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The bells at Christ Northampton, frame designed by Kirk Birrell.

The bells at Christ Northampton.  Designer:  Kirk Birrell.  (Photo credit:  Christ Northampton’s Facebook page)

We first met a little over a year ago.  Kirk was 82.  His greeting was, “I’m your tenor.
I have two volumes; on and off.”

This being my first Sunday at a new church job, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  In previous choirs, though, the tenors each had their own take on how to sing.  One made up his own part, and one had a fondness for sliding whenever possible and a wobble in his voice.

My plan was to be friendly and engage in conversation.  I wanted to find out what was in there.

After two or three Sundays, I realized that Kirk wanted his opinions to be heard, but often, further discussion was not necessary.  So I listened and got on with the rehearsal.

The brief conversations had been going well.  Then, one Sunday after church, Kirk approached me to give me a heads up about operating the lights behind the organ.  They were tricky.  And when I am there by myself, knowing how to work the lights is important.  I was surprised by the overture.

About two weeks later, he offered me a ride to the bus stop!  He had no plans to travel in that direction, since his house was on the opposite side of Northampton.  So I was surprised once more.

But that was not all.  We crossed the parking area to his car and got into a Chevy Volt!  Somehow, that didn’t fit the personality profile I had constructed in my mind for him.

The anthem one Sunday was “Children of the Heavenly Father.”  I asked the choir to enter one voice part at a time, S A T B, every 2 measures.  The first two entrances went well, and then Kirk came in.  If this had been a solo entrance in a large hall, it would have been perfect!  However, the tenor part joined the other two in a unison to be sung piano.  It was the complete opposite of a solo entrance.

When I asked Kirk to enter softly, he didn’t think he could.  My hunch was that no one had ever shown him how.  So I suggested that he use less air, and demonstrated doing that.

He did it!  He was happy, and I think everyone else was, too.

After his health began to decline, he sang with the choir one more time.  He opted to remain seated while everyone else stood.  After the choir members in front moved out of the way, he could see me.  I was glad he could be there, and the anthem went well.  I think he enjoyed it.

One Sunday when he wasn’t feeling well, he asked me what we would be singing the following week.  I gave him a copy of the anthem, thinking that maybe he wanted to take it home.  Then I walked away to take care of something else.  When I returned, Kirk was seated on a bench, looking at the music!  I was touched by his commitment, looking at the music while not feeling well.  He told me that it didn’t look too hard.

My take on Kirk’s voice is that he could have been an opera singer, had his family’s circumstances been different when he was younger.  His voice was even throughout his range, and there was no wobble whatsoever.  And I never heard him slide.  

I am grateful to have known him, and for all the ways in which his life touched mine.  My prayers are with Natalie, his lovely wife of 62 years, and his family.

Rest in peace, Kirk.

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