Musical Notes


Perfect Harmony

Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus. First United Methodist Church. Madison, Wisconsin. June, 2018. Photo by Callen Harty.

Singing brings joy to the human heart.

Perhaps there are those few who hear the joy of song and react negatively because they have hardened themselves to their own happiness. And perhaps there are those few whose souls withhold the songs in their hearts. But for most of us, our hearts, like the hearts of birds, long to sing out. Singing is a natural calling out in every culture. It is a way to express our joys and sorrows, our hopes and our dashed dreams. It is a way to connect with our elemental selves, and it is a way to communicate across the barriers of other languages.

There are events in life that can change our perceptions of ourselves and of our worlds. When I was in second grade music class a nun, Sister Mary Carlo, stood up in front of the class and said something along the lines of, “I’ve moved the good singers to the back of the room so that their voices might come up and help those of you who cannot sing.” I was in the middle of the front row and in that moment I became convinced that my voice was not worthy, that neither God nor my fellow man, wanted to hear me sing. I became shamed about my voice and the song in my heart. Sometimes the simplest of words can alter the path of a life.

I loved singing. I would sing at home. I would sing on my walks to school. I would sing in the bathtub. I would sing where nobody could hear me. But I would not sing in front of others because I remembered sitting in the middle of the front row.

In fifth grade I joined the band, choosing the clarinet as my instrument. Once a person learned an instrument like that the notes could be hit with certainty simply by pressing the right keys and holding one’s fingers over the right holes. I became fairly good and ended up as the first chair in the band, but it didn’t bring the same satisfaction as singing. It was too mechanical. It lacked the pure joy of singing.

In seventh grade we were required to perform for a music class. Somehow I ended up matched with three of my friends as a quartet and we sang a few songs in front of the class. One was Tiptoe Through the Tulips, I believe the second was Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home, and now I can’t remember the other. What I do remember was the heat on my face as I blushed in embarrassment and shame as we went through our numbers. I knew that everyone in that audience was laughing at me or silently judging me for the attempt.

Somewhere along the line I taught myself the right hand of the piano (never did learn the left) and when no one else was home and the doors were closed and the windows tightly shut I would play my sister’s sheet music and sing all of the songs for which she had music–If, Til There Was You, Somewhere My Love, Born Free, and on and on.

Somehow in high school, probably because I had tried out for and gotten into a couple plays, the music teacher asked me to be in the high school musical and I agreed. I don’t know if I didn’t realize I would have a singing part or why I agreed, but at some point after realizing I would have to sing, I dropped out of the play out of fear, and that caused me further embarrassment and shame.

Interestingly, I found myself in my twenties doing theater, but it was not musical theater. It was mostly original works, experimental plays, and productions for which no singing was required, and I proved to be a natural and instinctive actor. The writer/director of a play that I ended up in back in 1984 decided to open the play with an original song and all of the actors were required to be part of the chorus. While I could read music to play the clarinet I had no clue how to read music to sing. I learned my part by listening and repeating it. One day I started singing my part and my fellow actor, Jay Indik, asked me to sing the first note again and then ran over to the piano and played a note. He seemed astounded. “You have perfect pitch,” he said, and I had no idea what he meant. If I looked at that note on the sheet music I wouldn’t have known what to sing, but I knew how to find it without having it given to me and he seemed to think that was pretty amazing. He came back several days in a row and asked me to hit my note and ran to the piano to verify that it was correct, and it was every time.

That was my first inkling that Sister Mary Carlo’s thoughtless remark may have undermined my belief in myself in ways that I couldn’t even imagine, but I was still scared about singing along with the others during the opening song of that play.

Jay then asked me to perform in a one-act play he was directing at the university. In it the main character had to sing a song, by himself, and it terrified me. To do it, I convinced myself that it was the character singing, not me, and that if it was terrible the audience would accept it as a flaw in the character. Jay said I sounded fine, but I didn’t really trust that he wasn’t just being nice to me.

When I met my partner, Brian, it changed everything. When you are comfortable around a person you can do things that you may not do around others. So I would quietly sing in the car as the radio played favorite songs and he would say, “You have a beautiful voice.” I told him the story of Sister Mary Carlo and he became angry at what her words had done to my confidence in my own voice. He built me up, little by little, until one day he convinced me to be in the cast of his musical, in which my character had a duet with another actor. Despite my fear, I did it, and it went okay.

Because of him, I took the chance of singing karaoke, singing a favorite Irish song a capella at an open mic fundraiser for our theater group, joining with him and three others to sing at a few weddings and funerals, and more.

When the Capitol protests broke out in Madison back in 2011 I asked a couple friends to join me in signing a few verses of We Shall Overcome in the Capitol rotunda one day. After doing it that day and feeling the power of that song in that situation I ended up going to the rotunda virtually every day for two and half years where I sang the first four verses of the song by myself as a protest of what was happening in my state. It became so well-known that I was asked to sing it at one of the rallies during those days, so I sang it in front of a couple thousand people one day on the Capitol steps. Years ago, I couldn’t imagine that ever happening. Often at that time, I also joined the Solidarity Sing Along, a loose-knit group of protesters, to sing protest songs at the Capitol. They met there every day at noon and are still singing truth to power seven years later.

Recently our youth theater group, Proud Theater, was asked to perform a song with Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus. Because it was the end of the year and our own show had just closed the weekend before, I was only able to recruit a handful of youth to agree to perform. It turned out the song they wanted us to sing with them was We Shall Overcome. Brian encouraged me to sing with the youth. I thought it should just be them, so I resisted until a couple dropped out and I discovered that another one of the mentors was planning to sing. At the first rehearsal I started singing with them and told the director that I would join them in the piece.

As usual, I was nervous and a bit scared, but the performances were this past weekend and they went pretty well. I was not perfect in my singing and, of course, am focusing on the things that I didn’t do well instead of what did go well. But I had never sung in a chorus before and it was empowering and invigorating. In doing the performance it was yet another step in overcoming a long history of fear and shame. And I did it in the middle of the front row, with my heart and soul singing out in pride and joy.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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