The first time I bumped into Hallelujah in a visceral way, I was eight—vulnerable and easily smitten. Our music teacher, Miss Ball, was one of my many image-of-God figures—worthy of worship. She was tall, bunched her straw-colored hair in a net tucked tight to her neck, had a baton we all obeyed, sang to us like angels do, and made solemn promises we trusted.
Miss Ball promised that if our all-girls chorus practiced our soul-notes—the ones that came from the bottom of our bellies, not our throats —we could sing The Hallelujah Chorus at the Christmas concert. She sang us sample hallelujahs. She was an alto. So was I.
“This is the music of heaven by a prodigiously famous composer named Handel, girls,” she said. I didn’t know what prodigiously meant but I fervently practiced my soul-notes at home. I didn’t know what heaven was either, but I was sure Miss Ball was a prime candidate.
Hallelujah, according to Miss Ball, was a Hebrew word, hallel— praise. “Close your eyes tight and imagine the brightest light you can.” I squished my eyes tight and envisioned the huge square flashlight my father used when we had night air raid drills in New York City. He held the light while I raced around to pull down all the black shades so no bomb would fall on us. “Now open your mouths and let that light shine in your voices, like this. Ah-lay-looo-ya, silent H.” We girls were securely under Miss Ball’s spell. I didn’t know who wanted this Hallelujah more, me or Miss Ball.
We practiced like mad, singing wide-mouthed ahs and oohs and las and yahs. I could tell Miss Ball wasn’t at all sure how this whopping choral piece would come off. But it was printed on the program; parents and God would be in attendance, so we were ready.
Hallelujah night arrived. Breathless, we stood in our rows, spiffed in white blouses and navy blue skirts, waiting. What if Miss Ball was late? Then she swept in like Loretta Young on television. My eyes popped wide open—wonderstruck. Miss Ball’s hair had escaped its net. Out it tumbled. It billowed magically in waves. She picked up her baton, tapped the music stand, shining upon us a grin of blinding radiance.
Halleluah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.Hallelujah. Ha-la’ay-loo-yah. We shone with praise.
Everyone stood for the chorus and then everyone clapped for us—maybe for God, or Handel. We took our bows. Although Miss Ball had carefully explained to us that the famous Hallelujah Chorus by the prodigious Handel was really intended for Easter not Christmas, she applauded wildly, and I never saw much difference between the two anyway—still don’t.
* * * *
All this happened just before Christmas vacation. That year Hallelujah surpassed even Santa Claus. All through the Christmas vacation I walked around singing my alto part out loud.
After vacation I was eager to see Miss Ball—and get more praise. Instead, she grinned and announced that we all should now call her Mrs. Davis.