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Shipman's music teachers: Eleanor Vaughan

The First Presbyterian Church in Hobbs, NM is a medium-sized church for the town. The nave seats about 200. Thanks to the generosity of donors long gone, it has a real pipe organ, and as long as I was living in this town, Eleanor Vaughan sat at this fine organ and directed the choir.

My initial impression of Mrs. Vaughan was that she was a very serious person. She rarely smiled, a contrast to her rambunctious husband ``Rattlesnake Bill,'' a terrific basso profundo who was able to get away with much more clowning around than anyone else in the choir. He was serious when it counted, but middle-American Presbyterianism as practiced in that time and place was often so deadly sober that I appreciated his efforts to lighten us all up. His characteristic remark at the beginning of rehearsals was, ``Let's just sing three choruses of `Shall we gather by the river' and call it a night.''

But Mrs. Vaughan, in rehearsal and performance, was invariably all business. She was one of those feared and respected authority figures we youngsters dreaded. But as I grew, I soon realized the important differences between authority figures who are there because they were hired to kick ass and enjoy doing so (viz., Vice Principal DeJarnett at Highland Junior High), and those who are there because they demand results in complex and difficult pursuits.

I have nothing but fond feelings for Mrs. Vaughan, who lived well into her 90s and passed away only quite recently. Her sternness was quite necessary, especially dealing with fractious younguns. Discipline is no fun for those who have to push their boundaries, for whatever reason, but it's an absolute necessity in time-critical team efforts, such as music and battle.

Thanks to good preparation in sacred choral singing from the fourth grade on by our church member Mrs. Freitag, I was doing a credible job on most of the hymns, and had gone out for the youth choir that occasionally got to sing at the odd Sunday evening service. So it was a pleasant surprise when I was tapped for the adult choir while still in high school. School kids were rarely allowed in the adult choir, but there were two powerful inducements in my case: I was a fair reader, and had a serviceable (second) tenor voice. (I guess it's just an artifact of the cultural history of Western music that there is always a much bigger supply of basses and baritones than actual tenors. I was more of an overextended baritone than a tenor, but could usually squeak out a G, although the A's in Messiah were not quite reliable. It wasn't for twenty more years, when I finally got private lessons, that I'd find out how poorly I was actually singing at the time.)

At first I felt utterly gawky and out of place around all these smooth adult types, but as with all good music teachers, Mrs. Vaughan made us feel at home and worked with our widely variable skill levels to get past the rudiments and reach that magical place where real music happens.

Soloing and other small-ensemble work is scary, and it can be hard to get into, so I'm grateful that I got a few little solos at this church, where you can screw up in front of supportive family and friends, and learn that performing isn't so scary once you get started, provided of course that you're well prepared.

It's a big, nasty, tough job running a small volunteer choir with scarce resources. Our church was better funded than a lot of other local outfits, Presbyterians being a somewhat upper-middle-class religion, but few churches really have adequate resources for the musical infrastructure. The organ was cranky and repairs slow and expensive, in the rare cases where Mrs. Vaughan couldn't do the work herself, and she got a lot better at minor repairs over the several decades she worked with that instrument. And even at a few cents a copy, sheet music adds up when you buy it in choir-sized lots. I remember a fair amount of repetition in our selection of anthems, although every year she would haul out a lot of stuff I'd never seen.

I think it would drive me crazy in a big hurry to try to run a group like this. We got one rehearsal of about an hour and a half on Wednesdays, plus a quick warmup and run-through or two of the anthem du jour on Sunday mornings before services. There's no guarantee that any given singer will show up at any given rehearsal or even performance, although it's soon obvious to everybody who's a flake and who's solid.

But, ah, when it all comes together, and there is strong emotional stuff to work with, when it's time to evoke joy or repentance or sorrow, being in a church choir is a great experience and good preparation for any singer. And Eleanor Vaughan was everything it took to bring that all out.

Thanks, ma'am.

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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2004/01/11 22:51:28