d sung in my high school’s chamber group and had acquitted myself honorably at several years of All-State Choir. I played the piano and the harp and knew how to sight-read. I could affect just the tiniest grimace when someone was singing flat in a special musical number. I had the Cambridge Singers in my CD collection, and I knew Roger Wagner from Dale Warland. In short, these were my kind of people and this was going to be my kind of thing. I felt like I’d been given a very long advent calendar full of very delicious chocolates.  

The first surprise came at the first rehearsal when Cherie had us all stand in a line and sing a few measures of one of the easier pieces. Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu in mulieribus. She walked slowly around listening to us, then she rearranged us, told some of us to stop singing and others to sing together, did the whole thing over several times, and finally told us our parts. To my flabbergasted bewilderment, I was a first soprano. Flabbergasted: because I’d always sung alto and I could rock the tenor section when we were short on men. Bewildered: because I really didn’t know if I could sound good way up there. I think Cherie (not to mention my fellow first soprano) had the same doubts, because after that first rehearsal, she pulled me aside and said, “Naomi, I know you probably haven’t had much experience in that range. Just start singing up there all the time. Don’t sing alto in ward choir anymore, don’t sing alto in the hymns—just vocalize up there as much as you can. It’s going to be fine.”  

So I did. I sang Sing we now of Christmas, Noel sing we here while washing the dishes; I sang Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming/ From tender stem hath sprung while driving to work; I sang Still, still, still, weils Kindlein sclafen will! in the bike room; and I saved for the shower my favorite piece, O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum.  

But somehow I never sang as well at rehearsal as I did in the shower. Cherie had hand-picked the best voices in the ward, and I knew when I was the one muddying the tone, when I was the one distorting the pitch. “It’s going to be fine,” Cherie kept saying, and talked to me about lifting my soft palette, making my breath warm, dropping consonants above a high A. During rehearsal breaks when everyone else was laughing or flirting, I’d sit down with the other first soprano and we’d sing over some of the more stratospheric parts. There’s a star in the East on Christmas morn/ Rise up, shepherd, and follow! I’d listen as hard as I could, blend as hard as I could, but I’d end up going back to rehearsal thinking about silk purses and sow’s ears and how I really didn’t sound like Kathleen Battle.  

But rehearsals really were fun, vocal anxiety notwithstanding. As we met on Wednesday and Sunday evenings that fall, we had a shared sense of specialness that made our voices sound a little better and our banter sound a little wittier—at least to us. The smartest boy in the elders’ quorum was one of the basses and taught us how to pronounce the German; the domestic goddess of the Relief Society was a second soprano and made everyone’s skirts; and the other sections were populated with other remarkable people of the Colonial first ward—people who could reserve the chapel at Georgetown University for our final concert, people who could hum a pitch-perfect A on demand. Not that we were really taking notice of these things, but most of us had advanced degrees, and our mean income was probably around $53,000. Yes, I liked counting myself among this group.  

And then there was Cherie. We had been chosen to be there by someone whose judgment we trusted implicitly, and we wanted to please her. So on we sang, an hour and a half at a time, twice a week, for 16 weeks. And on I sang, at the sink, in the car, in the bike room, in the shower, for 16 weeks. Alleluya! A new work is come on hand/Through might and grace of Gode’s son/To save the lost of every land./ For now is free that erst was bound/We may well sing, Alleluya! 

And now I must confess that this is not a story about how I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but I worked as hard as I could and ended up sounding amazing at the concert. Yes, I know that’s the story I’ve set up—I needed a narrative arc of some sort. And yes, my discombobulating insecurity in an area in which I’d always felt smugly superior was a humbling and teaching part of that fall. And yes, the concert did end up sounding wonderful. In fact, the soaring Alleluia section of O Magnum Mysterium was one of the thrilling moments of my life of sound and sense, the more because I was the one singing that top line, reaching to the top of my range to mount that melodic line and proclaim praises to the infant Lord. We sang to a full house that night, and some dear friends later insisted that they could hear me specifically and that they would arrange an audition with the conductor of the Master Chorale of Washington, D.C. forthwith (they did; I didn’t make it; end of narrative arc).

No, this is a story about the Christmas music. How much I loved it. How it changed that Christmas. How I still repeat those words like prayers to myself. How I stop everything if Franz Biebl or Morten Laurdison comes on my classical music station. How I still love those other 14 people who shared those 16 weeks with me. How it was worth trying my very hardest, it was worth making a fool of myself in the bike room, it was worth seeing myself as mediocre, to be part of such music. O great mystery, and wondrous sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in their manger!