Poster St James UMBC choir
St James UMBC Choir; a traditional mass choir from Austin, Texas, who won the third annual gospel choir competition in San Antonio.
Mississippi Snopes via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Choral Stream

To Sing Again

On the last day of 2015, I was walking out of the Masonic Cancer Care Center at the University of Minnesota Medical Center (UMMC) and noticed an older gentleman singing to a woman and another man. It seemed he was trying to get them to remember a certain song.

"If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true …"

The Beatles, "If I Fell," from 1964. John Lennon sings that introduction, and then Paul McCartney enters with the high harmony on, "If I give my heart to you, I must be sure …"

By the time I arrived at the elevator, the man had finished the intro but continued singing, so I added the McCartney upper harmony, for anyone to hear. I don't think they heard me, and that's okay. It was one of those spontaneous moments when you're feeling good about things, so you just do it. And it worked — for me, at least.

Singing. It's generally defined as making musical sounds with the voice, especially words with a set tune. Singing is the one talent virtually everyone possesses, albeit at various skill levels.

I can't imagine life without singing. I learned to hold a melody as a kid, singing with my mom around the house. She would always start a tune. I would join in, and then Mom would switch to her very gentle alto harmony, always managing to stay in the background. That eventually led to duets with my soprano sister and baritone father. Yes, I was the family tenor.

Hans Splinter via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

As a teen, I was fortunate enough to have a marvelous choral instructor at a very small high school, a teacher who somehow managed to get about 75 percent of the student population to join the mixed chorus. I'm still not sure how Ms. Bisanz pulled that off, but I'm glad she did — because by the end of my freshman year at Stromsburg High, I was hooked.

While a student at the University of Nebraska, I joined the choir at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln. For 20 years, I sang with the chorus for Abendmusik, a wonderful fine-arts series that originated at Plymouth. We sang Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Bernstein (to name a few) in a gorgeous church and toured in places like St. Petersburg, Vienna, Rome, Prague, and throughout England. It was a blast.

Singing was a given in my life. I took it for granted. A decade ago, that all changed.

In 2006, I took a job with Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media. My wife and I moved to the Twin Cities, and, because of my crazy work hours, I decided singing would have to be shelved. After all, I'd had a pretty good run singing with the group in Lincoln — more than an adequate musical experience in my life. Fine.

Then four years ago, we had a son. The following week, I was diagnosed with leukemia. A year and a half later, the leukemia became aggressive and I was told my best — or perhaps only — option was a bone marrow transplant. In October 2013, that bone marrow transplant took place at UMMC. From that October to the following April, most of my life was spent in the hospital, including three separate stays in the ICU. After a multitude of complications, I came about as close to dying as one can. Singing, to me, was barely a memory.

VocalEssence Chorus, October 2015
VocalEssence Chorus, October 2015. Ward Jacobson is roughly sixth from left in the second row, wearing glasses.
Bruce Silcox

Life. Crazy stuff happens.

This past year has been better. My health has significantly improved. Several months ago, my wife started encouraging me to start singing again. I told her singing and playing guitar with our son (now four) was enough for me, but she insisted, suggesting I audition for the VocalEssence Chorus, a Minnesota group I had long admired and respected. So I did … and somehow, I got in.

That first night of rehearsal back in September was exhausting and exhilarating! It was like my life's electrical cord had been plugged back in. I never realized just how important singing with a group of people, making music, really was to me.

A few months back, we met with my oncologist to discuss the results of my two-year bone marrow biopsy and PET scan. The report was good — everything clear — my transplant 100 percent donor and the leukemia in complete remission. There was rehearsal later that night and, suffice to say, I was walking on air, feeling like I could hold my own with Pavarotti or Domingo or … McCartney.

It was the same way I felt striding away from that routine checkup at UMMC on the last day of 2015 when I heard the Beatles song. Harmonizing. Making music. Living. Singing again.

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