Rescue squad volunteer makes singing a full-time gig
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When Chris Dudley tells fellow volunteers at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad that he is a singer, the response often is, "What band are you in?"
But the 31-year-old doesn't sing in a rock band. His is a more classical milieu: performing as a countertenor, or male alto, in concerts around Washington, nine years since his finely tuned falsetto landed him a salaried position in the National Cathedral's choir.
The Englishman by way of Falls Church, Va. is also a voice coach for about 15 budding performers.
"In England, [countertenors] are a dime a dozen every church choir has at least four," Dudley said.
And while countertenors are far harder to come by in the U.S., even rarer are countertenors who drive ambulances and respond to emergencies in their free time.
"Every day here, it's different," Dudley said of his volunteer work as a certified emergency medical technician.
Even seemingly simple tasks make the work rewarding, such as helping out a senior citizen who has fallen.
"For them, you've come and saved their life, even if it's as small as that," he said.
At the rescue squad, Dudley's British accent and the fact that he once ate pizza with a fork and a knife is a tell-tale sign of his home country, he said. But about half of the 170 volunteers still don't know about his day-job as a singer, Dudley said. And those who do at first had a hard time believing it's his full-time job.
"Dudley is very competent, level-headed and well-respected by the squad," said squad Chief Ned Sherburne. "During the holidays, he can also get some great pageant tickets."
Dudley has been singing since he was seven years old, prompted by his parents. Both professional classical concert singers, his father is Australian while his mother is a native of Salisbury, Md. As a child, Dudley attended boarding school at Windsor Castle in England, one of the residences of Queen Elizabeth II. He sang in the choir there, occasionally for the Queen and England's royal family. Later, he received a degree from the University of East Anglia, where he studied music and minored in psychology. Shortly before graduating in 2001, he queried officials at the National Cathedral to see if they had any openings for an English countertenor.
"They said, Oh yes,'" Dudley recalled. "You can start as soon as you like."
He moved to the U.S. after graduating, staying with family in Gaithersburg. But something was missing. Back home in England, he'd spent his free time volunteering as a counselor, working with the victims of crimes and with the physically and mentally disabled. But without U.S. qualifications, those opportunities were scarce here, he said. Then, in 2002, he drove past the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. A sign soliciting volunteers read, "Opportunity of a Lifetime."
It was. He met his future wife at the squad after launching into his EMT training. After an unofficial engagement last Thanksgiving, Dudley proposed to fellow volunteer Shristhi Puri, 25, of Bethesda in March this time, with the ring, and in front of friends at the squad.
Puri said she first heard Dudley sing about two years ago when she agreed to help at the ticket booth for one of his Washington performances.
"I said fine, I'll come and help you," said Puri, a financial services representative at SunTrust Bank. "That's when I realized, Oh my God, this is really serious. He's really good."
Of her fiancee's unusual career path, Puri said, "It doesn't really surprise me." "Everyone [at the squad] does something completely different, nothing is EMT-related. And I think that's what keeps us sane, just because we're not constantly thinking about the same thing."
Dudley doesn't draw any similarities between his work as a singer and his volunteer work at the rescue squad. "And that's the best part about it," he said.
When he comes to the squad after a stressful day of teaching his students, it only takes about 20 minutes for him to start to perk up again, he said. "Everyone here is high-energy. Everyone's here for the same reason to save lives. That positive energy rubs off on you."