She Walks in Beauty

I have a confession to make today. While it is typically a grave sin to “self-insert” in one’s fiction, some would say I did just that with the use of this song in Black Dust. I am unapologetic, however, as it was a song that has stuck with me the decades since learning, competing with and performing “She Walks In Beauty” in my high school ensemble.

I came from a fantastic high school music program, both choral and instrumental. Both programs expected the best, and nothing less. We competed at the highest level and received the highest marks every time. It inspired me to study music and, more importantly, to take pride in my work–that if it wasn’t my best, it wasn’t worth doing at all.

In choir, we learned to sightread using a system called solfège. Many choral programs (fewer nowadays, thank heavens) teach via rote by hearing a line, mimicking it back, over and over until the piece is “learned.” To me, that’s not learning a damned thing. That’s memorization–becoming a human recorder; you know nothing of the musical aspects of the piece itself. Why bother?

Now, for a small music lesson: you might be familiar with solfège from the song “Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music. Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. Notes on a simple scale. But, what happens when the music wavers from that simple scale, when there are lifts and falls with in it–accidentals in the printed score? Solfège accommodates that as well with “lifted” or “fallen” syllables to each note. Do lifts to di. Re falls to ra. Mi is already a lifted pitch, in that, in a major scale, there are no notes between mi and fa. It sounds complicated, but for teaching and learning music, it is really an excellent aural, visual and complete systems of the basics of melodic singing. (The rusty musician in me could go on for hours, but I will spare you.)

And so it is with Emmett’s class when Toby makes his first visit. Emmett is teaching them a new song, and it’s complicated. It doesn’t always rest in the ear as expected, making the learning of it more complicated.

Rehearsal was in full swing, and no one noticed Toby walk through the door. Emmett was in full command of the thirty-five-voice a cappella group, the same group he had brought to New York. His cane rested against the side of the piano and his waistcoat was draped across the corner of his music stand.

If Toby’s musical memory served, the group was working on “She Walks in Beauty,” a monstrously difficult number for the most advanced groups. And, judging by the use of solfège—do-re-mi—in place of lyrics, they were in early stages of rehearsal.

“Okay, altos… ” Emmett began after he had stopped a questionable phrase execution.

“We know, we know,” one of the girls whined. “It sucks.”

“If it sounds like that next week, it’ll suck. Right now, it needs work.”

“Altos, again. Do-mi-mi-fi,” Emmett directed, and sang the line. He pointed his thumb up to help them get the lift of the unexpected final pitch.

If you’re curious, here is the section they were working on, altos outlined in red–do-mi-mi-fi. Note the raised pitch on “bright.” If you have a good ear, see if you can hear it in the audio file. It’s in the first ten bars, so you should hear it early on.


Black Dust, a story about second chances and the healing power of music, is available from Interlude Press and all book retailers. Links for online purchase of both print and e-book are on the sidebar.

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