Member Spotlight: Brooks Firestone
Brooks Firestone was looking for an activity that would enliven his retirement years. Little did he know that choral singing would become his passion. Chorus America asked him to describe his unlikely journey.
You started singing in choirs at the ripe young age of 65—and then you wrote a book about it called Evensong. Tell us about how you came to be a choral singer.
Well, I had no singing background. When I was young I played the drums and could thump along, but that was it. And I sang in the shower. Songs like, “Oh what a beautiful morning.” But it was not a part of my life to sing. I was in business and doing other things.
But then it occurred to me that my wife, Kate, was having more fun in the choir than I was in the congregation. That was St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Los Olivos, California. When a voice coach joined the choir, I hired him to teach me the anthem for the week. So I would go into rehearsal sort of knowing the thing. And I joined the choir.
My coach’s wife led a community chorus and she told me, "You know, you could do this if you wanted to. Why don’t you join our Christmas program?" So I did and just loved it.
I continued to take lessons. I needed to learn the basics of technique, but I also had to gain the confidence. I had to change my mindset to being able to stand up in front of an audition committee or stand with the basses and first, know when to come in, and second, to come in!
How hard was it for you to learn how to read music at that stage of life?
It was hard, but I was motivated. It was just something I wanted to do. It was like being in a foreign country and you have a girlfriend and you want to learn the language. It was work but it wasn't work.
After I had invested about four years in this, my coach mentors moved away. So I was stuck. But there was a serious group in town—the Santa Barbara Choral Society. I studied for a year more intensely to audition for that group. The audition, which I write about in the book, was traumatic, but they accepted me. And Kate was accepted also…and we started this new career.
You write in your book about how important it is for couples to find “late-life activities” that can be nurtured and shared together. Singing became that for both of you.
Yes, and it’s amazing because I had not looked at myself as a singer for the first 65 years of my life. So to be singing with the Choral Society in Europe, to be singing in places like the Vatican, was beyond my wildest dreams.
The next year, we traded our house in California for an apartment in London and I auditioned for a London chorus and was accepted. We were there for three months and sang a concert with them. And then we sang the Verdi Requiem in Royal Albert Hall with the Barts Choir, one of the largest choruses in the world, 400 members. It was one of those “pinch yourself” moments again.
It occurred to me that this was fulfilling our retirement years and how meaningful it was to us to have this in our lives. Our grandparents did not have this healthy period of older life—they did not expect it. I am 76 and I don't feel that. So many of my friends are living longer and healthier than ever before.
Some people have the idea that they won't be able to sing into older age, but there you were, just starting out at 65!
That's the beauty of it. I expect to sing into my eighties and lots of people do. There are so many opportunities. A few years ago Kate and I discovered the Berkshire Choral Festival. We have sung now in Montreal and in Salzburg. There we were traveling, like retired people do, but with a purpose. It was so exciting. Now the world is open to us.
The point of the book is that retired people can do things. Not everybody can sing, but they should if they can. But you need to find something that you are passionate about. And don't be afraid of pursuing something that maybe you felt like you were too old to pursue. You're probably younger than you think you are.
How has Chorus America been helpful to you?
I recently came on the board of the Santa Barbara Choral Society and we wrestle with programming, with fundraising, with organization, with everything that everybody here thinks about. Just to be able to talk to someone from Kansas City who is doing the same thing we are doing is fascinating. Our new president of the board, a fellow bass, came to the Chorus America Conference and he said just sitting in one fundraising seminar was worth the whole price of admission.
Brooks Firestone's book Evensong is available online.