Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Saturday, October 6, 2012
I am 16 and I'm all muscle and a cocky swoop of ginger hair and I am terrified of this music. I don't learn music easily and I'm not even sure I'm a tenor and what am I doing in one of the best audition-only choirs in one of the finest high school vocal music programs in the state of Tennessee?
Bob Binkley--Mr. B--is a stocky vision in polyester pants, a suit coat, a golf shirt and a graying fringe of frizzy hair. Bright blue eyes sparkling, he walks the semi-circle of singing teens, gesturing, conducting, listening, throwing in part of the alto line, vocally cueing the basses with an authentic bass thunder, though his natural sound is a thrilling, Met-worthy tenor.
We are plowing through a trilling pre-baroque masterpiece, "Già torna a rallegrar l'aria e la terra" by Luca Marenzio. It's tonal painting to match the words about Spring, rising lines in every part including the tenors, who end our opening "rallegrar l'aria e la terra" on high Gs. When we rehearse with music in hand I gaze at those Gs floating above the topmost line on the staff like a floundering swimmer trying to keep up with his water-treading friends; I can stay afloat through force of will for a moment, then I tire and slip beneath the notes with a weak, barely audible falsetto, drowned by the effort.
Mr. B bellows in his trumpeting voice, correcting this sharp note, correcting that flat, we start again and he is standing in front of me. He is looking me in the eye and singing the big opening tenor line along with my section. I can feel his powerful voice in my own chest and we reach those high Gs and his bright sound is rattling my ears and he shuts his mouth and the sound continues.
It's me. I'm singing now, my voice ringing away up there. The McGavock Madrigal Singers continue on through the piece and he thumps my chest as I look at him wide-eyed, surprised. "You're a tenor," he barks over us, "be a tenor."
The McGavock Madrigals are on tour in Virginia. We've just arrived at our hotel in Hampton Roads when someone tells me to go see Mr. Binkley and his wife Phoebe in their room.
Phoebe, always kind to a fault, ushers me gently in and when I see Mr B's face I know something is wrong. His blue eyes are dim and his expression downcast. He tells me my best friend died the night before, victim of a drunk driver. I will later learn my friend Mark was struck by a garbageman on a bender. Mark, also a tenor, was thrown the length of the car that struck him. He died gurgling in the road.
In that Virginia hotel I am utterly unprepared to hear that a guy I treated like a brother is gone. I go blank. I return to my room and put my forearm through the wall. There's no pain, just a forearm-sized hole in the plaster.
Mr. B and Phoebe deal with the hotel and no one says anything about it to me later.
Like most of Mr. B's students, I come back sometimes to his and Phoebe's home around Christmas. We gather in the front room where many of us would come to take voice lessons for just $16 a pop when we were teens and we sing all the old songs he drummed into our heads. Over the years some of us get more training, some of us stop singing all together, but the opera singers and voice teachers still gather with the truck drivers and soldiers on leave at the Binkleys' house and we're equal, we're hanging out with our old section, drinking cider and singing the Winter cold outside away.
And Mr. B gets older but his voice still rings above us all sometimes. The kind of tenor that was always meant to soar over everything, the sort of sound that makes other tenors shiver with envy and admiration. But Bob's just at home with his students, wearing his golf shirt, polyester pants, penny loafers and a terrycloth bathrobe instead of a suit coat.
We all like seeing each other, but we may like seeing Mr. B even more. As for me, hearing his voice again is often its own reward. I am reminded that this is what a tenor sounds like. This is how you sing beautifully, musically. Joyfully.
I last see Mr. B in 2006. A mass of Madrigalians going back to his students at Donelson High School--which became a middle school in 1970 or so--gather at his long-time church, Vine Street Christian, and sit through a classic Binkley rehearsal before we perform. We're all grownups with kids, some of us with grandkids. Some of us are professors, some music teachers like Mr. B, creating new legacies. Some of us haven't sung a note in decades.
It's just like old times. When we sing together, a group three times the size of a typical Madrigal contingent of 19 or so, we still sound like Mr B's choir--round, full, warm.
He cajoles and fusses the whole time. He loves it.
I have to leave early to go back to Atlanta to be on TV, talk about some murder I've written about.
Bob Binkley died yesterday. He'd been ill for years. Not too long ago he decided he was tired of chemo and wanted to just live the life he had left. He spent it planning another reunion concert of his old students. Another alumni, posting the news of Bob's death on Facebook, says he planned the concert till the end.
He was my first real voice teacher. He was one of my few true mentors, in the best sense of that word. He taught me to love and treasure a kind of music that nothing in my family history or upbringing prepared me to perform. Along with his wife he coached me for my auditions for various universities--the auditions that netted me scholarship offers from every school.
Our teachers can't help but shape us. Teachers like Bob Binkley set us on fire and re-mold us. They open up horizons we didn't know existed before we entered their classrooms. They change lives for the better without even trying to do anything but their jobs, the best way they see fit.
One of the best things about singing for Mr. B, though, wasn't his wit or wisdom, though he had surpluses of both. It was simply learning the music he loved.
"E'en So, Lord Jesus," the choral work in the video below, was our concert closer when I was in high school. It is a soaring yet reverent piece of music and it carries a great deal of emotional weight for me and, I'm certain, a great many other Binkley students. It's been all I could think of since I heard he was dead.
Among his students, Mr. B will always be a legend. He was a true force of nature.
I am grateful I got to know Mr. B, got to learn from him.
His clarion sound will always echo inside me. His voice will continue ringing in my chest as it did when I was 16, inspiring me to make my own joyful noise, for decades to come.