Monday, May 8, 2017

Life Lesson from Choral Experiences

I started singing in choirs in elementary school. In those early years, we learned music by ear: listen to the teacher and reproduce what you hear. It’s how we learned to speak, but easier for some than for others. Later, we learned to sing by reading music. In that, I had an advantage because my parents forced piano lessons on me starting in second or third grade. I discovered you can learn by rote, but it’s much easier if you first master the tools of the trade. That, it turns, out, applies to much in life.

There can be stars in choirs, but a discerning listener of the best choruses can’t distinguish one voice from another. Unless you have a solo, you are supposed to blend in, not stick out. And, it turns out, sticking out is not just about the sound. Choruses, like teams, often wear uniforms, coordinate moves: lifting and setting down their music folders, entering and exiting a stage with precision. Much of being a chorus doesn’t just involve singing well.

In sixth grade, I made the all-county chorus—as a first soprano! The only thing I recall of the experience is the principal of my school mentioning he spotted me right off—I was the one yawning before the performance began. Even from a distance he recognized me because of my idiosyncrasy.

In junior high, competing schedules forced me to choose between band and chorus. With a voice that provided random octaves and a pre-teen boy’s embarrassment over the same, my tenor sax and I chose the band. I was content to sing long hours along with the radio.

By the time I reached high school, my voice had sorted itself out and I sang tenor in my church choir. The choir had a sufficiency of bass/baritones, so both my father and I sang tenor. Neither of us were natural tenors, but we could hit the high notes. We did have a third tenor in the choir and he had a fine natural voice but was, unfortunately, a bit shaky on the notes. The director determined that if Dad and I bracketed him, the true tenor sang the right notes, and as a threesome we had sufficient volume to carry our part. The result of making individual sacrifices (my throat did hurt after pieces like Handel’s Messiah) made for a better overall result.

For nearly twenty-five years after high school, I was not a choir member; but when I changed jobs and moved to Cincinnati, I was determined to join a church with a choir. I visited St. John’s Unitarian (one of four Unitarian churches I was checking out) the Sunday their morning service consisted of a congregational sing of selections from their brand new hymnal. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time and need to recognize your luck. I had a blast sight-reading the bass parts. Someone in the congregation ratted me out to the choir director, who buttonholed me before I even left the sanctuary. The next Thursday I attended my first rehearsal.

That choir performed some great music, especially as part of our annual Spring concerts: Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Vaughn Williams, contemporary pieces as well, including my favorite American composer, Morten Lauridsen, plus South American and Indian works. I sang English, Latin, French, German, Spanish, Hindi, and Swahili (and probably others as well). Those works were a stretch for me and for the choir, but the hard work was always worth the effort even if the concert performances were never perfect.

[Here's a YouTube of Lauridsen's "Dirait-on" if you'd like a 5-minute treat.] 

Through that association, I had an opportunity to sing in a chorus that performed with the Cincinnati Symphony at Riverbend. We had only four rehearsals and were expected to come to the first rehearsal knowing the music (light years away from my early grammar school days of learning music by rote). What an eye-opening experience that was for this decidedly amateur performer. Everyone sang out (in church choirs there are usually just a few who sing out and the rest follow) and it was easy to find my mistakes and correct them because people on the right and left of me were singing something different. The rehearsal conductor expected us to correct our own mistakes. He concentrated on entrances, cutoffs, and shaping the sound. We had one dress rehearsal with the full orchestra under the baton of Jesus Lopez-Cobos, and then the performance.

It was also through the church choir that I met Jan, my partner of twenty-three years.

When we left Cincinnati and joined the choir of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah in 2010, it was very small with a few excellent singers, but many much less skilled than I. We sang simple music, often in two or three parts, not the eight-part harmony of the works we often did at St. John’s. It was a bit discouraging, but I held onto a recognition I had made years ago: no matter how tired I was as I dragged myself from work to rehearsal, I felt refreshed at the end of the two hours. Even though in Savannah rehearsals were shorter, and the pieces less satisfying, I still retained that feel-better-after-singing experience.

And over the years, more quality singers joined the Savannah choir. I thought, oh good, now we’ll start doing more robust works. That hasn’t happened; this choir director has chosen to take her finer choral instrument and shape its sound. Pitches are now spot on, not just very close. She works on the sound of vowels, precise cutoffs and entrances. Rarely, we’ll end up with six or eight parts for a portion of a piece, but what is most important to her is our sound.

For a boy brought up in the nasal-speaking Rochester, NY area, rounded vowels are sometimes a stretch. I still miss singing the big pieces and would like to do more of that before I lose my voice and can no longer sing; but in the meantime, I’ve discovered I can bury myself in the hard work of sounding as one voice of a beautiful chorus.

~ Jim

This post originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 5/7/2017.