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  • Susan Belangee

Returning to yourself

That's me in the navy patterned shirt. The conductor is Dr. Steven Sametz (we called him "Doc"), an amazing composer and choral director at Lehigh University, my alma mater. I went back this past weekend to celebrate Doc's last concert before he retires at the end of this academic year. He has been at Lehigh for 45 years and has had a magnificent career. Alumni were invited to sing a piece Doc wrote, "I Have Had Singing," during his final concert, and there was no question in my mind - I was going to be there this one last time.

With all of Doc's accomplishments, the one that stands out the most to me, and is testimony to who he is as a human being, is his ability to remember students' names from across the years. Watching Doc greet his former students this weekend was magical to me.

I've known only one other person who could do that - my high school band director, Lew Dutrow. It didn't matter how much time had passed, when Mr. D. saw you, you were greeted with an enormous smile and your name followed by "how's it going?" And he truly meant that; it wasn't just a nicety or to make conversation. He really wanted to know how it was going for you.

I'm not sure if this gift of recalling students' names is unique to music educators, but it might be. I don't know if Doc or Mr D. would agree with me, but it certainly seems to be part of it. Maybe it's because the making and sharing of musical greatness between people is so personal and deep that it creates a bond. Or maybe it's because these two men were just "cut from the same cloth," taking the time to fully attend to their students. Or maybe it happens when your passion and your purpose align in the most profound way, affecting everyone involved in the process.

I would like to believe that's the answer. I know my life was indelibly marked by my musical experiences in high school and college. Poise under pressure, listening to harmonize with others, actively participating in and growing a community - I count these as some of the significant strengths that grew from my involvement in vocal and instrumental music.

So this weekend was a chance to relive some amazing moments with lifelong friends. On Sunday, there was a lovely brunch with speeches and more honoring of Doc. But the part I was looking forward to the most was singing some more. Doc had selected a few pieces from across the decades for this group of alumni and current students to sing together. Somehow we fit this huge group into a rehearsal room; the current stage manager just kept bringing more chairs in. Every warm-up begins with stretching and back rubs while we sing various vowel sounds or syllables in scale or arpeggio form. Ah, the back rubs! We made sure to introduce ourselves to each other if the person we were touching was a stranger; but they weren't really strangers because we had all been in choir.

We started singing the piece "I Got Shoes," which was one I sang in my years at Lehigh. This time, though, I sang alto because let's face it - when you haven't sung for a while, singing soprano isn't all that pretty! Even though it was a different voice part, it was all familiar enough that the notes just came easily. So did the tears; looking around the room there were many of us with tears rolling down our cheeks as we sang. I turned to my good friend, Jill, and the way she described it was so fitting - this was restorative.

Preparing for this weekend, I realized how much I missed the singing, and I had forgotten who I became because of it, and who I still am. Singing again at Lehigh, with Doc and so many friends, was restorative, a beautiful reconnection with myself, a returning to a time and place where my own passion and purpose was taking shape. I am who I am because of those experiences. I needed that reminder.

My passion and purpose has remained constant even though the paths and forms it has taken have varied. I want to be of help to others; it is who I have always been. Titles along the way have included professor, counselor, wife, mother, and now consultant and trainer. I'm discovering that these new titles add dimensions that have left me somewhat lost and disconnected. This weekend was just what I needed. The energy that came from awakening that dormant part of myself has rejuvenated me. I once again can see clearly that I am passionate about and meant to help others. Now, though, it's in the business arena and also as the creator of a training program. Using the strengths I developed long ago, I will create community and strengthen morale and productivity, and I will train others to do what I have done for the last 25 years. It's a full circle moment, and it is incredible!

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