Singing With Gusto

My high school choral director also coached the school’s varsity football team. This did not end up how you might think. Jiman Duncan was highly qualified for both pursuits, and both groups thrived. The football team won all but one game that year, including the league championship. The chorus and a cappella groups experienced a revival, performing a broad repertoire, and as you might imagine, singing with gusto. We were coached to sing physically, boldly, and with confidence, a great step in the development of our personalities and self-esteem. We went sharp every time, sometimes by huge margins, but that just added an amusing coda to each piece.

Mr. Duncan took us everywhere. We performed at schools, in retirement homes, in shopping centers, anywhere that welcomed our sea shanties, classical pieces, and Beach Boys tunes. One day, Mr. Duncan announced that we were heading to Alabama for spring break. From Massachusetts to Alabama? This was about as foreign a destination as possible while remaining within the 48 continental states. To Tuscaloosa we went, to a memorable week of humid weather, more retirement homes and schools, and fleeting adventures with our peer hosts.

Mr. Duncan cast a formidable figure, cut for both opera and linebacker, or so my memory suggests. Yet he consistently projected positive energy and confidence in his charges. One week, he took our music class to the Boston Symphony Hall to hear the BSO. While we students sat in the back, Jiman waited in line for a subscriber’s returned ticket, and ended up sitting in the very front row of the balcony, conspicuous to all. The instant the last note sounded, he leaped to his feet and shouted, “Bravo!” before a single other pair of hands even clapped. I admired the audacity, passion for the music, and appreciation of the performers expressed within this split second. I wonder whether he was solely experiencing a personal moment, or whether the act was partly for our benefit.

That was in 1986. This year, I was invited to sing in a choral group for the first time in 27 years. Our music directors decided to assemble a faculty/staff choir to perform Handel’s Messiah with the student orchestra. It was most definitely small and informal, a collection of our teachers and staff who were willing to devote a few lunch periods to rehearsal. It was extremely refreshing to take time away from curriculum and professional development to sing. I also imagine that students were a little surprised at the faces in the choir, as we adults are typecast by our jobs. “I didn’t know they could sing!”

Singing in the faculty-staff choir brought back many memories of singing in high school. I wondered where Mr. Duncan was now, and whether he might appreciate a brief note of thanks and memory. Google delivered the sad news. Jiman Duncan passed away in 2003, at the age of 58. According to Bangor Daily News, he died of prostate cancer. I also found out (I’m sure I forgot) that Jiman had a degree in theology in addition to his choral and sporting skills. The web search also turned up a colorful account of rehearsal with the colorful Mr. Duncan, part of the author’s journey into spiritual life. Finally, a Rutland, Vermont events calendar lists Jiman Duncan  as the 1973 conductor of (yes, you guessed it) Handel’s Messiah. I cannot thank Mr. Duncan personally, but I will add to his public memory on the web.

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