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I’ve lost a mentor

When John Votaw died Oct. 28 after a long battle with leukemia, I lost a mentor. John basically taught me how to sing. He most assuredly taught me how to sing tenor. Years and years ago, the choir at First United Methodist Church came down to sit in the congregation at some special service. John, his wife Marsha and Joyce Hutchinson sat on the pew in front of us. The closing hymn was one I knew from childhood and I apparently sang it well enough. When the service was over, John and Joyce turned and asked me if I would join the choir. I am sure Marsha pushed them. I was flattered but did not think I was good enough. I was also intimidated. John was a trained tenor, Marsha is a strong alto and Joyce has a magnificent, operatic soprano voice that was obviously also well trained. They kept pushing and I reluctantly relented and began singing with the choir. I had no idea what I was doing. Though I had sung in school choruses and occasionally at tiny Ailey Baptist Church, I could not and still cannot read music. I was assigned to the small tenor section. I don’t recall us ever having more than four tenors. I sat next to John and began to memorize lyrics and matching them to the notes. I do not know an A from a G. I have no concept of keys, sharps and flats or majors and minors. But I had John next to me and, though his voice was soft, John was always on the note. Slowly I perfected my version of reading music by listening to John. Now, if I can hear the first few notes of a piece or the first few after a key change, I can follow the written notes up and down though I do not know their alphabetic designations. John taught me where the tenor line is and helped me learn rests, when to breathe and the difference in quarter, half and full notes and the beats allotted to them. He also taught me composition designations like piano and forte that tell you when to sing soft or loud. He did not do this by instructing me unless I asked a specific question. I just listened to his meticulous, pitch perfect performances and learned from them. Those lessons went on quietly for about 20 years. I was learning from a master. John was an engineer and engineers are almost always meticulous. This was confirmed at his memorial service. I was not surprised to hear he had files on every appliance in his home, noting when and where they were purchased and the dates of the last service visits. Stories like that were told over and over at the visitation and during the service by his sons. They also talked of his love for music. He passed that on to them and to me as well. John also gave me confidence. The first time I was asked to sing a short solo section of a song at church, I was near paralyzed with fear. John talked me down off the ledge and taught me a breathing exercise that helped me to relax. I use it nearly every day when anxiety strikes whether it involves singing or not. As his illness progressed, John missed more and more time at choir practice and in the loft on Sundays. Now I am the only tenor left. I think of John every time I open a piece of music. They are not totally foreign to me now thanks to him. I often ask myself ‘˜How would John sing this?’. I miss my mentor John but will always be thankful for all that he taught me. I know he is singing with an all-star choir of angels now and is right at home among them.

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