This is a personal story I’ve never told in public, mostly because it happened so many years ago, and mostly because back then I was incredibly shy and uncomfortable about tooting my own horn (who am I kidding? I’m still uncomfortable about it, but now I’ve managed to fool people into thinking I’m not so shy). Back then, when I was an undergrad, I was an accomplished pianist, not really an experienced singer. However, I really, really loved to sing, so much that I randomly helped start a tradition of a cappella at Rice University.
It began with a friend of mine named Laura Huff, someone whom I haven’t seen or spoken with since I graduated, someone whom I’m urgently looking for now.
Laura Huff and I met on the set of a play Les Liaisons Dangerues, produced and directed by Jesse Jou. Laura was a freshman and had the part of the grandmother (even though she was the youngest in the cast) and I was a sophomore, completely new to working backstage in theater, yet somehow I managed to become Jesse’s AD, assistant director as well as his stage manager and his random walk-on actor. When I commit to a project, I commit with everything I have.
Laura and I didn’t talk too much while we were on set because we were so busy in our prospective roles, she on stage and I backstage. But after that play, we totally bonded. I discovered that Laura had a rapid-fire sense of humor and a warmth and wit made me laugh so much, and after we discovered many common interests, we spent a lot of time chatting, especially in the library, where I worked at the circulation desk for the late night shift, when almost no one was around. During one of our late-night chats, Laura and I conversed more about musical theater, which we discovered we both loved, to the point where we could quote songs at each other, especially Sondheim. Then Laura mentioned how she had always wanted to sing in an a cappella group. And I also admitted to my dream of singing in one, too, and how disappointed I was when our university didn’t have an official student group except for the Brown College Men’s Quartet, which neither Laura nor I could join, because we weren’t men. It was a shame that Rice didn’t have a co-ed student group, we agreed.
This is when I became quite excited and inspired. I took a 10-minute break from work, and dragged Laura outside the library. It was a crisp fall evening, and no one was around. Directly outside the library are stone hallway, a quad with arches and the best acoustics. I told Laura, that we needed to sing, to test to see if we had a good blend. She looked a little confused, but she was amenable and asked, “What should we sing?” I returned, “Well, what do you know the harmony of?” We agreed on “Silent Night”, with me singing soprano and Laura singing alto. Silent Night is a perfect song to sing for blend because the notes are held for so long that if your voices didn’t work together, you could figure it out very quickly. But it was a magical moment, singing with Laura for the first time. Our voices meshed so well I couldn’t tell who was singing what part. And the first time in my life, I couldn’t really hear my voice at all because our voices had joined together so well, the sound echoed with gorgeous overtones around us. We had a perfect vocal blend, even though our speaking voices were completely different.
After we finished singing, I shared this with Laura and we agreed that we could not let our perfect and rare vocal blend go to waste. We agreed to start a group of our so we could sing together. Unfortunately, I literally knew no one else who loved to sing as much as I did. Or more precisely, my few Lovett friends who loved to sing where not always reliably singing on pitch, and singing on pitch is a pre-requisite for joining our a cappella group. So I told Laura, “I’ll find the music. You find the people.” And off we went.
I scoured the library for SATB sheet music, and mostly came up with Christmas Carols, which was perfect because it was late fall, and in a few more weeks the holiday season would begin. Laura, whose job was much harder, in my opinion, managed to recruit 12 more people, most of them living in her residential college Brown, so of course, we also invited the Brown Men’s Quartet to sing with us. Neither Laura nor I wanted to musically lead our group, so Laura asked music major and composer Phil Rothman to be our group’s first music director. Eventually Laura became business manager, and me, well, I just wanted to sing.
The first generation of The Rice Philharmonics was an eclectic bunch, most of us belonged to Brown College, since that’s Laura’s residential college, and most of us had musical training but weren’t the strongest singers ever. But what I loved was that overall the group had a quirky-fun community. Most of our songs were very choral, less a cappella, until Laura brought “Son of Preacher Man” which challenged the basses with its difficult bass line.
We had our first gig singing Christmas carols for I think the faculty house, where we wore red and green. The next year I came up with our performing uniform of white button-down shirt, blue jeans, and brightly colored funny ties.
I co-founded The Rice Philharmonics with Laura when I was a junior, and when I became a senior, only one year later, I noticed that there was a lot of freshmen and sophomores with substantial singing talent at Lovett, my own residential college, and so I encouraged a Lovett sophomore music composition major (I think his name was Will) to form another a cappella group called Accord, which consisted mostly of Lovett students, mostly least two or three years younger than me. Unlike Laura, who just invited people, Will held formal auditions and assigned me to sing Alto (which most conductors do because I have a nicer tone in my lower register). So I sang Soprano in The Rice Philharmonics and Alto in Accord, and spent my senior year happily singing all the time. Finally, in my senior year, Rice University had not one, but two student co-ed a cappella groups, and I was singing in both of them! It helps to be a founding member.
After I graduated from Rice with my BA in English, I moved to California and lost touch with almost everyone I knew at Rice. This was before Facebook.
I never thought that The Rice Philharmonics would last past Laura’s graduation, much less 20 years. Accord disbanded soon after its founder Will graduated, and I thought that The Phils would also go that way. But no, imagine my surprise many years later when my younger cousin’s girlfriend (who had gotten into Harvard) literally fangirled at me when she learned that I had sung with The Rice Philharmonics. By then, I was semi-comfortable claiming my co-founder role, and she was further impressed.
While I am technically a co-founder of The Rice Philharmonics, it was really the hard work and dedication of my co-founder Laura Huff who nurtured and encouraged The Phils to grow until they became good enough to compete in collegiate a cappella competitions. While Phil Rothman contributed greatly during our first year in terms of musical direction and composing songs like “Baker 13″ for, and even lending his name to our group, I’d like to acknowledge that it was Laura Huff who was the hidden heart of The Phils and the major behind-the-scenes driving force for The Phils during its nascent years.
Last year I attempted to return to Rice for reunion with The Rice Philharmonics, but there were too many issues going on in my personal life that I had to deal with at the time. This year I’d like to try to organize a reunion of the founding & early members of The Rice Philharmonics, and I’m lucky to have reunited with most of them. Except for Laura. It wouldn’t be the same without Laura, who sang with the group for over eight years.
So please help me find Laura Huff, my co-founder of The Rice Philharmonics and graduate of Rice University in 1998 and then again years later with a graduate degree. It’s possible her name has changed, if she got married and adopted her husband’s name, and now she could be Laura Wang or Laura Patel or Laura Smith or Laura Omolulu. But to me she will always be Laura Huff. I still think of her fondly, but I have no idea where she is, and I want her efforts to be recognized. I want to have an opportunity to sing with her again under the stone arches in front of Fondren Library, where we can revel in our perfect vocal blend.
UPDATE 4/1/15: I FOUND LAURA HUFF! Right after I posted this, the most recent Past President of The Rice Philharmonics Molly Mohr helped me search for Laura one more time, and hours later Laura and I have finally reunited via email! Thank you, Molly!