My wife hates Jay Forrest, she just doesn’t know it.
He’s the reason I’m traipsing our living room belting out show tunes like a one-man Broadway revue. He’s the reason scores of Clover High School students audition to sing songs older than their parents’ prom photos. He’s the reason his district needs trophy cases as a budget item.
Forrest’s Choraliers have eight state choral championships the past decade. They’ll change concert venues to fit their music. Sixth-graders choose electives to prepare for auditions years later. Forrest has a firm hand on all of it, save the auditions.
“I’m at the finish line,” he said. “Living in the community as long as I have, I’ve learned that it’s better to take myself out of it and just let it be.”
Being a Choralier is grueling, “life-changing” and “probably the best experience you’ll have in high school,” members say. Becoming one is clinical. Take every ounce of musical knowledge and talent you can muster, and stuff it into an eight-minute audition that determines whether you still believe in spare time.
“There’s no magic formula,” Forrest said. “It’s 1 percent talent and 99 percent hard work.”
I can be 1 percent.
First up are two district vocal instructors, a former Choralier and a modulating piano. It’s happening already. I asphyxiate. Solos aren’t my thing. You may as well stamp Cuisinart on my forehead, because I’m a blender. I carry a tune like I’d carry a dorm room sofa or casket – in groups.
“The first time is terrible,” said senior Ryan Kelly. “It’s the worst.”
“It gets better each time,” promises senior Ethan Babson.
My lower register is grapeshot at best, so they allow me a song that doesn’t require one. I’ll sing “Till There Was You” from “The Music Man.” My voice won’t sell any public broadcasting airspace, but I’m not exactly throwing up jazz hands to “She Bangs,” either. What, too old for the William Hung reference? Too young? Welcome to Forrest’s challenge.
Forrest takes students born into a world where Hanson tops the charts, and directs them toward music from before the invention of lyrics. He’s a human time capsule.
“Intelligent human beings know that when you assemble 100 capable voices in a room, that the coolest thing to sing is what a genius wrote for 100 assembled voices in a room,” Forrest said.
Beethoven, Brahms and Bach certainly didn’t have me in mind. I don’t give my best performance, but I hit the notes. I score 13 of 15. I hate that I don’t slay it. That’s the thing about singing. It’s an inherently simple task, complicated beyond recognition by a judging eye.
Up next on the tour de choir is tonal memory. Another former Choralier with far more personality than his station allows, keying five-pitch sequences he wants me to match. Sing it like a Stradivarius – “good.” Sing it like rocks in a tumble dryer – “good.” He’s a closed book.
Here’s where I ought to shine, and I do. Through three of five sequences I’m flawless. I’m blinking at my name in lights. I’m giving my regards to Broadway. I’m petitioning the “American Idol” age limit. I’m not paying attention. I botch one in the fourth sequence, subsequently forgetting to listen to the fifth. I nail 23 of 25. Good.
Then comes solfège. I figured I’d have another decade before an exam this intense. As best I can tell all I have to do is determine which key a line of music is written in, name each note with its letter on a piano and then correspond it to a syllable from that step song in “The Sound of Music.” Nobody’s saying “good” after this round. I get four right. There were 50. The judge won’t confirm it’s the worst score today, or ever, but she’s not disavowing the possibility.
I’m a wounded prize fighter heading into sight-reading and rhythm. I know I’ll blow sight-reading. I don’t disappoint. But my six of 15 there isn’t much better than my four of 10 in rhythm. Sight-reading I get. I haven’t sight-read since high school, and barely did it then. But rhythm? I score 40 percent on rhythm? That’s bad. That’s stereotypically bad.
Forrest sits with me in his office. Here’s where he consoles what’s left of bad auditions and fine tunes brilliant ones. He’s been teaching music since Lady Gaga could only utter half her name, since Idol still had two hosts, since the “Glee” cast actually attended high school. Forrest asks students if they’re committed, what they’d change about the group, what they hope to become. Federal clearance interviews are less thorough.
Vocally, I’m close enough to cross my fingers. Then comes the other end of the contract.
Daily classes and an evening rehearsal near 10 hours each week. Two full weekends for offsite retreats, practice for winter and spring show prep, between four and seven fundraisers each – never mind the actual concerts, competitions and special appearances.
The Rolex folks don’t put as much time into their craft. It’s like somebody crossed the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir with Drago from “Rocky IV.” With the hours that any four Choraliers put into the program in a four-year career, you could gestate a human baby. The combined hours of the entire group for one year – almost five and a half years – outlasts a bad presidency.
“In ‘Glee’ they just make it look like they throw it together in one evening,” said former Choralier Colin Ruffer, “but it’s a lot more work than you would think it is.”
I barely commit to a four-way stop. I’m not finding that kind of time, which far more a Choralier makes than a golden set of pipes. Forrest and I shake hands. He has eight-part a capella to coach, Classical titans to revive. I’ll have the memory, and a wife thanking heaven that one day as a Choralier was my last.
On Your Marks is a monthly column where reporter John Marks takes on competition from the greater Lake Wylie and Fort Mill areas, challenging them in their field of expertise and profiling what makes them special. Check out past On Your Marks columns at lakewyliepilot.com. For ideas on who you think Marks should challenge next, email firstname.lastname@example.org.