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“A Perfect Voice” by Katherine Cowley

Clara took her place next to the sister missionaries on the pew. She’d agreed to attend the Mormon church today because there was a “special musical number.” The chapel was rather plain, but it should have decent acoustics, and there was a grand piano and an organ. Not a pipe organ, but at least the Mormons had an organ.

She removed her moleskin journal where she kept a record of every musical performance she attended. Using the program, she transcribed the details: date, location, singer, accompanist, and the song, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which was one of her favorites.

She leaned toward the missionaries. “Do you know if Ashley Wilson is a soprano, a mezzosoprano, an alto…?”

“I’m not sure,” said Sister Jones.

“She has a beautiful voice though,” added Sister Perez.

A family with a baby and three young kids sat down in the pew in front of her (the Mormons obviously didn’t have a nursery or children’s service). The woman immediately turned around, introduced herself as Gabriella Sanders, and welcomed Clara to the “ward.”

“Sister Sanders is the ward choir director,” said Sister Jones.

“Oh!” said Clara. “Where did you study music?”

“I actually studied psychology, but I’ve always loved singing. Do you sing or play an instrument?”

“Not really,” said Clara. She’d played piano and clarinet through the end of high school, and taken years of voice lessons. But when she auditioned for a vocal performance BFA, she had been rejected. After two more years of voice lessons and two more rejections, she pursued a BA in music history. Now she had an office job, but she frequently attended the opera, the symphony, and churches with a musical reputation. She might not be good enough to perform, but she had a good ear, and her studies had given her excellent taste.

The meeting began with a hymn she’d never heard before. The only time she ever sang was during congregational hymns, and she enjoyed “O My Father” so much that she wrote down the poet’s name in her journal. They sang another hymn before the Eucharist, and then she waited impatiently through the ritual (which used water instead of wine) and two sermons (one of which was delivered by a teenager who clearly did not like public speaking). Gabriella’s baby did not make it through the second sermon, and the woman left with the child. Other parents would do well to follow her example and take their own children to the crying room.

Finally it was time for the musical number, and Ashley Wilson and her accompanist took the stand.

Clara leaned forward as the music began. Ms. Wilson’s opening phrase was a little flat, just enough to be grating. The performance did not improve. Her voice was weak and rather nasal. She smiled so much that she couldn’t form her vowels properly; any good singer knew you should smile with your eyes, not your mouth.

Ms. Wilson sang the second verse a capella and went so flat that by the time the piano came back in for the third verse, she was in quite a different key. It only took a few notes for her to correct herself, but still. The worse part was the finale—Ms. Wilson could, strictly speaking, hit the high notes. But not very well.

Ms. Wilson beamed at the end of the performance, and Clara looked around at the happy, grateful people seated throughout the chapel. A few even had tears running down their faces.

“Wasn’t that beautiful?” whispered Sister Jones.

Ms. Wilson had sung with feeling, but that was the only concession Clara would make. She wished she could erase the entry from her moleskin journal, but she had used a pen. Next time she visited a new church, she would wait until after the performance to record it.

“I’ll be back,” Clara whispered to the sister missionaries as she walked out, though she had no intention of returning. A Presbyterian church in a neighboring city had a great line-up planned for today’s services: the best children’s choir in the region and a guest opera singer who had performed in Carnegie Hall. If traffic was normal, she would arrive in time.

Gabriella was rocking her fussy baby in the hall.

“I loved sitting in front of you for the hymns,” said Gabriella. “You have a perfect voice for—”

“I do not have a perfect voice,” said Clara flatly.

Gabriella smiled. “Fair enough. Most people don’t. But I was actually going to say that your voice would be perfect for the ward choir.”

“Sorry, but I’m not interested.”

“I think sometimes God needs perfect voices. But other times, God just needs us. He takes whatever we’ve got and makes it into something more. Even if we’re not perfect, He still wants to hear our voices.”

The God that Clara knew could summon choirs of perfect angels. Why would he need her voice?

“If you change your mind, we’re practicing right after church. I have a beautiful arrangement of ‘O My Father.’”

Gabriella’s baby screamed again, and Clara took the opportunity to slip away.

She trudged across the parking lot, analyzing Gabriella’s words. The woman had been sincere, but Clara could not join a choir. She would always know that she was not quite good enough. She climbed into her car and closed the door firmly behind her.

Yet as she drove, she found herself humming the new hymn, “O My Father.” One line had lodged in her memory: “For a wise and glorious purpose thou hast placed me here on earth.” She had thought her purpose was to enjoy music, not to create it. Life had taught her that a desire and love for something were not sufficient. But she could not shake Gabriella’s invitation.

After a few more miles, Clara turned her car around and headed back to the Mormon church.

A Q&A with Katherine Cowley about this story is available here.  

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