I played trumpet in my high school band and wasn’t very good. I held the thing down, sort of like a clarinet, and played out of the corner of my mouth. It sounded like I had a kazoo wedged in the tubing. But nobody else in my school was very good either, so I still managed to spend a lot of time at first chair.
One of the regular highlights for my high school band was its annual “Vespers” holiday music extravaganza, held each December in the gym. Much of the town turned out for it. The band played Christmas classics such as “Winter Wonderland” and “Frosty The Snowman.” I can still hear the wood blocks clomping along in our version of “Sleigh Ride,” and the horse’s “neigh” I had to do at the end of the song on my trumpet.
We also had the high school choir (I sang in it too) on hand to perform “Carol Of The Bells” and “Silent Night,” among other hits. At some point there was a dramatic reading from the second chapter of The Gospel Of Luke. You know, the one that talks about the birth of Jesus.
But the real show-stopper was always our performance of “O Holy Night.” In addition to the band and choir playing together, we always had a soloist sing one or two verses of the song as they stood out in front of the group at a lone microphone. It was always a huge deal to see who was chosen for this solo.
The truth is, most of the time, the quality of the performances really wasn’t that bad, especially for a very small town school. But one year, the honor of soloing on “O Holy Night” was inexplicably bestowed upon a kid who sang with a pinched nasal honk, not unlike my kazoo-trumpet. We’ll call him “Brad.” When the moment came, the lights dimmed and the gym was reverently hushed as Brad stepped forward. In my memory there was a spotlight, but maybe not. Regardless, as the school band played softly, Brad opened his mouth, and what followed was several minutes of some of the most excruciating screeching and honking anyone in the town had ever been cursed to hear. This recording by Steve Mauldin, which makes its way around the Internet every year at this time, doesn’t really do Brad’s performance justice, but it comes close, especially in the last 30 or 40 seconds.
Anyone who attended my school’s Vespers holiday music extravaganza that year can still recall with vivid detail how Brad lurched his way through “O Holy Night,” oblivious to the wrinkled noses and mouths hanging open in horror out in the darkened gym. Nearly 30 years later I have friends who, if I merely mention Brad’s name, will immediately start screeching their own horrid version of “O Holy Night.”
But hey, in Brad’s defense, it’s a really hard song to sing. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter what he sounded like while soloing that day. What matters is the message of hope he bestowed and the giving, loving spirit of the holidays we all shared.
Seriously, though. It was just terrible.
This is what holiday music does to us. It compels us to come forward in the best spirit of the season and humiliate ourselves in front of a festive crowd. Of course, sometimes it works and you experience a profoundly beautiful moment. Share your own holiday music memories, for better or worse, in the comments section.