Emily Michael


In the noisy hotel lobby, Jeanie and I take our places behind several women checking in at the front desk. We guess that they are fellow Sweet Adelines—barbershop singers who have arrived in Daytona for Regional Competition. As we step forward to offer our names and credit cards, Jeanie turns to me: "Is it too bright in here for you?"

"Absolutely," I flick one brief glance over the receptionist's shoulder. Behind the tall desk, huge windows offer a view of the sunny Florida beach. I look down, grateful for the dark surface of the desk, the small black wallet in my hand, and the even blacker Labrador in harness sitting by my left foot. Through my sunglasses, I watch as my guide dog slides to the floor, enjoying the feel of the cool tiles against his belly. While I converse with the receptionist's blurry silhouette, I bless York's dark coat—a visual anchor in an otherwise unfamiliar place.

As my fellow singers and I walk to our rooms, I steel myself for the unfriendly or intrusive comments that other handlers have warned me about. Although York and I have completed two pleasant hotel stays, I still feel compelled to prepare myself for incivility—or at least ignorance. But I meet neither of these as we traverse short flights of stairs, carpet, and tile. Instead, I listen to our porter's cheerful commentary: "Yes, this is one of my favorite weekends of the whole year! We just love having you singers staying with us."

We pause in a narrow hallway lined with the silvery doors of elevators. I should ask York to find one, but the hall is crowded with luggage carts and hotel guests; I'll test his skills another time.

In our rooms, we begin to unpack, discussing the intense schedule of the next two days. Tomorrow our quartet will enter its first competition, and Saturday, we'll compete with our chorus. Almost every moment is booked with information sessions, warmups, professional photo sessions, shuttles to the nearby auditorium, and brief meal breaks.

Though all competing quartets must adhere to the schedule, my quartet must reserve extra time for the mechanics of singing with a guide dog. As I program our few breaks into my phone, I adjust the alarms for York's breaks as well. I stash his next meal and his collapsible bowl in my purse and triple-check my supply of clean-up materials. Tomorrow morning, our quartet will appear backstage 30 minutes before the official briefing, so York can learn the competition route and practice his performance etiquette.

When my quartet came together in November 2014, we began to talk seriously about preparing for competition in April. We chose music and costumes, consulted vocal coaches, and adhered to a weekly rehearsal schedule—in addition to our three-hour chorus practices each week. With such a new sound, we needed many opportunities to rehearse and perform.

As we planned for York's role in our efforts, each member of the quartet contributed a meaningful perspective. With wider corporate experience, Jeanie insisted that no one could refuse us access, that York should be as welcome on the contest stage as a wheelchair or a white cane. Debbie, the only member with competition experience, helped me contact the administrators to schedule extra orientation. And Danielle—the owner of a Labrador who shares York's inquisitive temperament—advised me on a solid performance position: York in a down-stay and his leash securely under my foot. York kept this position during our three-hour rehearsals each week and our short performances for the public.

Because we are such a young quartet, our planning for York seems only a small piece of a larger rehearsal scheme. In practicing our onstage positions, we aren't four humans getting acclimated to a dog. We're understanding how space and comfort shape the quartet sound.

* * *

When we arrive at the auditorium, we are ushered backstage. The competition coordinator wants me to do a complete walk-through with York, so there won't be any surprises. She takes me over every detail of the backstage routine: "Here is where the shuttle will drop you off, this is the warmup room, this is the hallway where you'll wait while the previous quartet finishes. And now—watch this sharp corner—here's the backstage. It will be pretty dark back here."

I show York the corner, and he maneuvers me around the jutting edge of a table with ease. Adjusting the lights, the coordinator repeats this portion, so that we can see how York navigates in the dark. Unfazed, he performs with the same skill.

The coordinator guides us onstage, stopping at the edge to point out the lines of colored tape that mark our positions. I touch my hand to my pocket, where I've tucked a couple of treats; I intend to reward York for taking his performance position quickly. At a cue from the coordinator, we enter the stage, and Danielle helps me find my place. I settle York in his down-stay, and he relaxes against the smooth wood of the stage, perfectly calm. While he keeps his position, I offer him treats and silent praise, stroking his head and shoulders.

"And here's what the lights will be like," the coordinator says as the technicians tweak the glaring spotlight and the overheads. I close my eyes, feeling the warm light touch my face. Giving myself more time to adjust to the stage lights, I face an intense but bearable spotlight—nothing like the shards of white that I've experienced on other stages. The spotlight is not comfortable, but it's not painful either. I won't have to sing with my eyes closed.

With several repetitions of our entrance and exit for good measure, my quartet is satisfied. I am relieved, tight spirals of nervous energy giving way to the glow of excitement.

At the quartet briefing, we are joined by about seventy women – the other quartets, a few directors, and the panel of judges who will score the competitors. Without any prompting from me, the competition coordinator reminds everyone about service dog etiquette. She has even reworked how we will exit the stage to help us avoid a treacherous staircase—dark, steep, and uneven.

Listening to the judges describe their role and wish all competitors luck, I relax in my chair and breathe slowly. With York's flawless performance, I can relinquish a surprising quantity of worry; I know now that he understands his onstage duties. I carry the remaining twinges of anxiety for myself alone: my voice, my breath, my movement.

The briefing concludes, and we stand to greet other competitors, directors, and vocal coaches. Then it's back to the hotel for a quick lunch, a last real rehearsal, costumes, and makeup. I feed and water York, making sure he seems relaxed. I cram bananas and peanut butter crackers into my purse. Thankfully I won't suffer the same baggage limit as other competitors; since I need to bring supplies for York, a friend working backstage has offered to hold my purse. The competition will last several hours, and I am taking advantage of this rare opportunity to bring provisions.

Downstairs in the hotel lobby, we meet our hostess, a fellow singer who will escort us through each stage of the competition—making sure that we follow the precisely scheduled backstage pattern. Within the pattern, we enjoy brief stays in warmup rooms, have our professional quartet photos taken, and ride to the auditorium in the assigned van. During the short ride, York thanks the van driver with many kisses.

I step out of the van into the sticky afternoon, and we move from the bright sunlight into the dim coolness of a backstage hallway. Our hostess guides us into a large warmup room, the last place where we can rehearse before the erie silence of the true backstage. As York guides me across the room's slick floors, I thank Danielle: she wisely chose our silver heels for their comfort as well as style.

Soon the hostess ushers us from the room, reminding us to be especially quiet. The floor changes beneath my feet as we move to the true backstage, York remembering the morning's journey. The hallways are crowded with women—all smiling, offering a touch on the shoulder, speaking kind words. "Enjoy it," they intone reverently. "This is so exciting for you!"

In the wings, the coordinator stops and faces us: "Are you nervous?"

I am surprised to feel a swell of wild, unpredictable energy. Around me, I sense the signs of nerves in my quartet—shifting feet, quiet muttering. The coordinator smiles and offers a piece of valuable advice: "Imagine the place where you feel most confident, most happy—whether it's singing in the shower or at rehearsal. You are there now, singing in the best possible place."

Behind her head, I can see the dark outline of the thick curtain—and beyond, a stretch of empty stage, faintly glowing. As we wait in the wings, breathing deeply, the sounds of a live audience resolve into a fortifying chant, the name of our quartet on the lips of our chorus members: "Chordinated! Chordinated! Chordinated!"

The precise military cadence of our quartet name thrums in the air, filling the huge space of the theater. All nerves dissolve as I catch the tangible anticipation, the warm, raw encouragement.

The emcee offers a melodious introduction, and we're off—the sound of our silver shoes meeting discreetly with the wooden surface of the stage. My hand resting in Danielle's arm, I turn to smile at the audience—a huge black bowl of indistinguishable figures cheering and clapping for a new quartet.

Danielle guides me to my assigned position behind the microphone, and she, Jeanie, and Debbie wait patiently as I settle York at my feet. He offers no resistance, sliding happily down and looking up at me with large brown eyes, sparkling with reflected spotlight. I trace his head and shoulders with my hand, thanking him for his cooperation, and stand up. The quartet takes hands and acknowledges the audience. Debbie lifts the pitch pipe and blows a G-sharp. York lifts his head and stares straight at the panel of judges in the orchestra pit.

Our contest songs—consisting of one uptune and one ballad—take less than seven minutes. After the last chord, we link hands for our final bows. I love the physicality of this gesture, the sense that the voices that support my own belong to tangible bodies. When I'm singing especially well, my body becomes forgettable—all systems collaborating to make the sound that seems to come through the floor and exit through the top of my head. When the singing is finished, I want to be reminded of the real machinery that made it possible: the ribs, the knees, the arms. I want to reach out to my quartet and feel their hands, warm with effort and excitement.

Backstage, arms close around us and shaking voices offer kind words. We are escorted outside where I can give York a quick break before we take our seats in the auditorium.

Even as I am taking off York's harness and watching him pick his way over a grassy knoll, a shout from behind catches my attention. Chorus members are waiting for us in the lobby of the auditorium.

Jeanie and Danielle enter first, disappearing into a wash of bodies. Debbie, York, and I follow behind, and the crowd undulates around us, pulling us in—hugging, crying, pressing red and yellow roses into our hands. As soon as one woman steps back, another envelops me: some speak, and I recognize them, but some hold me and rest their heads against my shoulder, silent and tearful—and I don't even know who I'm embracing. Everywhere, encouragement and attention—everywhere warmth and overwhelming pride. I am dazed, near to crying myself. I feel as though the crowd is carrying us through the room on a surge of peerless joy, entirely new and unforgettable.


Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor, living in Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature; Artemis Journal; Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing; Breath & Shadow: A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature; Bridge Eight; Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics; and I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening. Another of her essays will be included in the forthcoming volume Barriers and Belonging: Student Perspectives on Disability. She writes for Classical Minnesota Public Radio and sings lead in Chordinated Quartet.