A Voice of Thanksgiving

Just to hear what it sounded like, I recorded this post and uploaded it to SoundCloud. It seemed appropriate.

This year I am thankful for my voice, although maybe not in the way you might expect.

When I was young, I had a career plan, and it was in radio. As a child, I fell asleep listening to KYW News Radio out of Philadelphia, with its gentle faux wire-traffic noises and the crisp sounds of its announcers. My mom thought it was a little weird.

My grandmother cut out a Parade magazine article on famous broadcasters, which to this day hangs on a bulletin board in the spare room at her house in Allentown.

In high school, I did the morning announcements, which were actually filmed and broadcast to homerooms that had TVs (the rest had to settle for our sonorous tones, alas). I did the sports, mostly, but occasionally filled in on the news side and once reviewed Public Enemy’s “Nation of Millions” to a school that had, at most, half a dozen non-white kids (I was a fan).

The first thing - the very first thing - that I did upon arriving at the University of Pittsburgh was to find the campus radio station, WPTS, and join its newsroom. Ron Asbury, a golden-voiced man, was its news director. I got my FCC board certification and became a reporter, sometimes host and live event announcer. My grandmother still has a few cassette tapes of my Pitt football game calls.

Radio was my favorite medium until the Web came around, and even now it’s a very close second. But my thankfulness has nothing to do with my radio voice.

I did one other thing early in my college career; I walked down to the music building and into an audition for the Heinz Chapel Choir. I had sung in high school, but I wasn’t confident I would pass an actual test at the college level. The director at the time was Bill Burkhart, who looked every bit the part of the struggling graduate student. I don’t think I sang very well, but he needed men for the choir, and I at least fit that bill. I made it.

Burkhart moved on after my freshman year, and was replaced by John Goldsmith, who previously had sung with The Chanticleers. This was a serious upgrade, and I was seriously worried about my place. Luckily - for talent alone would not have guaranteed me a spot - the HCC was still short of men, and I could sight-read pretty well, so I stayed on.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week published a story about the choir’s 75 years, particularly about the closeness members have always felt to each other and their directors. Although most of the people mentioned in the story are much older, their stories are our stories. I loved being in that choir so much that after my senior year I convinced myself (stupidly) that no choral experience could measure up, and didn’t sing again until this year. Prior to meeting my wife, being a member of the Heinz Chapel Choir was the very best thing I ever did in my life.

Near the end of my junior year, I went into Ron Asbury’s office at WPTS, where I was making good progress as a reporter. I asked him what I needed to do in order to really make it in radio. His sharp reply: “Start smoking. At least two packs a day.”

My voice was way too high for the radio, he explained, and played me a tape of a basketball game that I called. He was right - my voice was so far away from my KYW favorites. I was crushed. I thought about the prospect of smoking cigarettes, which I had never done, not even tried.

Then I went to choir rehearsal, and I told Mr. Goldsmith about my problem. “Derek, I’ll kill you if you do that,” he said with a smile. He knew there wasn’t a way in the world that I would disappoint my choir family. I held onto a Sunday morning radio show for my last year at Pitt, but I switched my focus to the campus newspaper.

I still miss the radio, but I don’t regret my choice for a minute. I chose to make music, and that opened for me a world of beauty, joy and friendship that I would have missed. Mr. Goldsmith is stepping down after 25 years as the director of the Heinz Chapel Choir. His last choir is immeasurably better than his first, I think it’s safe to say. But those of us who were there then might be more grateful than anybody for the experience. To the man who kept me on when it would have been easy not to and who brought out a love of singing that I did not know I had, and to my eternal friends who will always be my family, thank you for showing me my real voice.