Today, I attended a memorial service for Sister Joan Whittemore.
Sister Joan. A nun. A student of and a teacher of music. More, she was a student of and a teacher of life. She laughed, at laughing time, like she had grabbed hold of life and squeezed the juice out of it. But then absorbed what she took and magnified it so she could put back more than she took. At music-making time, however, there wasn’t much laughing. From her studies, but more from the gift God put in her for all of us, she knew what good music sounded like. And there was no messing around in the chorus as she drove her crew to find the good stuff and to then make it better and better still until there was no more time to prepare. Then she and her chorus made a joyous noise.
I first met Sister Joan when my oldest granddaughter—then in grade school but now a Rolla grad with a masters—joined one of Sister’s children’s choirs. A few years later, Sister formed a women’s chorus. My wife and daughter (mother of aforementioned granddaughter) joined the women’s chorus. And my wife volunteered me to videotape the concerts. It’s the only women’s chorus I’ve ever been a member of.
When I started videoing for her, I considered music to be a thing ears listened to. But I watched her pressing and driving her voices for some specific thing. She’d stop them in the middle of a line and say, “No, No.” Then she’d demonstrate what she wanted and say, “Again, from measure umpty-fratz.” They’d start again. She’d “no, no,” again. When she was after something like that, I always hoped like all get out my video recorder wouldn’t make a sound, like a low-battery alarm. At those time I always pictured Jesus and the moneychangers.
Then one Christmas I understood what she was working so hard for. The women’s chorus performed in a church in south St. Louis. One of the numbers was a Russian piece called “Salvation is Created.” The choir cranked it on, and I was transported. The altos laid a marble floor with their song, and over it, the sopranos vaulted an onion dome church. Then Russian people entered the church and told God their troubles. Then they told Him they knew and trusted in His Salvation
It took some kind of composer to write the souls of Russian people into that music. It took some kind of conductor to resurrect those souls and give them life in notes and rhyme and rhythm.
Thinking about her and how she made me see, feel, taste, smell, and oh yes, hear music, music just has to be God’s special creation. I think the Beatles were right. I think God came back and worked another day to create music. There really are eight days a week.
Ah, Sister Joan.