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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Leon

The Soundtrack of my Life

After singing with him for 24 years, my conductor and friend, Dr. Erik Reid Jones, is stepping down as the artistic director of the Master Singers of Virginia. The music and community of the Master Singers have been a lifeline that transcended the upheavals in my life and provided a refuge where I could flourish in the midst of chaos and sorrow.

In August of 1999, I had been married almost five years. I was the mother of a two-year-old daughter and was expecting a baby in December. After two years staying home with a toddler, I was desperate to regain some sense of who I was outside of motherhood. Flipping through a free local paper, a small ad in the classified section caught my eye: Singers wanted for local choir. After talking with my husband, I scheduled an audition.

That decision changed my life.

I recently heard my conductor describe that same day with words that brought an extraordinary amount of goodness to my heart.

“A young soprano walked in to audition that day, younger than me which was unusual. She had, and I don’t mean to be cliché, the voice of an angel: a pure, clear, soaring voice but also a vibrant personality. I thought that day, and I am not particularly religious, on this voice I will build my choir. And I did.”

The tears pooled in my eyes listening to him offer me this tribute last week in front of our entire ensemble during the last Sunday night rehearsal he would ever hold.

“Betsy, I could not have asked for a better North Star to guide our choir than your voice.”

Moved with awe and gratitude, I let those beautiful words wash over me and soak into my body. It is a risk to share them here because I fear being judged as arrogant or prideful, but I want to tell the truth about what it has meant for me to be a part of the Master Singers of Virginia, and not primarily my impact on the choir, but more significantly, the choir’s impact on me.

The Master Singers and the relationships I hold within it have been my home for 24 years. That is twice as long as I lived with both my parents as a child, 7 years longer than my first marriage, and currently 14 years longer than my second. All but one of my six children grew in my womb to the sound of my voice singing in the Master Singers and the resonance of more than thirty voices around me. My children grew up attending concert after concert. My family schedule is still anchored by Sunday night rehearsals from August to May.

The music of the Master Singers of Virginia is the soundtrack of my life.

This Sunday, May 7, 2023, I will sing my last concert with Dr. Erik Reid Jones, known as Erin by family and friends. With a low-ball estimate of 2.5 hours of singing per rehearsal, an hour of pre-concert rehearsals and an hour of music per concert, a conservative guess would be that I have sung more than 2,300 hours with the Master Singers under Erin’s brilliant and creative direction. I feel inept to convey the effect that being a part of this magnificent ensemble has had on my body, mind and spirit, but it is enormous. I have no doubt that I would not be the woman I am today without the privilege of making extraordinary music with dear friends and colleagues week after week, year after year.

The Master Singers has been a constant in my life when many other things were not. The explosion of my first marriage after my ex-husband’s adultery and our subsequent divorce, the miseries and challenges of custody and visitation, multiple mental health crises, the death of my son – through it all the music and community of the Master Singers were a lifeline that transcended these upheavals and provided a refuge where I could flourish in the midst of chaos and sorrow.

Erin always says that a choir is, first and foremost, a community. A community of people who sing together. The community of the Master Singers has been a sanctuary for me where I experience goodness and beauty and find an outlet for the goodness and beauty I hold within, despite the circumstances in the rest of my life. As a stay-at-home mother of a big family, for years I spent most of my days juggling the needs of 5 children. I cherished the hours in rehearsal when I could focus intensely on only one thing. When my life began to fall apart, the ensemble provided an outlet for the intense emotion I struggled to contain in my body. When I got remarried, the Master Singers provided the music at our wedding. When our son died, their voices soared through his funeral mass. My current season has new and different challenges, but week-after-week I metabolize stress and grief amidst artistry and excellence in the safety of our community.

Not just the music, not just the community, but the two together are the heart of the Master Singers under Erin’s exceptional leadership. He is exceptional not just because he is a brilliant musician and outstanding conductor -- there are many of those. What makes Erin extraordinary is his capacity for vulnerability, his unwavering convictions, and his earnest belief in his instrument: the choir. He demands excellence from himself and from us not because he desires accolades, but because he is fiercely committed to bringing the true beauty and artistry of music to life. He enters into the music with abandon and invites the singers and the audience to do the same – to open your heart, to be energized, to dance, to savor, to play, to weep, to be still, to grieve. To sing with Erin is to be moved by not just his musicianship or by the music, but by his soul.

One of his favorite maxim’s is music is a temporal art. In order to fully experience music, one must be fully present and fully engaged. We are held by the music, wrapped in the sound. The song begins and we ride a wave that has movement, rhythm, pitch, and intensity. We crest, rise, and fall together, deeply focused and attuned to each other and our conductor through our bodies, our breath, our eyes, our minds, and our spirits.

The role of a choir conductor demands a bit of bravado. Erin stands vulnerably and bravely in front of the group but also in front of 35 unique and individual voices, 35 hearts, 35 sets of lungs, 35 sets of eyes. He invites and receives us personally and collectively and our wall of sound, all of our breath and our energy --spiritually, emotionally, somatically -- comes flying at him: a sacred exchange of motion for voice, energy for energy to create music together.

The desire for communion and connection is written in our bodies, and yet we exist in a highly individualistic society. We have largely lost the collective, but not in a choir. In a choral ensemble, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. A choir shares communion through collective breath and voice through song. It is deeply fulfilling and meets a desire many of us don’t even know we have to share our humanity, our breath, and our bodies by working together towards a common goal.

One of the reasons I believe that people are drawn to choral music is this phenomenon. For the choral singer, sharing breath, energy, voice, and spirit while intensely attuning to a collective is deeply satisfying. It soothes a core longing to belong and to be known.

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, describes this kind of experience as exceptionally self-regulating and soothing to our arousal systems, for singer and audience member alike. I firmly believe that my participation in the Master Singers has allowed me to survive and thrive over the last 24 years through intense and heart-breaking circumstances. Three key moments from my years in the ensemble exemplify this influence.

One Sunday in 2010 during the unravelling of my marriage, I left the kids with their dad to head to rehearsal. Several years prior when we were able to find childcare, my husband Ray had also joined the ensemble but was staying home with the kids that night. Since I was solo, I drove our Honda Accord which was normally my husband’s car. Arriving at the church for practice, I noticed some papers sticking out from underneath the passenger seat and pulled them out: an invoice and contract for a new $40,000 red convertible Ford Mustang, bought by my husband without my knowledge as part of his mid-life crisis. I was flooded with terror and outrage and afraid of what this purchase meant about his intentions for our relationship. I felt dangerously out of control and rushed inside to hide in the bathroom, but Erin saw me and pulled me aside.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his face showing he already knew the answer. Having lived through his own horrific divorce, he knew the agony of losing a relationship you had devoted your whole being to saving. He listened with great compassion and empathy while the flood of fear for my family poured out of me. Then he reassured me that he had my back.

“You know if it comes down to it and I have to choose between you and Ray, I choose you. No question. You belong here.” In a time of intense fragility and uncertainty, I desperately needed the reminder that this was a safe place for me. These were my people.

Not long after, Ray and I drove together to a performance of the Master Singers in the acoustic wine cellar at Tarara Winery in Leesburg. Our relationship was in shreds and I was desperate to save our marriage, but he was detached and cold. It was finally sinking in that our precious family was going to break apart. We pulled into the gravel lot and I barely held myself together as I hurried to the wine cellar. Walking into the winery, I could hear the strains of the Master Singers already rehearsing. My friend Diana was a bit of ahead of me and as she opened the door to the cellar, a wall of lush ethereal harmonies filled the hallway, the glorious O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen, and my knees buckled. The exquisite beauty of the music pierced my heart and I sank to the ground, undone. In falling into the music, I could finally fall apart and accept that my marriage was dead. The memory of that moment remains as one of the most comforting and agonizing of my life.

Finally, during the 2017-2018 season, our repertoire included Even When He is Silent by Andre Arnesen, a stunning work about clinging to hope in the darkest times of life. My second husband Ralph and I were expecting a baby, our son John Paul Raphael, who we knew had a life-limiting diagnosis and was expected to die. Once again, the exquisite beauty of the music enveloped me and provided comfort and support during a terrifying season. I declared with my body and voice as I sang: I believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining, I believe in love even when I feel it not, I believe in God even when He is silent. The text, found scratched on the wall of a concentration camp, is defiant against despair. Paired with the gorgeous harmonies sung with my friends, it sustained me through an unthinkable season. The ensemble sang it again at our baby’s funeral mass. The music covered me with comfort and hope, allowing me to weep while reassuring me that there would be goodness and beauty again.

And now I prepare to say goodbye to Erin as the artistic director of the Master Singers. I have spent much time contemplating the relationship between conductor and singer. It is an intimate relationship, requiring each to be a student of the other. Each is dependent on the other yet balance and equality are not guaranteed. Erin provided both. The conductor is required to communicate with the choir through his body, but Erin has the courage to be authentic and vulnerable in the music, giving himself over body and soul and inviting each of us to give ourselves entirely as well. In an ego-driven profession, Erin was not. Don’t get me wrong – he is confident and outspoken and talented, so some measure of ego is unavoidable, but he was driven not by a desire for personal success or attention but by a desire for the choir’s excellence: modern choral music, masterfully.

Erin, I am so grateful I answered that ad in the paper. The music of the Master Singers is the soundtrack of my life. Your leadership at its helm is my North Star – a constant safe harbor amid the shifting sands of my family life and my own trauma. You invited us to explore hundreds and hundreds of masterful choral works and sculpted each to reveal the heart of the piece, then colored it with your personal creative interpretation. You let us see your heart and created a community that allowed us to grow and mature as musicians and friends. Your legacy is not just a rich tapestry of composers, styles, and melodies but the imprint of your spirit on each of ours. After 24 years of professional partnership, friendship, music, and community, I am left with awe and gratitude, two perfectly inadequate words. The music we have shared has said it all. Thank you.

There is no such beauty as where you belong.

- Stephen Paulus, The Road Home

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