Chapter 23. Solo from Hell/Crystal
CGospel Choir wasn’t fun for Crystal any more. About halfway through each practice, Willys dismissed Bronnie and Cherie to a small practice room down the hall to run through their solo for the concert. Cherie touched his arm, patted his head, leaned into him and laughed on the way out. He smiled and looked like he was having a good time. They had sung the solo with the whole group once, to practice the parts with backup harmonies. Crystal knew Cherie’s voice blended well with Bronnie’s.
Today, Bronnie and Cherie had to practice with full choir backup. While they got set up, Willys took a handkerchief from his pocket and ran it over his smooth-shaven face. His hair was clipped off short but very densely packed, sort of a very short Afro. Crystal thought it looked like a black ski cap. He was about five feet nine, an inch taller than Crystal, but he looked taller in the black suit and white shirt. His coat was on the back of a chair, to keep it fresh. Crystal felt like chuckling at his Kinte cloth suspenders, but she didn’t. Something told her he would be hurt.
Willys had selected music with a romantic sound for the duet. The words were very religious and deep, but Crystal had a hard time concentrating on the words when the music whispered, “love me” so seductively. Two voices blended and rose higher and higher together until Cherie hit an F. That F sounded wrong. Cherie was flat, sounded like she couldn’t quite get that high. She was an alto, after all. Sometimes Crystal sang Cherie’s part in the shower and she soared up there. But she knew somewhere down inside herself that Cherie’s voice was stronger than hers. Today in practice, all she noticed was that flat pitch.
Willys took them through “Pass Me Not.” It was a real oldie from the gospel genre; everyone in choir could sing it in their sleep. But Willys said, “I want crisp! Don’t sing it all baggy like your grandma and aunt. Y’all remember that CD from a while ago, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation? Did y’all hear MC Hammer’s rap on Pass Me Not?” No one said anything, so he said, “Come on, stop making zzz’s and work with me here. Get up and stretch!” The choir members slowly got up and reached up high. Their eyes opened wider as they took in air.
“Okay, now, who remembers Rhythm Nation? Raise your hand, if the cat’s got your tongue,” Willys said. Crystal and about 2/3 of the choir raised their hands. “So now, y’all that know what I mean, sing it like that! The others will catch on fast.” Willys cued the piano player and they started again. This time, “Pass Me Not” sounded sharp, not slushy. “Great, now remember that. Let’s go on to “God Is” and here, we want that old grandma swooping and sliding, up to a point.” They sang that to his satisfaction.
“Next piece gonna be ‘Shake the Devil Off.’ Y’all awake enough to do those dance moves?” Willys wiggled his eyebrows at them and made them all laugh. They remembered, and they did the dance moves perfectly. He called out Robert Mason from the group next, to practice his solo for the concert. Mason gave Crystal chills when his resonant base voice went down the scales to the bottom of his range, singing “Old Man River.” No sooner had the echoes faded than Willys beckoned DeEtte Patrice out to sing “Steal Away.” The great rhythm of the song made the choir clap along, and Willys said, ’Okay, someone want to play the tambourine on this one?” Crystal volunteered, and he handed it to her. Then he had the choir go over a simple bridge to sing as a backup for DeEtte. “Okay, y’all, let’s run the whole thing. Crystal, hold off on the tambourine until the second verse, okay?” Crystal nodded. That piece really came together well.
“Our job now is polish, polish, polish. ‘Call him up’ next. Now what sound should I hear first in this song?” He made them practice consonant sounds from the initial word in the song just before the beat, and hitting all the consonants hard so that the words could be understood. He had them say, “K, K, K, K, K,” to develop more “bite” from that sound. But then they finished a line with “cares-s-s-s.” He wanted the S’s soft-pedaled and made into z-sounds. “Get those snakes out of here, I don’t want to hear s-s-s-s-s-s at the end of that phrase,” he shouted.
The publicity committee brought the draft concert program for them to see. Crystal thought it looked impressive. The cover had a modernistic drawing of singers in robes with open mouths, and was printed over with “Joyful Noise Gospel Concert, October 30 at 7:30 PM, Brook Concert Hall.” Nina Brown said, “We did it so the cover can also be a poster to advertise the concert.” Crystal felt proud of the Gospel Choir, even though she was still upset about the duet. “Anyone who’s willing to help us put up all these things, so someone will come, step up here so I can get your name and email,” Nina said. Crystal volunteered. She thought she’d especially like to bring Marianne, who probably needed to be cheered up after her plagiarism fiasco. And she’d see if Jason would bring Grandma.
Willys sent them out with a “Tell everyone you know, get a big crowd in here y’all!”
Crystal and the others yelled back, “WE WILL!” The night of the concert, she and Marianne walked over to the Brook Concert Hall together, even though the call for Crystal was an hour before the concert. Marianne brought her Biology notebook. On the way, Crystal explained to her that the audience was going to clap, stamp their feet, even get up and move around if the spirit moved them. Marianne said she planned to enjoy just watching. Crystal told her she might get swept up into the enthusiasm of the crowd, and that she hoped she wouldn’t hold back if she felt like clapping along.
Marianne settled down with her biology notebook in the middle of the auditorium. The choir went on stage to warm up. Willys asked them to hold hands and pray. They sang two songs, then he said “Y’all go on backstage and get robed. And don’t you talk to a soul. Keep quiet, save those voices.”
Crystal drank water from her bottle and noticed Bronnie giving Cherie water from his bottle. One more thing Cherie did wrong, forgot her water bottle. Bronnie put his arm around Cherie. They walked away down the hall towards their practice room. Crystal’s heart sank. It looked like the ploy to get Bronnie had worked all too well. She resolved to act like it didn’t matter, but she had a tight throat.
The choir walked on stage to music with a strong, slow gospel beat. A hush fell. Then Willys started them out on “God Is.” The audience was about half African American; quite a lot of singers’ relatives were mixed in among the students.
Crystal had invited her Grandma and her brother. Halfway through the first song, among the calls of “Sang it, y’all” and “Amen,” she heard her Grandma’s “Sang it, Crystal!” She couldn’t wait to hug her Grandma after the concert. Jason must be there too. But he was too buttoned up to shout, although he probably was clapping along, on the off beat according to gospel tradition. She tried to spot them, but it was almost impossible to see the audience. She sang, she focused on Willys’ directions. He winked at the choir; Crystal felt like he had winked at her. Everything was going so well, Crystal felt like she was walking three inches off the floor when they walked out to thunderous applause after the first half.
During intermission, Crystal pulled the curtains apart an inch and saw Jason and Grandma in the tenth row on the left side, talking with two older ladies and another man about Jason’s age, probably someone else’s relatives. She didn’t see Marianne. She hoped she would stay for the second half. When the intermission was almost over, she sneaked another look. There was Marianne. Her head was bent over that biology notebook. Crystal hoped she would relax, would find that the rhythm demanded that she break her out of her studying. Willys called them and she had to line up.
The first thing after the intermission was “Shake the Devil Off,” the dance number they had practiced when Crystal was agonizing about her role in the Bad Project. It reminded her about how Marianne couldn’t talk to her about the Sex Bad. She put those thoughts away so she could concentrate on the music. The audience really got into that number, clapping, and yelling encouragement. The lights in the audience were up a bit more for the second half, and the whole back row stood up and swayed in time with the music.
The next song was the duet, “Nothing But Love.” Bronnie and Cherie walked out in front of the choir. Bronnie looked comfortable but Cherie looked shaky. She held on to her mike as if she were drowning and it was a lifeline. Bronnie sang first, and his mellow tenor filled the room. No clapping here, the music was dreamy, reflective. Then Cherie came in. Her voice sounded a little hoarse, but she was loud enough and on pitch. They sang the first two verses with a few calls of encouragement from the audience. Then in the bridge, their rising spiral of sound started. The high F was coming up.
Crystal clenched her fists. She hoped Cherie would hit the F, for the good of the choir. But, she didn’t. She cracked on the F, burst into tears, and ran off the stage. Bronnie looked after her, but continued the song. Crystal slipped out and followed Cherie. She was huddled in a chair backstage, crying and shivering. Crystal hugged her and said, “You sounded great except for that, you don’t need to worry or be ashamed. Bronnie will finish it up. We all love you.” And surprisingly, Crystal discovered that she did love her and feel bad for her embarrassment.
Cherie seemed comforted for a while, she wiped her eyes with the tissue Crystal had given her. But then she said, “You don’t care about me. You’re jealous of me, you just care about Bronnie.”
Crystal whispered, “Yes, I’ve been jealous of you and I do care about Bronnie, but I care about you too. Our choir needs to stick together and take care of each other. You have a beautiful voice that can be heard all over the auditorium. I’d like to learn to sing like that, but my voice is too soft. I couldn’t sing loud enough.” Crystal found her heart was pounding, and she felt shaky, like she had cracked instead of Cherie.
Bronnie sang “When the time is right,” the last line of the song. The audience burst into applause, and Crystal heard “Bravo!” and “Amen”. When the choir began to sing “Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory,” Crystal said, “Cherie, do you want to come back out and sing the rest of the concert?” S
he looked puffy around the eyes, but she seemed to have been heartened by Crystal’s words. Cherie said, “Yeah, let’s go back.” The two slipped back into their places and sang. The audience was on fire with enthusiasm; they clapped enthusiastically along with every song, and stamped their feet at the end of each number. In the last piece, a chain dance snaked its way around the auditorium. Crystal was surprised to see Marianne was second in the chain. So she had relaxed and joined in with the others. At the end of the concert, the choir received a standing ovation, which they saw from the lobby where they were lined up to thank the audience. They told each other, “That was awesome!”
But Crystal could tell that Cherie was still upset. She kept an eye on her, and after the audience had gone next door for refreshments, she saw Cherie put on her jacket and try to slip away. Crystal went after her and said, “Cherie, I know you’re embarrassed, but there are people here who’d like to tell you that the part of your solo you did sing was great. Can’t you go to the reception so they won’t be disappointed?” Cherie looked at her for a long moment, then reached out and squeezed her hand.
“I’ll go. Thanks,” she said. They walked over together. As they entered, Cherie’s family surrounded her, just as Crystal predicted.
Marianne rushed up and hugged Crystal. She said, “Wow, no wonder you’re always in such a good mood! This music is amazing.”
Willys touched Crystal’s arm. She turned around to face him. “I saw what you did, and I’m really proud of you,” he said. “What we sang, you did. I’d like to work with you on projecting your voice so we can feature you in a solo in the next concert.” Crystal’s brow wrinkled in worry, but he answered her unspoken thought. “And I want Cherie to sing too, so she won’t give up on herself.” Crystal smiled then, and hugged him.
“You’re the greatest,” she said. “Thanks for all this,” she swung her arms wide to indicate the concert, the reception, the plans, everything. He smiled back, and then started circulating. Crystal turned back towards Cherie, but she was circulating through the crowd too, getting compliments and encouragement to sing another solo. Crystal felt an arm around her shoulders, and turned to find Bronnie.
“She was so scared. She’s never sung anywhere but her church before, and here at this fancy college, she thought people wouldn’t support her. You did good, helping her after she cracked.”
She smiled up at him and said, “You would have done the same if you could.” She felt a lot better about the whole situation. Jason and Grandma came up to them, and Jason said, “Jason White,” extending his hand to Bronnie. Bronnie introduced himself and shook hands, met Grandma. Jason complimented Bronnie on his solo and asked what he was planning to major in. When he heard Computer Science or possibly Psych, he started trying to talk him into Comp Sci.
The two of them immediately lost everyone else, and Grandma whispered to Crystal, “He’s so cute. Good voice too!” Crystal blushed, knowing that she were assuming too much. But she enjoyed the assumption too, knowing that her jealousy towards Cherie had implied she wanted a closer relationship. Bronnie and Jason planned for Jason to take him over to Caltech and introduce him to his favorite professor from Comp Sci there.
Crystal smiled, but told Grandma, “I know he likes computers, but I think he might choose Psych over Comp Sci as a major. But Jason is having fun. I’m so glad you came to the concert.”
“Wouldn’t miss it. Jason grumbled, but he weren’t that hard to talk into it. Did I hear the director say you gone sing solo next time? I sure did enjoy you singing at church while you was growing up.” Grandma looked very happy; Crystal thought both the concert and Bronnie were making her look that way. An African American boyfriend who sings gospel music? Nothing could be better. But Bronnie was a long way from a boyfriend, she thought, and it was her fault it was that way. She could only do the best she could, though. Ritz’s traces weren’t going to go away easily.