A Song for Columbine : Music for a Memorial

On Tuesday, April 20, two teenagers at Columbine High School killed a teacher and 12 classmates, and wounded dozens more before turning their weapons on themselves. It was a brutal, senseless crime that has shocked and outraged the nation and the world. Assistant editor Cynthia Vaughn and the Colorado-based Ars Nova Singers had the honor of singing at the public memorial service held on April 25.

The call from the governor’s office came Friday. Almost immediately director Thomas Morgan began calling singers and assembling repertoire. The Ars Nova Singers waited for instructions and details, which finally arrived Saturday evening by e-mail, as singers canceled other jobs or found substitutes. Knowing how huge the crowds would be on Sunday, we arranged to meet at 10:00 in the morning to carpool for a service that was set to begin at 1:00 in the afternoon.

The steps to a suburban Littleton multiplex movie house had been transformed into a stage for the memorial service, and by 11:00 a.m. tens of thousands of people had already gathered in the parking lot. Across the street at Clement Park, mourners were drawn to the huge makeshift memorial site strewn with rain- and snow-dampened flowers, letters, and teddy bears. Several hundred feet away in the park, an official memorial wreath had been placed in a highly secured area. This is where we were to sing while dignitaries and family members placed flowers in honor and memory of those who had been killed.

We arrived in groups of three, four, five–each having a different story of security checks, police and military escorts, traffic, and parking. One singer arriving at the last minute had walked an hour and a half to reach the memorial site. We wore formal black concert dress in the wet grass and mud, coats buttoned tightly against the chilling wind and intermittent rain. We rehearsed briefly as passers-by paused to listen before continuing their pilgrimage. Occasionally, reporters’ cameras would appear–snap! snap! “How do you spell that? A-r-s-n-o-v-a? Where are you from?”–before dashing off to capture the next image. Singers fighting to contain emotions sometimes wiped away tears or stopped momentarily to take a deep breath and swallow. Twice the director grimaced, faced the sky, and willed the tears to stop. “If the music and words are too much to handle,” he advised, “just try to mentally analyze the chords.”

An hour passed. The service in the theater parking lot began. We couldn’t see the stage from our vantage point in the park but we could hear the speakers and watch the mass of humanity that continued to arrive. Finally, after another hour or so, we were led through barricades, past bomb-sniffing dogs, to the grassy hill near the memorial wreath. As we waited for the bagpipe processional to lead dignitaries and families to the site, cold rain began to fall. “Would we sing in the rain?” we wondered. The decision was unanimous–yes, of course. Someone offered to hold an umbrella for violin soloist Fred Jewell, but thankfully the rain stopped.

Loud thunder burst the sky as fighter jets in the “missing man” position roared overhead. Soprano Christina Lynn-Craig suddenly sobbed and hid her face in her hands. “They were so young,” she said quietly. I reached for her hand, my eyes brimming with tears. Another singer gave her a hug.

Then the service ended and more than 100 bagpipers began their quarter-mile processional to the park. Finally, it was time. We gathered music and shed our overcoats and waited for the last drone of the bagpipes as Vice President Gore and his wife, Governor Owens and his wife, General Colin Powell, and others paused at the wreath, just a few yards from us. The sound of a pitch pipe was followed by the sound of a cappella voices and a violin descant. Thankfully, I could not see the families of the children and teacher who had died unless I used my peripheral vision. I stared straight ahead, willing my eyes to stay on the conductor. Focus–song after song. As the men sang a closing spiritual, I watched a tall Asian woman standing by herself, lost in the music, lost in her own thoughts and sadness. Her shoulders began to shake and tears streamed down her face. From several feet away, an elderly woman walked over and put her arms around the woman, a stranger reaching out. The music ended, but that song of kindness remained.

As we gathered our coats and belongings, I regretted that I hadn’t brought any flowers to place on the memorial wreath. We started to walk away, when I asked my companions to wait. I took out my copy of Bill Douglas’ song “Deep Peace” and nestled the sheet music deep among the roses and lilies. The only thing I had to give was my song, but for the moment, it seemed enough.

Established in 1986 by Thomas Edward Morgan, the Ars Nova Singers of Boulder, Colorado specialize in a cappella music of the Renaissance and the 20th century.

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.