I have had the great benefit all my life of participating in choral music – community choruses, church and chapel choirs, semi-professional ensembles, university groups large and small, madrigal societies, not to mention the choruses in many musicals and a few operettas. As a person without significant childhood musical training, growing up as I did in a rural environment with a very basic public school, learning music requires from me commitment and discipline. With what envy I have sung with former pianists and clarinetists and voice majors who can read their way through anything! My preparation is – has to be – more significant if I am to achieve anything like parity and hold up my little corner of the room.
The process of starting with black and white marks on a page at the beginning of a rehearsal process, and ending with a public performance in which voices and instruments, time and space, mind and spirit all come together to form something sonorous, ineffable and utterly transient, is the very essence of joy. That it takes work, struggle, errors, frustrations, corrections, listening and hours and hours of practice, makes that moment of letting it go out into the air all the more poignant – Mr. Keats’ famous lines at the end of Ode to a Nightingale might well apply to the performing of choral music, for there is something at once startling, moving and achingly lovely about the experience.
I have learned over the years, though, that the real crux of singing together in a group isn’t the singing, it’s the together. One cannot be a good choral singer without giving up a bit of one’s ego – the cliché about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts could not be more apt. Space must be made in your heart as well as your ears, for intense sharing is as important as listening. The actual singing requires generosity working in tandem with competency. Of course many of us have been in choral situations where this idea exists more in theory than in practice, especially if there is a frustrated soloist or two in the group. The domination of a single voice circumvents the effort. Still, striving for the suspension of self in rehearsal, and the sheer pleasure of blending voices is an exercise in bonding not to be matched.
My exercise physiologist often talks about connective tissue – how it is usually overlooked or ignored in favor of the more easily defined muscles, joints and bones. In choral music, the connective tissue is provided by the conductor. It is he or she whose leadership and artistry allow the magic to happen, and never more so than in the risky self-opening that enables us all to share in the interpretation of the music. In this regard I have had the extraordinary luck – and honor – of working with some very talented choral conductors. The communion that happens in the making of music, between the mind, body, and soul of the conductor, and the musicians and singers, reaches far beyond mechanics and skill and into something profoundly human, intimate, mystical, and universal.
Coming down now from a concert of wonderful and difficult music, I would like to recognize the accomplishments of my singing colleagues, the composers and their exquisite music, and our exceptional and gifted conductor. Singing with you all makes me a better person, and I am grateful.
©Poets Sinews, 2014, use with permission.