Author Stacy Horn may not have a great voice, but that didn't stop her from joining a church choir and discovering her own hallelujah moment
By Caroline Leavitt
Originally Posted On October 1, 2013
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times best-selling author of Pictures of You and the recent Is This Tomorrow, a May Indie Next Pick and a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick/Editors Choice. She reviews for People magazine, the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle and teaches writing through Stanford and UCLA online and privately.
Stacy Horn's Imperfect Harmony is the kind of book you carry around with you not only because you want to keep reading it, but because you want to show it to friends.
And since you couldn't possibly give up your copy, you want to encourage them to rush right out and buy their own. Imperfect Harmony is about many things, but ultimately it’s about rescue and finding yourself even as you lose yourself in singing.
Stacy is warm, funny and a fabulous writer, plus she's the one person who makes me think that just maybe I should sing, too, despite the fact that I cannot carry a tune. She's also the author of Unbelievable: Investigations Into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory; The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad; and Waiting for My Cats to Die: A Morbid Memoir. In addition to that, she's the founder of the online community Echo, where people talk about love, life, work, and everything.
Caroline Leavitt: First, questions about singing. How did you get involved with it? Did you sing as a child? Did it take courage to join a choir, and what was that like?
Stacy Horn: I was in my 20s, and every area of my life was just bad: divorce, a job that had nothing to do with anything I loved in life, the usual. I could see this tunnel to depression opening up, and I was desperate to find a way to close it. Rocking back and forth on my living room floor sobbing and smoking Camels wasn’t doing it.
So I was looking for ways to get happy — fast. It had to be something that would last more than a night or two and wasn’t tied to things I didn’t have any control over, like falling in love.
I recalled singing in a choir one Christmas in high school and how much fun that was. I loved the carols, the rehearsals, the performance in a church glittering with holiday decorations. So I found a beautiful church and a community choir. You didn’t need to be a member of the church to join. The only problem was I had to audition. Terrific. Just what you want to do when you’re at one of the lowest points in your life.
“I know I don’t have a particularly nice voice,” I told the director at my audition, “but I can sing in tune, and I promise to always sing very, very quietly.” After the audition, he looked at me and said as gently as he could manage, “It’s true you don’t have a beautiful voice. But you can sing in tune. Welcome to the choir.”
At the first rehearsal someone handed me a copy of Handel’s Messiah. I’d never seen anything like it. The score is hundreds of pages long. “How about ‘O Holy Night’?” I said in a panic. I don’t think I even opened my mouth for the first 10 minutes. But in time I got the hang of it.
While I will always love Christmas carols, they can’t compare to singing works like the Messiah. It was astounding. When you sing, you’re not just listening to a masterpiece, you become the masterpiece. It’s a rush. No matter what mood you’re in when you walk into a rehearsal, you come out of it drenched in happiness (which I would later learn is due in part to all these great neurochemicals coursing through your body when you sing).
What made you want to write this book? What were the joys and perils?
I had to write this book because I know about this great thing out there that will make your life better, both emotionally and physically. It’s practically free, it's easily accessible — just show up for rehearsal — and I am living proof that you don’t have to be a great singer to gain all the benefits.
I still can’t get over the luck I’ve had in my writing life. If only time travel were real and I could go back to my 25-year-old self crying on the floor and say, “Guess what? Your writing dream is going to come true. You’re going to get to completely immerse yourself in subjects you love for years at a time and get paid for it.” I’d leave out the part about our abysmal love life.
The only peril for this book is the fact that every person in my choir who reads my book is now going to know some very personal things about me. I don’t mind strangers knowing, but people I see every week? Awkward. Plus, if any of them don’t like the book that will break my heart and it’s inevitable that some won’t. Note to fellow choristers: Lying is kind.
It's fascinating that you don’t have to be religious or even Christian to sing in the church choir, yet there still is something very holy about the experience. Would you agree?
I felt weird at first, singing about the glories of God week after week as an agnostic. But by the end of the very first rehearsal, I couldn’t help but be grateful that religion has inspired and nurtured what is arguably the most beautiful art our species has ever produced.
Singing is the ultimate communion, connecting you with your fellow singers and the audience, but also with the composer and whatever faith he or she was trying to express. As I said, when you sing (as opposed to listen), you become what you sing. Here’s how it works. Randall Thompson wrote music for the words “Ye shall have a song and gladness of heart.” That’s from the Bible, Isaiah 30:29. Now, Randall Thompson was a gifted composer. He wanted me to feel gladness of heart when I sing that line and I do — so much so I burst into tears the last time. Feeling that good is almost too much to bear sometimes.
In this way, music becomes the greatest ambassador, capable of bridging people from different religions — or no religion at all. “This is church for me,” a fellow choir member told me. Another said, “If anything is God-like, it's singing; it surrounds you with love, friendship, comfort and beauty.” I may interpret the faith I sing about differently, but I feel the beauty of the expression just the same and I marvel in the faith and heart that brought forth such exquisite harmony.
Why do you think that imperfect harmony has benefits that perfect harmony might not?
One of the things I figured out in my 20s, in addition to “singing: good; getting drunk every night: bad,” is that perfection is an impossible and stupid goal and that imperfection is beautiful.
I’ll never forget the year when I took voice lessons, trying to get past my insecurity about my voice. One night we listened to a recording of my choir. “We sound fantastic!” I said to my teacher. She looked at me and said, “Your voice is in there.”
The Choral Society is made up of people of varying talents. There are a lot of truly great singers, but there are also people who, like me, will never be invited to sing a solo at the Met. But the final sound we produce — made from a combination of both perfection and imperfection — is stunning.
What was the research like, and what surprised you most about it?
I had lots of exciting and surprising moments researching this book, but one stands out. I came across this amazing and horrifying story about a riot in a New York City church in 1834. A white mob had gone inside and dragged out the black congregation that had gathered to sing and celebrate the day slavery had been outlawed in New York. The only people arrested were four black men, who were among the victims. Insane! I wanted to see if I could find out who those men were in order to write something about what their lives were like after that terrible night.
I went down to the Municipal Archives, where many of the city’s historical records are kept. It was a longshot, because 1834 was before we had a formal New York City Police Department. I pulled out the reel of microfilm containing the Police Office Watch Returns for that night and loaded it onto the reader. The arrest record was there. One name was illegible, two were names like “John Smith,” so they’d be impossible to find, but thankfully one of the men had an unusual name. Even better, at the end of his life he wrote an autobiography, and in that autobiography was his story of what happened that night. Of all the accounts, his rang the most true.
I was also able to find out that the people who had dragged that congregation out of the church had sung Handel’s Messiah just weeks before. For anyone not familiar with the piece, you’re singing the praises of “the prince of peace.”
What's obsessing you now, and why?
The Municipal Archives. Every book I’ve written has led to the Archives at one point or another. I love that place. So I’m working on a proposal for a book about this amazing repository and what’s inside. You wouldn’t believe the treasures they hold, and it’s not just for writers. True crime, war, the history of terrorism in New York — it’s all there.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
How about five? "I have a million dollars to give you, where should I mail the check?" "I think I know the perfect man for you — is it okay if I give him your number?" "Oh my God, I love your haircut. Who is your stylist?" "I think every one of your books would make a great movie: Is it okay if I bring them to the attention of all the big, important movie people I know?" "How is it that of all the cats in the world, your two are the cutest?"