It was only singing- men's voices, although it sounded almost like a single voice.
O come, o come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel.
The haunting melody resonated in that dark, cavernous room, and I thought, "What a beautiful recording." I thought it was nice to have some recorded music playing while the next choir came onstage. I could see the members of the next choir making their way down the aisles, and I perked up, because it looked like they were wearing costumes. Over the ethereal, melancholy choral music I could also hear a slight tinkling, jingling, a soft rustling as they made their way to the stage, and the dim light of the stage played off the glittering parts of their gowns and tunics.
But then as they made their way onstage-- the rich velvety jewel tones of their stunning attire coming into full view in the light, transforming the space with a magical, royal presence-- I realized that they were the ones making the ethereal music, and my mouth fell open in surprise.
As the performance continued I realized that they were performing with no director in sight. How can you have a choir that sings together without a director? As they sang, they moved easily with the music and they looked at each other, as if the song was a private group conversation, and we were all just listening in.
Even the songs themselves sounded like conversations. They were intricate, with so many moving pieces-- as soon as I fell in love with a particular chord it was gone, as if it had been carried off on a breeze, but it was always replaced by another chord, or another moving part that tickled my ears and made me hold my breath again. They seemed to just know when to crescendo, and when to clip a word, and when to take a breath, all without the guiding hand of a conductor- and without the aid of any accompaniment. They were in themselves like a perfectly tuned instrument; their tone was pure, their pronunciation impeccable. It was like nothing I'd ever heard.
In short, I was fascinated. They were amazing.
And that was the first time I ever heard the Fairmont Senior High School Madrigal Chamber Singers.
Obviously, I knew what choir I wanted to join when I reached high school, and I couldn't wait. I suffered through a year of Freshman Chorus, then lined up with my friends to audition for the prestigious madrigal choir (my brother had done the same and had gotten in the year before). I knew my voice wasn't very strong, and I didn't have that neat vibrato that so many of the other girls had. I was still young. But I could hold a tune. And I hoped that would be enough.
To make a long story short, it was enough, and the following year I joined the ranks of the alto section of the Fairmont Senior High School Madrigal Chamber Choir.
And that's when I got to know Mr. Bunner.
I think my first indication that he was different from your average teacher was when we got a student teacher in his class. When our student teacher arrived, she looked as nervous as if she were arriving for an audience with the Queen of England. She stammered something about what an honor it was to work with Mr. Bunner, and how thrilled she was to work with a choir of our caliber, and how she couldn't believe that of all the student teacher placements SHE got this one. She said everyone she knew in the WVU music program was green with envy. She was practically giddy.
I remember most of us just kind of laughing about it, but she was right. Our group was special, a fact that I think I took for granted during most of my time in it.
We never lost a competition we entered. Never. Never anything less than first place in all categories, and Grand Champion of the entire thing. We competed with magnet schools, schools for the arts, with intensive specialty choir programs. And we-- a group of high school kids from a little town in West Virginia-- beat them, handily, every time.
Usually during a choir competition, judges use a voice recorder and speak into it during your performance to give you notes. We rarely ended up listening to those tapes because they usually sounded like this:
"Wow, beautiful costumes. Lovely opening."
And then a whole lot of silence. One judge even said, "I'm just going to be quiet now because I just want to listen."
We had judges request our CD (it was the nineties, but we were getting asked for CDs so often we finally had one professionally recorded). One judge said, point blank, "You are, hands down, the best high school choir I have ever heard." (Side note: That particular judge was a former member of the Grammy-Award-winning a cappella choir Chanticleer, of which Mr. Bunner was a huge, huge fan.)
We were even invited by the governor of West Virginia to represent the state for a special 50 states musical showcase at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. (I remember it was snowing outside as we sang there in the Grand Hall. Magical.)
I'd like to think that all of this was because we were all unusually talented, but the fact that the Madrigals were so good for years before any of us had joined, and continued to be good for years after all of us were gone, means that the common denominator wasn't us.
It was Mr. Bunner.
Mr. Bunner was quite tall, with a face that might have resembled Santa Claus had he ever grown a beard and had his hair turn white (his hair was brown and he had a mustache). He was generally soft spoken, with a resonant baritone voice, and had a perpetually content expression on his face. It was the expression of a man who loved what he did for a living. He loved music, and it showed.
Mr. Bunner had a mischievous sense of humor. He was always poised and articulate, but sometimes he let his inner high school boy slip out (he loved making us groan with a little teasing innuendo). He was endlessly passionate about music, unfailingly kind, but also firm. He had high expectations of us all. We were his kids, and he was the patriarch of our musical family. None of us were keen to disappoint him.
And we didn't. He was so proud of us, and he loved showing us off whenever he got the chance-- especially if he discovered a spot with great acoustics. As an a cappella choir we could sing anywhere and so we would sing everywhere-- at hotels on trips, on the bus, in a castle in Canada, standing in line waiting outside a restaurant-- even inside the restaurant as we sang a beautifully harmonious and moving blessing on our food.
In short, Mr. Bunner did flash mobs before flash mobs were cool.
And, oddly enough, we were never embarrassed by it. We knew how good we were. We knew that people would stop in their tracks, would gather round, would start snapping photos of us (with actual cameras- this was before cell phone cameras) recording us with their camcorders, and start murmuring appreciatively.
So we'd sing even when Mr. Bunner wasn't around, because he'd taught us to own it, to take pride in it, and to appreciate what a cool skill it was to be able make music wherever we were. And besides, it was FUN! We'd be standing in line for rides at amusement parks and do a quick role call to see if we had at least one of each part and then just start singing while we waited. We'd sing at parties, or while we were just hanging out at each other's homes. Some of my guy friends (and my brother) started arranging pop songs for men's quartets and octets so they could watch the girls swoon as they serenaded them.
And that was another great thing about Mr. Bunner-- he showed guys what a masculine thing it was to be musical. There was no such thing as "choir nerds" at our school. There were the Men's Choir studs-- the guys who took the stage in their khakis, light blue shirts, navy blue sport coats, and red ties, looking preppy and (to every girl in the room including me) pretty hot. And when they opened their mouths and started singing Billy Joel songs? Well...let's just say they broke a lot of hearts.
But he took care of us ladies as well-- I remember my first year of Madrigals having to sit through a required professional makeup artistry class. Mr. Bunner appreciated the beauty of women (in a respectful way, of course), so he made sure that we all learned to do stage makeup properly. He told us that music is expressive, and if no one can see our beautiful features, then they can't get the full effect of the music (don't worry-- on special occasions the guys got to wear makeup too.)
Most girls learn to do makeup from their mothers. I learned to do makeup from my choir director.
He made sure we were taken care of musically as well-- anyone who sings alto knows that it's a part that often gets the short straw when it comes to choral pieces, but I remember one year we sang a piece where the altos got the starring role, with a low, sultry, romantic melody. I still think wistfully of that piece whenever I'm stuck singing an F over and over again on an alto part...
Mr. Bunner was also a man of vision. He had big ideas, and looking back, it astounds me to think of the audacity he had to have to do some of the things he did.
We never just sang. We put on productions. Our concerts and performances had speaking parts with poetry and monologues, dancing (while singing, of course), even a 10-foot may pole one year. A may pole. Complete with a dance that went to a song we sang as we neatly braided the may pole ribbons around the pole.
This was before Google and YouTube existed. How on earth did he figure out how to do that?
One year, he decided to replace the spring concert with a musical. A full-on musical. "Once Upon a Mattress." It was a massive production, but fortunately, thanks to our elaborate Madrigals costumes, we were in pretty good shape as far as wardrobe went. And it was a boost to the Madrigals as well, because Mr. Bunner managed to charm the drama department and several thespians ended up succumbing and turning into Madrigal singers the following year.
Every single year at Christmastime we had the Madrigal Dinners. The dinners took place at a ballroom at WVU's Mountainlair. We performed for around two hundred people a night for four nights, with weeks of rehearsals leading up to the week of the dinners. A $30 ticket got you a fully catered four-course meal, served by professional waitstaff, with approximately two hours of Madrigals entertainment.
And speaking of entertainment- did I mention that Mr. Bunner was also really good about celebrating (exploiting?) all of our many talents? One year he noticed one young man in the group who was particularly witty and liked to ham it up. So Mr. Bunner declared that he would be the court jester, and the tradition continued. Each year the jester would entertain crowds with a funny monologue, and have free rein to goof off at will. One year we had two jesters, a guy and a girl.
Once we had a Madrigal Singer who was also an amateur magician, so Mr. Bunner appointed him the court wizard. (Come to think of it, we were kind of like a little kingdom and Mr. Bunner was our king. His wish was our command.) That year the Madrigal Dinners included a magic show portion in which "Merlin" would make solid rings lock and unlock, and even made the "jesteress" float in midair.
As for my band friends and me, Mr. Bunner decided to put our instrumental acumen on display as well, and created a "Madrigal Minstrel Band," complete with flutes (the jester and me), a hammered dulcimer, violin (aka, fiddle), and bodhran drum (which no one actually knew how to play yet, but he taught my brother), and sometimes guitar. We played our own pieces in between the a cappella choral numbers, often as background music to speaking parts, and the final chord of the music would magically be the exact right chord we needed for our starting notes for the next song, eliminating the need for a pitch pipe. It was beautiful-- and it was brilliant.
Students who played the piano were drafted into service as accompanists for pieces like the Hallelujah Chorus (yes, we had students who were talented enough to manage that one, incredibly enough), a piece which we sang faithfully, every single Christmas, with the entire school's choir department, any alumni who wished to join us onstage, and anyone in the audience who wanted to be a part of a massive choir. (Another side note: You've really never lived until you've sung the Hallelujah Chorus along with several hundred other people in a high school auditorium with great acoustics.)
So what did all of this do for us, his students?
Well, it made music cool. It made music enticing. I can't even begin to tell you the number of students who had never sung before, never even considered singing in a choir, who saw Madrigals and wanted to be a part of it. And yes, maybe it was because we got to miss so much school (one of the ways we raised funds for our trips was by doing paid singing gigs for holiday office parties around town- again, one of the perks of being an a cappella choir) but it was also because it looked like so much fun-- because it was fun! One year we had over fifty members (which is an unwieldy number for a madrigal choir) because Mr. Bunner couldn't resist giving all of those musical hopefuls a chance. They may not have been great singers to start with, but he saw their potential and transformed them into a perfect piece in his fine-tuned instrument.
Another effect of Mr. Bunner's influence that I only realized years later was that a surprisingly large number of former Madrigals went into careers involving education, and specifically music education. Three became band directors, another a youth music pastor, another an elementary school teacher, another an elementary school assistant principal-- and those were just from my circle of friends. I think that Mr. Bunner exemplified what it looked like to find joy in music and joy in teaching, and he passed that joy on to his students, inspiring them to want such a career for themselves.
He also taught us all what it meant to have stage presence. He taught us that wherever our focus was, that was where the audience's focus would be, and that while we were onstage it was our responsibility to direct the audience's attention appropriately, and never be a distraction from whomever was performing or speaking. We were to be poised and graceful at all times.
I hadn't even realized the power of this until the reunion concert held recently in Mr. Bunner's honor, when his wife took a few minutes before the final song to speak about him. It occurred to me that in the several minutes while she was speaking, we all remained poised and perfectly silent with our folders open to the next song. No one slouched or shifted their weight or lowered their arms. We all stayed stock still and respectful of the speaker, not because anyone had told us to, but because Mr. Bunner had instilled that stage decorum into us. It had become a shared performance habit learned from years of his careful tutelage.
Probably the most important legacy left by Mr. Bunner was the sheer love of music he passed on to each and every student he taught. He didn't just teach notes and words, he taught feelings and meaning. He brought renaissance chamber music to life for some 20th century teenagers.
I remember having just suffered a bad breakup and hardly being able to make it through "Too Much I Once Lamented" without falling apart. "Weep, O Mine Eyes" wasn't exactly helping matters either. "Il Est Belle Et Bon," on the other hand, was a French song that somehow perfectly described gossiping-- a topic familiar to every high school student-- through music, and thanks to Mr. Bunner it made perfect sense to us even though most of us didn't speak French. Even more entertaining was "Allen a Dale," a slightly inappropriate and humorous tongue-in-cheek song that none of us would have gotten without Mr. Bunner's "helpful" wink-wink, nudge-nudge guidance.
But it wasn't all high school angst and goofiness. Mr. Bunner was also a very spiritual man, and as a result, much of our repertoire was religious. There was no line drawn between the secular and the spiritual in Madrigals. I learned several passages of scripture by heart thanks to the musical selections that wrote them into my soul, and I still draw strength and comfort from songs like, "Lift Thine Eyes" and "The Lord Bless You and Keep You."
The best thing about having been a student of Mr. Bunner's was that he nurtured a musical seed inside of me that blossomed into a flower, which is now nestling new musical seeds inside of each of my children.
When I attended the reunion concert, I brought my daughter along with me. She's twelve now-- the same age as I was when I first heard the Madrigals sing. She and I have always shared in a love of music, especially choral music. After our concert rehearsal, she said, "Mom, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir can't sing at General Conference this weekend. Because apparently they're HERE. WOW."
After the concert she said to me with tears in her eyes, "Mom, I never knew Mr. Bunner, but now I feel like I kind of do. And I'm just so glad you got to have him as a teacher."
What she said struck me as profound, because I know that she felt that way because of her love of music, which I have encouraged and nurtured, because Mr. Bunner nurtured that same love in me. Her gratitude for a man she's never met stems from an appreciation of music that was passed down from that man to her mother, and will continue to be carried on now through her.
And that is Mr. Bunner's enduring legacy.
C. Douglas Bunner