Friday, November 21, 2008

Confessions of an Obsessive Score-Keeper

As you may have discerned from previous writings, I’m obsessive about the care and management of my choral scores. I don’t try to figure out why I do all this; I just enjoy it. As a music theorist and historian, I take a rather technical approach to editing and marking my music, and I invest a fair amount of time in score preparation and study.

One of my favorite “jobs” is editing my scores prior to a first rehearsal. My favorite choral director prepares “master scores” from which the singers are expected to copy into their own scores his instructions for breathing, interpretive dynamics, divisi assignments, etc. These advance markings and annotations must be entered into one’s score before the first rehearsal. Really, though, this must be completed before one can begin any serious personal practice.

My score editing usually takes place very early in the morning, while the rest of the family is still asleep. I gather my new scores, copies of the edit masters, my favorite mechanical pencil, and the first of several cups of strong tea. 

The editing process requires that I examine each master score, looking at each measure of music, for each voice part, then transfer all marks or instructions to my own score. This sounds tedious, but I love it! It gives me a chance to study the score as a whole, not just my own part; it provides an opportunity to see how the director intends for the voice parts to interact; and helps me to understand that my part is just one of many threads that make up the whole work. Context is essential! (I often prepare program notes for concerts in which I sing, so this editing-thinking process informs that process, as well.)

When I’m working with brand-new scores, the transcription goes pretty quickly. Editing scores that have been used by other singers is entirely different. I usually start by erasing most or all of the previous markings. (I have a big pink eraser for the purpose – as I said, I’m obsessive!) The older markings are usually messy (ugh), often inexact, and typically include reminders and notes pertinent only to the previous singer’s thinking. These can be distracting and even misleading, and of course they may not fit in at all with the director’s current interpretation.

Not all older marks can be removed, of course. This morning I tried in vain to erase big bold marks made in red pencil. But worst of all is trying to deal with scores which the previous singer has marked in ink.

The act of erasing the older marks can be somewhat disconcerting, psychologically. The first time I did this for an entire set of concert scores, I ended up with a substantial pile of rubber crumbs which, I realized guiltily, represented the hard work and once-important thoughts of the prior singer. The erasures sat there on the kitchen counter for a while before I mustered the nerve to gather them up and…into the trash they went!

As a poet-linguist-writer, I am also deeply interested in textual matters, so for texts and translations which I do not already have committed to memory (e.g., the Latin Mass), I often transcribe the literal (and sometimes poetic) translations into my scores During rehearsals, I often jot down the director’s comments and observations about texts, history, composer, etc.; these notes are often interesting and always meaningful, and become part of my overall experience.

During rehearsals, I take down every instruction for every voice part (and the accompanist or orchestra); this helps me understand and assimilate the director’s intent and better execute his vision. (I like to use “sticky notes” to record logistical instructions that pertain only to a specific performance, such as sit-stand cues or notes about performance-specific cuts. These can be discarded later.)

Despite my technical obsessions, I’m also rather sentimental in my approach to music-making. Ultimately, my scores – marked with pre-rehearsal notes, embellished with notes taken during rehearsals, and filed with programs, reviews, emails, notes, and other memorabilia – are preserved as tangible records of my musical experiences. It can be deeply moving to page through a score, years later, and re-live those musical memories.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Surviving Dress Rehearsal

“Do we need to wear our concert dresses at the dress rehearsal?”

I’m always surprised that any adult singer poses that question, but it did get me to thinking about dress rehearsals and how they differ from regular rehearsals, and in particular, why we need to prepare for dress rehearsals differently, both mentally and musically.

What is a “dress rehearsal,” anyway? It's the final rehearsal before a performance, usually held in the performance venue. The rehearsal gives the ensemble a chance to go over the logistics of standing and seating arrangements, processing in and out of our places, working with instrumentalists, soloists, etc.

Most important, the dress rehearsal offers us an opportunity to sing in the performance space, and make any adjustments (seating and standing arrangements, dynamics, tempi, etc.) that may be needed to make the music come alive in that space.

Thus, a dress rehearsal is not just a run-through; it’s an opportunity for fine-tuning and, when necessary, for doing things differently to optimize our performance. To accomplish all this efficiently requires that we be on time, know where to go and what to do, remain attentive, and be receptive to the many small adjustments that are required. Here are some tips I’ve developed for myself over the years.

Before You Leave Home
♪ Have your music ready in performance order, and in an appropriate folder, if required.
♪ If you have been given instructions about when and where to sit, stand, walk, etc., be sure that these are marked into your music or folder at the right places. I like to stick blank Post-It® notes in my scores at the right places so I can record last-minute instructions on them instead of on my scores. After the performance, I just pull off the notes and discard them.
♪ Prepare your music with paper clips or other means so you can skip over sections (such as solo passages) in which you do not sing. If you have to close your folder during the concert (such as during a performance by a guest ensemble), insert a Post-It® note to flag the place to which you want to open your folder when it’s your turn to sing. Minimize fumbling.
♪ Bring water, two sharpened pencils, tissues, cough drops, and anything else you customarily need during rehearsal.
♪ Consider tucking a book, magazine or other quiet work into your bag so you have something to keep you occupied quietly if you must sit and wait while others are working.

Know Where to Go and What to Do
♪ Allow time to arrive early, especially if you are not familiar with the travel directions, parking, building arrangement, etc.
♪ As soon as you enter the rehearsal space, look for handouts, instructions, seating charts, or other information, and take care of getting this information into your folder or score.
♪ Turn off any noise-making devices. If you must receive a phone call during rehearsal, let the Director know ahead of time. Set your device to vibrate only, leave the room discreetly when you must, and return as soon as you can.

Plan Ahead for Your Comfort
♪ You do not need to wear concert attire to “dress” rehearsal. Wear comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes. Dress in layers, in case the performance venue is warm or cool.
♪ Dress rehearsals can last considerably longer than regular rehearsals. Be prepared to work, often on your feet, for an extended period, perhaps without a break.
♪ Bearing in mind that you will probably not be able to bring your “gig bag” or briefcase to your assigned seat or riser spot, be sure that you have everything you need for the rehearsal tucked into your pockets or your folder. I always slip a crossword puzzle into my folder; the single sheet weighs nothing, and I already have a pencil handy. I love having a puzzle to work on while waiting to go onstage or during intermissions. It prevents me from talking, too!
♪ Consider bringing a light snack that you can eat quickly during a break and with a minimum of mess. (No strong-smelling foods, please.) Adhere to any guidelines for introduction of food or beverages in the performance space. Be sure to clean up after yourself.

Consider Others’ Comfort, Too
♪ Be clean; practice good physical and dental hygiene.
As always, never wear any scented products to a rehearsal or performance.
♪ Stay quiet. Listen to instructions and follow directions without talking. Your chatter prevents others from hearing.
♪ Be mindful of the people around you, especially if you are standing or sitting close together on risers or in pews. Keep track of your elbows, folders, etc., to minimize bumping. During a recent rehearsal, I was nearly knocked off a riser by a riser-mate who turned away from me and bent from the waist to pick up a water bottle; her rear end bumped into me and knocked me off balance. Yikes!

Remember Riser Etiquette
♪ If you are on a riser, stand toward the front of your riser step, with your toes at or over the front edge, to allow as much room as possible for the folder of the person behind you. If you are getting bumped in the head, move forward. Remind the person in front of you to move forward, too. Do it with a smile.
♪ If you are standing on the floor in front of the risers, move forward to make room for those behind you.
♪ Stay still. Do not tap your feet, sway, or wiggle; your movements will make the entire riser jiggle, making life miserable for your riser mates, especially those on the upper rows.

Be Attentive and Ready To Work
♪ Be ready to sing. Warm up at home before coming to rehearsal. There may not be any vocal warm-ups at the dress rehearsal.
♪ Stay quiet so you can hear instructions and directions from those leading the rehearsal. Give your full attention to the Director or to other rehearsal leaders, even when your part isn’t being rehearsed. Learn from what is being taught to others. Respect others’ desire to listen and learn.
♪ When you receive instruction about sitting, standing, processing, etc., write it down (on those handy Post-It® notes!). Don’t rely on your memory.
♪ Be flexible and willing to adapt to new standing or seating arrangements, etc., as required for varying performance venues and programs.
♪ If you cannot see the Director well, make adjustments. Negotiate with your neighbors so that everyone can see. It is the responsibility of the singers in the back rows to position themselves to see around the front row singers.
♪ If there is a break during rehearsal, keep track of the time allotted and return to your place as soon as the Director signals that rehearsal is about to resume.

A dress rehearsal can be a time of high energy and excitement!

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Friday, October 31, 2008

Changing of the Guard

Though I enjoy watching birds all year long, there is a particular excitement to be felt as autumn arrives in all its golden glory. Because my office is in my home, I am able to enjoy the birds at our backyard feeders every day. During the fall, it’s interesting to watch some of our summer resident birds prepare for (i.e., fatten up) and embark on their southern migration. Our summer resident Gray Catbirds, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, and American Robins are long gone, as are the Northern (Baltimore) Orioles that seem to become scarcer each year.

We keep our bird feeders up and filled almost all year round, and many birds come every day to feed and stay through the winter. Our resident Blue Jay flock — three families, I think — is a rowdy bunch. They’re like teenaged boys with hot rods; they come in to the feeders at top speed, slam on the brakes, and come to a screeching halt, scattering the smaller birds just as bullies in the school yard sometimes do. But I love them, with their bold coloring and brassy voices and the graceful upcurving of wingtips as they come in for a landing on the deck rail. They are smart and resourceful, and have figured out how to get seeds out of the feeder that is designed to exclude them. But they have a certain tenderness, too; during their spring courtship, nothing is sweeter than to see the male choose a seed for his mate and place it carefully in her beak. (OK, I’m anthropomorphizing.)

We had a good sized flock (30-40) of American Goldfinches at the thistle feeders during the winter of 2007-2008; occasionally a few Pine Siskins stopped in, as well. The goldfinches visited daily throughout the spring and early summer; they breed in late summer after the thistles have gone to seed. They line their nests with the silky white thistledown; isn’t that a nice thought? The goldfinches have been scarce these past several weeks as they’ve been busy with family duties, but one family came to the thistle feeders a few weeks ago – two parents and four young – as if the parents wanted to show the feeder to the young ones. They’ll be back in a few weeks, if not sooner.

Some birds stop at our feeders only during migration. We’ve had a small flock of Purple Grackles in the neighborhood for the past few weeks; today I noticed that the flock had grown to about three times its usual size, which may indicate that the birds are massing in preparation for departure. Red-Winged Blackbirds and Brown-Headed Cowbirds are regular fall visitors, too, stopping in for a snack on their way south. Lovely, glossy, blackbirds. In 2006 and 2007, a single Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker stopped at our suet feeder in October; I didn’t see one this fall.

But the most exciting part of the autumn is looking out for our first visitors from the north who come “deep south” to Connecticut for the winter. Just arrived at our feeder this week are the Dark-Eyed Juncos and the White-Throated Sparrows, little beauties that seem to bring winter with them; now that they are here, the days and nights somehow really feel colder. Now I’m waiting for the Red-Breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, and Brown Creepers; we had one pair of each last winter.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Book in Hand – A Summer of Hummingbirds

I’ve just finished reading a most interesting book: A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher Benfey. It seems serendipitous that I should have spotted this on the new book shelf at the Farmington Public Library at a time when I have been curious about Emily Dickinson and the people in her life.

I’ve always been sympathetic to Dickinson’s poetry, but my interest in her as a person was sparked [during rehearsals and performance of] A Heart in Hiding, choral settings by Gwyneth Walker of what she calls “the passionate love poems of Emily Dickinson.”

Dr. Walker’s grouping and interpretation of these “passionate” poems gave me pause. I had never really considered Dickinson as a lover, either as the object of passion or as the active partner in a romantic relationship. I confess that I was skeptical of Walker’s collation and interpretation of these poems; they seemed to me to be spiritual rather than romantic. Dickinson’s appropriation of frankly spiritual, even theological language, accomplished perhaps what she intended, to screen, to conceal, to deflect. I found it particularly challenging to prepare program notes for these settings.

Now, after having done more reading and study (in particular this book, A Summer of Hummingbirds), and having had the chance to work with Walker’s settings for the past few months, I have developed a better understanding of Emily Dickinson and many of her poems; I would write very different program notes now than I did several months ago. Not that my earlier notes were wrong; rather, they were not as complete as I would have liked them to be. I did not to delve too much into Walker’s musical interpretation since I was not convinced that I understood [or liked] it.

In A Summer of Hummingbirds, author Christopher Benfey explores some surprising parallels and connections between and among the lives of writers Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), and Mark Twain (1835-1910) and artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), and uses these connections as a means to illuminate and analyze trends in art, philosophy, and popular culture in the years following the American Civil War. Benfey offers fascinating insights, connections, and anecdotes about these important thinkers and artists and some of the ideas and loves they held in common.

Much of the “action” of the book oscillated between Amherst (Massachusetts), where I once lived, and Hartford (Connecticut), near where I live now, so I felt many personal connections, too.

Though I found this book fascinating from beginning to end, by the time I reached the final pages, I was uncomfortably aware of the very fragile threads that Benfey found — or spun — to weave his narrative together. I sensed the essential rightness of his basic premise: that these particular thinkers had much in common, and that their work reflected and articulated many of the ideas and themes prevalent in the culture of the time. However, some of his conclusions seem to be more conjectural than factual, and the book seems to be an expression of Benfey’s wishful fantasies about this group rather than a solid analysis of a substantial body of evidence. It might have been better treated as a substantial article rather than a full-length book. (As I often do, I question the role, knowledge, and efficacy of this book’s editor, who did not wield a strong-enough hand in challenging Benfey’s assumptions and helping him to create a stronger overall narrative.)
Still, I found here much food for thought. I also appreciated being introduced to the life and work of artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), whose paintings of hummingbirds and orchids brought the heat and shimmer of the tropics home to his war-weary compatriots (see example here, Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds, 1871, National Gallery of Art).

As always, the more I learn, the more questions I have… so it’s off to the library again. Yes, there is an abundance of good information available online, but I will never give up the delights to be found in browsing at the library, nor will I ever give up the tactile pleasure of the book in hand.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Finding the Right Voice – Singing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

An ensemble in which I [used to] sing is in rehearsals for upcoming performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (the Choral). The choral finale (“Ode to Joy”) is perhaps the most taxing choral music I’ve ever sung. In a recent essay, I explored some of the questions and issues I consider in preparing choral music from varying periods, traditions, and styles. Here’s what I have been thinking about as I prepare for rehearsals and performances of Beethoven’s remarkable Choral Symphony. (And yes, one must prepare for rehearsals, as well as for performances: vocally, musically, and intellectually.)

It’s interesting to compare the vocal challenges of singing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with those of his Choral Symphony. Though the vocal portion of the Choral Symphony comprises only 15 or 20 minutes of singing, compared to the 80 or so minutes of choral singing in the Missa Solemnis, I find the Symphony much more difficult from a vocal perspective. Why? Mostly because of its tessitura; that is, the vocal range in which most of the singing is concentrated. While the soprano part for the Missa Solemnis requires a greater range from top to bottom, and includes a great many tension-blasting melismatic passages where one can race around (vocally!), the soprano part for the Choral Symphony requires long stretches of pretty-similar singing, much of it sustained at the very top of the range, around high A.

The sopranos of the chorus must sing about 75 high A s (yes, someone has counted them), and many of these are sustained forte or fortissimo over many measures. Try singing a note near the very top of your range, very loud, and holding it for about half a minute. No vibrato! Perfect intonation! It has to be beautiful! Don’t let the pitch sag! Clear as a bell! Blend with the rest of the section! Enunciate the German! Decrescendo, sustain the pitch, don’t breathe! then crescendo to fortissimo! Don’t faint! Ach du lieber! Now, try doing that about 20 times, and in between, sing low, medium, high, soft, low. And every time you get back to those high As, they have to be as fresh and pure as the first time around.

High A is definitely not my favorite pitch to sing. I have a minor passagio (break) around that point, which means that I shift from the middle part of my range to a higher, lighter part. High B-flats are always better! (I would have been very happy if the whole Symphony were in E-flat major instead of D major, which Beethoven probably chose to take advantage of the brilliancy of the trumpets and timpani.)

So, how does one sing the Choral Symphony without blowing a gasket, developing an aversion to ledger lines, or hating Beethoven altogether? It takes some preparation and consideration of historical, musical, and vocal contexts.

Scoring and Vocal Assignments. Beethoven calls for larger vocal and instrumental forces than had generally been used previously, and he often calls upon the musicians to play and sing very loudly for very long periods. Sometimes the instruments double the vocal parts; sometimes they are playing contrasting parts. In either case, the voices need to be heard over, through, and beyond a very large orchestra. Singing without vibrato and with a clear, focused tone will help the voices to blend and carry. Lightness, clarity, purity of tone.

Ensemble Size and Distribution. It’s easy to get carried away with the energy, emotion, and sheer physical exuberance of this music, but one does so at the risk of vocal injury. The [ensemble] has 170 singers; at least 72 of these are sopranos, and 37 are first sopranos like me. With that many voices, none of us needs to scream. Only at a few places do we really need to sing very, very loudly. It’s too easy to get too loud, at which point the voice becomes…ugly.

Program Considerations. The Choral Symphony is the only work on this program that the [ensemble] will be performing, so our voices should be fresh,. But we have performances back to back on Friday and Saturday, so we’ll need to pace ourselves so as to be fresh for the second performance, as well.

So, What is the “Right Voice?” For me, lightness and clarity is key to not getting tired. The more vibrato I allow in this sort of singing (especially in loud passages), the heavier and less pleasant the voice becomes, and the more quickly I tire. Each singer must learn to sing lightly and 'healthily" throughout the work, saving the "big sound" only for the several moments when it is truly required. With 160 voices, none of us needs to shout too much.

To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Book in Hand – Vermeer’s Hat

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating, entertaining, and enlightening book: Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, by Timothy Brook (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008). Dr. Brook, Principal of St. John's College and Professor in Department of History at the University of British Columbia, has devised a delightful means of exploring and explaining the surge in global travel and trade in the 17th century.In the several chapters that comprise his narrative, Dr. Brook identifies common objects that may be seen in several of the paintings of Delft artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), reveals how these objects came to be part of everyday life in 17th-century Delft, and examines how their creation, import, and use transformed trade, tradition, and human relationships around the world, not only at the time, but for our lives today, as well.
Among the objects he brings to our attention are the beaver hat of the title, as seen in Officer and a Laughing Girl (ca. 1658; click here to see an image) and silver coins weighed in a scale, as seen in Woman Holding a Balance (ca. 1664; click here to see an image). Other items or activities brought forward for our consideration include tobacco, porcelain, maps and map-making, and exploration itself.
In exploring the means by which these objects and commodities were discovered, obtained, and traded, and examining the extent to which they became part of everyday life, particularly in Delft, Dr. Brook weaves a tale of adventure, intrigue, piracy, politicking, material desire, racial and social prejudice, ambition, and greed, all set within the expansive and expanding world of the 16th and 17th centuries.
In his examination of A View of Delft (1660 or 1661; click here to see an image), where several boats of varying sorts crowd the riverbank, and the headquarters of the Dutch East India trading company dominates the skyline, Brook helps readers to understand the enormous role that trade, specifically global trade, played in the everyday lives of Delft's citizens.
Though the story starts in Delft, where Vermeer made his home, we necessarily visit North American and Canada, where we learn through first-hand accounts how the European demand for beaver pelts (from which the luxurious felt hats were made) led to the devastation of indigenous people and the ultimate domination of the continent by European-born explorers and country-builders. We also travel back and forth from China, whence Dutch traders brought back samples of the exquisite porcelain ware that sparked a craze for similar goods across northern Europe. That “Delftware” on your sideboard has a long and fascinating history!
Dr. Brook also takes us to Argentina (the “land of silver”), where Europeans took control of silver-rich land and imported slaves from Africa to bring the plentiful precious metal out of the earth. Much of the silver ended up in China, where it was traded for the porcelains, silks, and other goods so much in demand in Europe. Because the Chinese valued silver more than gold, the Europeans realized huge profits on their silver operations.
Dr. Brook spins these tales with an engaging, informed, but never pedantic voice. As he is primarily a scholar of Chinese history, he brings deep understanding to his explanation of the developments, influences, products, and people of that China and its neighbors. Too often, it seems, our studies of European explorations during this period focus on European interests and outcomes; this book brought a welcome balance. Though I was familiar with the broad outlines of much of the content covered here, I found myself continually surprised and delighted with the many serendipitous discoveries Dr. Brook shares, and grateful for the new understanding I developed for this important part of our history.
I’ll be recommending Vermeer’s Hat to our book group. Later this week, I’ll learn what they thought of Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka (read my review here), which was my choice for our October discussion-meeting.
An interview with Timothy Brook may be heard at:
I haven't yet listened to this podcast.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Beethoven 9 - Always New, Always Compelling

Last spring, I posted a series of essays on Beethoven and his magnificent Missa Solemnis (check this blog’s subject index). (Of course, this librarian indexes all her posts by subject(s)!) Those May 2008 performances were my first experience with this work. As usual, I supplemented my musical preparation with research and reading, and came away from the experience with a new appreciation for Beethoven as a spiritual person (with qualifications; see my essay on this topic, in particular the paragraph headed “Spirituality”). The investment of time and thought changed my understanding and appreciation of Beethoven and his music.

Now, as I prepare for performances of Beethoven's iconic, remarkable, and utterly unique Ninth Symphony (the “Choral”), I find myself marveling that 184 years after its completion, this work is still fresh and compelling. Though most of us on stage will have performed it before, there are members of the [assembled musical forces], and surely of the audience, who will experience it for the first time. Even after 184 years and countless performances, the “Choral” Symphony will always be new for someone. This was made manifest in a recent conversation with my 15-year-old daughter.

The other day, as my husband (who also sings in the [ensemble]) was listening to a recording of the Symphony and working hard at memorizing the fourth movement (yes, we will be performing from memory), my daughter was delighted, not only in the magnificent music, but in the text itself. She could hardly keep from dancing through the house. (Freude!)

A few years ago she had pointed out to me, very astutely, that Beethoven had been wise to devise a simple melody for the “Ode to Joy” theme (“Freude, schöner Götterfunken”). “It’s like a folk song,” she said, adding that “Beethoven wanted people to remember it. It’s easy to remember and anyone can sing it. That’s important for music that carries such a big idea.”

This time around, it was the thrilling syncopation that underscores the most important line of the text (“Alle Menschen verden Brüder” — “All people are brothers”) that moved her most. In her words: “It pushes all the energy, and the whole idea, forward!” (It is very sad that in many hymnals and other instances where this melody has been used the syncopation is smoothed over and made foursquare, supposedly to make it “easier” to sing.)

Her other “amazing moment” is the otherworldly and ethereal pivot modulation that flings us from D major to F major (“steht vor Gött,” or “stand before God,” at measure 330) in preparation for the drop into B-flat major for the Turkish march. She was left speechless with joy and amazement, as most of us usually are at that remarkable moment. (That is also one of the best soprano moments in the choral repertoire!)

Of course, those who have known and loved the Symphony for a long time would agree that these are the “big” moments and the “big” ideas, but it was moving to watch her discover these on her own, and enlightening to hear her analysis of what makes them special.

Being an avid student of history (especially via the wonderful lectures from The Teaching Company), she knows a fair amount about Beethoven, his life, his music, and his leadership in the progression of musical development from what we call the “Classical” period to what we now call the “Romantic” period. “He was a radical, wasn’t he?” she observed. “You know, if he were alive today, he’d be playing an electric guitar.” She’s right!

When I perform the Symphony later this month, I will sing for everyone who will be hearing it for the first time. I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Miracle of Cooperation and Common Purpose

In the midst of this endless election season, I naturally find myself considering what qualities we find desirable in the people who put themselves forward to be our leaders. Recently, as I have been rehearsing with five very different choral ensembles, I have also been thinking about what qualities are desirable in a good chorister. It seems that the two skill sets are not all that different.

Last night at rehearsal of [ensemble and instrumentalists], I wondered to myself, “What do each of these 170 diverse singers and their leaders need to do in order to create a unified experience? How must each of us prepare, perceive, react, and act in order to identify and realize our individual and common goal of communicating truth and beauty, through music, to our audience?”

Any good chorister knows the answers to these questions, and puts them into action week after week. In fact, I think that most choral singers will agree that this common striving — and its results — is among the most satisfying and elevating of our life experiences, not just for the pleasures of music, but for the way of living that we embrace as choristers that influences our lives and attitudes beyond the rehearsal hall and concert stage.

I found myself thinking — well, wishing, really — OK, it was an impossible fantasy — Anyway, I imagined how wonderful it would be if our political leaders were brought together to form a chorus and rehearse together for just one evening each week. I soon began to envision the choral rehearsal as an ideal environment for diplomatic and leadership training.

So, how would my fantasy chorus be organized? First, I’d choose meaningful repertoire that would, in its texts and music, speak to a common humanity. (Oh, there is so much from which to choose!) On the podium, install the best choral conductor you can find: one who can lead with artistry and humility, one who can command discipline with grace and humor, one who understands and deeply loves both texts and music, and who can instill that passion in each singer. Finally, engage an accompanist who is an artist in his own right, and one who is in sympathy with the director. Happy is the choir that has a mutually-elevating team of this sort at the front of the rehearsal room.

Now, consider the questions I posed earlier: What do 170 diverse singers, plus their leaders, need to do in order to create a unified force? How must each of us envision, perceive, react, and, ultimately, act in order to identify and realize our individual and common goals? Here’s what I came up with, in no particular order:

A good chorister is reliable. He arrives in good time. (“Early is on time, on time is late!”) He is prepared for the rehearsal. He makes and keeps his commitment to the season, to the rehearsals, to the performances, to his fellow choristers, to the Director, to the music, to the audience. Imagine if all our leaders were reliable and kept all their commitments.

A good chorister is gentle. Some ensembles begin rehearsals with stretching exercises and backrubs for and by seat mates. A good chorister notices what sort of back rub her neighbor enjoys, and also notices what is uncomfortable, so that she can avoid hurting her neighbor. Imagine if all our leaders were gentle and looked for ways to comfort their neighbors, and took care not to hurt them.

A good chorister is a good listener. He listens carefully so that he may find out how best his voice will fit in with the others. He listens to himself, so that he might never make an ugly sound. He listens to his neighbors, so that he might blend with them and uplift his section. He listens to the entire chorus, so that he might understand the larger vision and understand that he is just one of many. Imagine if all our leaders were good listeners, and were able to listen in all these ways, and understand their place in the larger scheme of things.

A good chorister takes responsibility. She raises her hand to take responsibility for her error if she sings a wrong note, makes a wrong entrance, or klutzes a cut-off, so that the Director need not interrupt the rehearsal to correct the error. Imagine if our leaders admitted their errors freely and took responsibility for correcting their wrongs.

A good chorister keeps his area clean. He puts his chair away in the proper place, and takes care of his own water bottles, cough drop wrappers, etc., so that no one has to clean up after him. If he sees that someone else has forgotten to put away his chair, he takes care of it. Imagine if all our leaders dedicated themselves to keeping the Earth clean, and pitched in to help clean up what has already been made dirty.

A good chorister is respectful. She is respectful of her music, keeping it clean and in good condition so that others may use it at another time. She is respectful of the rehearsal process, keeping quiet when it is not her turn to sing, so that others may listen and learn. She is respectful of those who sit and stand near her, being careful not to jostle or bump. Imagine if all our leaders were respectful of us, of each other, and of themselves.

A good chorister is helpful. He wants his fellow singers to do well. He carries an extra pencil or cough drop and offers it when his neighbor is in need. He contacts a fellow singer who has been absent to offer information on what happened at a missed rehearsal. He mentors a new member. He volunteers. Imagine if all our leaders looked for ways to be helpful to others.

A good chorister is willing to change. Though she may have sung a particular piece of music many times with another conductor, she will lay aside that interpretation for the sake of bringing unity to the interpretation of the director on the podium. Imagine if all our leaders were flexible in their thinking and willing to try new ways of doing things.

A good chorister remembers why he is there. He is there to make beautiful music with other people. At each rehearsal and performance he re-commits himself to beauty, not just for himself, but for every person in the rehearsal room, and later, in the audience. Imagine if all our leaders remembered why they are in leadership positions, and re-committed themselves each week to service and to the greater good.

A good chorister envisions and embraces a common goal. She leaves her ego at the door. She engages her energies and sympathies toward the common good. Imagine if all our leaders were willing to lay their egos aside. (That alone would address most of these other issues, yes?)

A good chorister is committed to making the world a better place. Though a choral concert may not change the world, it will make it more beautiful. Musicians commit countless hours to creating peace and beauty. Imagine if all our leaders were truly committed to making the world a better place, for always, and invested their time not in warmongering, but in the creation and sustenance of beauty and betterment.

Imagine how the world might be if our leaders had the attitudes, and work ethic, of good choristers! Could they do it? Could they experience — and embrace — the miracle of cooperation and common purpose that we call “making music together?” Imagine how it could change the world. I know how it has changed me.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Let’s Do Lunch

The other day I drove by one of my favorite birding spots, a lovely area surrounded by farm fields, a river and a connected backwater, mixed-growth woods, athletic fields, and country roads. The variety of habitat makes it likely that I will see something interesting each time I pass by. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a close look at a wondrously beautiful common bird, such as the Hooded Mergansers that stopped at the backwater last spring. Sometimes it’s an exciting chance to see a rarer bird up close, such as the half-dozen blue-morph Snow Geese that were in with a flock of Canada Geese in the fields last fall.

I enjoy seeing rare and beautiful birds, of course, but what really interests me is watching the behavior of familiar birds as they go about with their most interesting lives. And when I can watch any raptors (hawks, eagles, falcons, etc.) up close, I am thrilled.

Last week, as I drove past the athletic fields, I spotted a large, juvenile Cooper's Hawk perched on a chain link fence less than a foot away from an American Crow. When I got my binoculars on the birds, I could see a second Cooper’s Hawk on the fence just beyond, and two more crows sauntering around on the grass below. (Without question, crows saunter. Grackles, on the other hand, swagger.) (Ever notice how crows tend to go about in threes?)

The two hawks, probably first-year siblings, were intent on snagging one of these crows for lunch. They swooped, stooped, dived, blocked, and bumped. The crows ignored them. One of the hawks finally grabbed the crow on the fence, seizing it by the leg and dragging it to the ground. The crow detached himself from the hawk, settled his feathers, and sauntered over to his buddies on the lawn. After one or two more passes, the hawks gave up and flew off together.

Though these were good-sized hawks, about the same length (15-21 inches) from crown to tail as the crows, they lacked the bulk and confidence of the larger crows. The crows, knowing that these inexperienced hawks did not pose a threat, remaining bemusedly unconcerned, reminded me of high school seniors ignoring the annoying antics of freshmen boys.

Cooper’s Hawks do prey primarily on birds, but they usually target smaller species. Around my bird feeders, they have good luck with Blue Jays and Mourning Doves. A few years ago, an adult Cooper’s Hawk visited my yard frequently and, over the course of a week, obligingly dispatched six European Starlings that had been hogging the suet feeder. (Starlings are a non-native species that has done great harm to native birds, and I was glad the Cooper’s ate every single one of them.)

A few years ago right outside our kitchen window, a young Sharp-Shinned Hawk (smaller cousin of the Cooper's) went through much the same exercise with a Blue Jay. Both birds are about the same size. The hawk managed to get one talon locked around the Blue Jay's leg; the jay hung upside down, squawking and screaming. Finally it had the wherewithal to reach up and peck repeatedly at the hawk's leg, forcing the raptor to release it, and off it flew. Both birds were rather ruffled.

Like life, enjoying birding is as much about serendipity as it is about intent and design. Sometimes, you find the good stuff just by taking time to stop and look.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Equal Skills, Unequal Compensation

When I’m not singing, I support my chorister habit by offering research, writing, and related consulting services to a variety of clients. Services to business clients are offered through Peregrine Information Consultants; services to performing arts clients are offered through GraceNotes. Though the clientele are vastly different, their needs for research, information, and written products are similar, and I provide services to each group in much the same way.

Most of my research projects require deep secondary research, analysis, and synthesis, as well as the assimilation of a great deal of technical and arcane knowledge. The research findings are communicated in detailed, clearly-written, original technical papers, program essays, or other products that help people learn about the topic at hand. These are specialized skills that I’ve developed over a quarter century of professional practice.

On any given topic, I might spend 20 or more hours conducting research, using specialized resources not available to the lay searcher or “googler.” Though I now work as an independent consultant, my training as a professional librarian and years of experience as a reference librarian and cataloger/indexer are still central to my work.

For a typical technical paper or program essay, project, I identify, select, obtain, and read dozens of articles, book chapters, web sites, and specialized resources. As I work, I conceptualize the framework for the written product, whether it is a technical paper, a risk management guide, or program notes for an orchestra or choral concert. As I read and absorb, I continue to learn, to question what I’ve uncovered, to verify obscure or ambiguous data, and to form my conclusions and recommendations.

Drafting, writing, editing, polishing, and proofreading! If you’re a writer, you know that creating the written product can sometime take longer than the actual research. In the writing process, I consider the words, the structure of each sentence and paragraph, and the flow of information between paragraphs as well as from top to bottom of the document. My research and insights are of no value until I can articulate them cogently and persuasively for my readers.

Whether I am preparing a technical guide on a difficult risk management topic, or a musical and textual analysis of a major choral work, I follow the same general process. I invest the same skills and attention in finding the correct information, verifying facts, and writing clearly and appealingly. Whether I am writing for a major insurance company or a major symphony orchestra, my assignment is to help my readers understand challenging, unfamiliar, or abstract topics.

There’s one major difference, though, between preparing a technical paper for a business client and preparing program annotations for a performing ensemble: Compensation.

As an example: To research and prepare a three-page original technical paper for a business client, I can (and do) command a substantial four-figure fee. To research and prepare a three-page original program annotation for a full-length classical concert — an effort which requires roughly the same amount of time and the same degree of skill — I might be offered $100, $250 or at most, $500. This absurdly low fee is not the fault of the orchestra or chorus; I can’t tell you how many times a program annotation client has apologized that they can’t offer more. Rather, the low fees are simply reflections of their own absurdly low operating budgets, which in turn reflect the absurdly low funding that is available to our arts organizations.

This inequity can be extrapolated across the arts community. Compensation for professional musicians, artists, actors, writers, and those who support them, is insultingly and pathetically low. Why can a pop tart celebrity “singer” or rap “star” command millions, while truly talented local and regional musicians must take second or third jobs to support themselves and their families? The answer is, of course, that as a society, we prefer the 3-minute song by the “pop tart” to a performance by a professional classical ensemble, or an evening in a club with great local jazz combo.

This societal bias is both a product of, and a response to, the paucity of quality arts coverage in the press, from local newspapers to global media outlets. In our own community, The Hartford Courant devotes pages and pages to video games, the daily dalliances of the people we call “celebrities,” and pet photos, of all things, yet it fails to provide decent pre-concert coverage and reviews of the vibrant arts scene taking place right here in Greater Hartford. It’s a shame that our leading newspaper does not take advantage of its leadership position to help people in our community to discover and delight in the world-class talents all around us.

Why do we place so little value on true, enduring talent and creativity? When we look back fifty or a hundred years from now, will we be sorry for the choices we’ve made?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Book in Hand – Freddy and Fredericka

A few days ago, a colleague asked me what I’m reading these days. Rather than discuss all the books that are engaging me right now — two novels, an exploration of global trade in the 17th century, essays on literary and art personalities in post-Civil War America, book-length analyses of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Verdi’s Requiem, and a second reading of Maynard Solomon’s outstanding biography of Beethoven — I’ll focus on the book that our monthly book group will discuss in October, at my urging.

Freddy and Fredericka is a 2005 satirical novel by the brilliant and erudite Mark Helprin (b. 1947), one of my most favorite authors. Freddy and Fredericka are the Prince and Princess of Wales (a very thinly disguised caricature of Charles and Diana). Freddy and Fredericka, who understandably lead isolated, self-centered lives, are always getting in trouble with the press. Freddy is held in general contempt by the British public, while Fredericka’s stunning beauty and magnificent bosom (or bosoms — but I’m getting ahead of myself) distract her fans from her general apathy about her role as the Prince's consort and as the presumptive mother of kings. The general feeling is that Freddy is simply not suited to assume the crown on the death of his mother, the Queen of England (presented by Helprin as a sympathetic portrait of Elizabeth II).
When the Queen finally takes matters in hand, she (with the help of a mysterious personage who might or might not have been alive since the days of King Arthur) sends Freddy and Fredericka on an impossible quest: to re-take the American colonies for the British crown. They are dropped by parachute, penniless and nearly naked, into the industrial wastelands of Northern New Jersey. From there, they must find the means to re-capture America, and figure out exactly what it would mean to do so. In their travels across America, we see through their eyes all that is beautiful and strong and enduring about this country. We also see, through their experiences, the prejudice, despair, economic inequity, and day-to-day struggles that color the lives of so many Americans. The story takes place during the quadrennial presidential election cycle, and naturally Freddy and Fredericka get caught up in the nominating convention of one of the two major political parties, and... well, you must read it, especially now when we are preparing our hearts and minds to elect a new president.

This book is serious and silly, hilarious, outrageous, and deeply touching, and eventually develops into a most miraculous and unexpected love story. You will laugh out loud and perhaps cry, and you will think a great deal about America and the conditions in which we seem to find ourselves.

Mark Helprin’s deep understanding of history, politics, and human nature have once again combined in a memorable story which, ultimately, becomes his love song to America.
Other books by Mark Helprin that I cannot live without:

A Soldier of the Great War [my first experience with Helprin…amazing]
Memoir from Antproof Case
A Dove of the East and Other Stories
The Pacific and Other Stories
Winter’s Tale
Ellis Island and Other Stories

[POST SCRIPTUM: The book group hated it. Didn't get it. Didn't find it remotely funny. Didn't understand the satire. That night was the beginning of the end. I felt entirely disconnected from, and separated from, everyone in that room except D, who did understand the book and my pleasure in it. That night, I lost something...several years later, I can't quite define it. Lost some sort of faith in other people. Hmmm.]

[POST POST SCRIPTUM: I still love the book and count it among my all-time favorites.]

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Finding the Right Voice – One Size Does Not Fit All

One of the fun challenges of singing in several choral ensembles is finding the right voice — or voices — for the varied repertoire I sing. I’ve been thinking about this issue quite a bit as I prepare for the upcoming season. I’ve long been frustrated with choral singers who produce the same sort of sound all the time, regardless of repertoire, ensemble size, and other considerations; they sing the same way for a motet by William Byrd as they do in a chorus from a Verdi opera.

Here’s a sampling of the marvelous variety of music I’ll be singing in the 2008-2009 season.

— Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Symphony No. 9 (1824)

— William Byrd (1540-1623) O quam gloriosum (published 1589)

— Henryk Mikolaj Górecki (b.1933) Totus tuus (1987)

— Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) – Early and rarely performed choral works

— Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Requiem (1873)

— At least one program of Renaissance motets (published ca. 1450 to about 1620).

I hope there will be some Bach! in there, as well.

Over the course of the season, then, I’ll be singing music from six centuries, composed for ensembles with varying sizes, genders, purposes, and audiences. What does this require of me as a singer? What must I know about each piece of music? Questions to consider:

HISTORY AND CONTEXT. What is the history and context of each composition? When was it written? What was the vocal style or technique in use at the time? What sort of sound did the composer hope for? What do I need to do vocally to produce the right sort of sound for this music? Is this music in the original language or a translation?
Preparation: Research, reading, listening, study, conversation.

SCORING. How is the music scored? Is it unaccompanied or will instruments be playing, too? Is there divisi within each voice part, which will render fewer voices on the divided parts? To which parts am I assigned? Are there solos in which I’m interested?
Preparation: Score study, editing scores per director’s instructions.
Practice: Initial practice sessions to learn the music and consider how to approach it vocally.

VOCAL CONSIDERATIONS. What is the range and tessitura for my part? Where does my assigned part “lie” in my voice? What instructions does the composer offer that might affect my vocal production (e.g., senza vibrato, mezza di voce)? Will particular endurance or athleticism be required, such as for the Beethoven Symphony No. 9? Perhaps I am one of a group of sopranos is assigned to a part normally sung by children. What do I need to do to produce the proper sound?
Practice: Continued practice sessions to work the music “into the voice” and to work through any vocal challenges.
Rehearsal: Find the “right voice” for each selection. The “right voice” is comfortable, pleasant to sing, and pleasant to listen to. If the singing is uncomfortable, or if you are straining to sing high or low notes, check with your voice teacher or vocal section leader for advice. If the part is too high or too low, consult the director to see if it’s possible for you to sing a different part. If the 75 or so high A s in the soprano part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 are simply impossible for you to sing comfortably, then you need to change your vocal technique or perhaps sing alto for that performance. (The alto part is plenty high!) Singing should never hurt.

ENSEMBLE SIZE AND DISTRIBUTION. How many singers are in the ensemble? How are they distributed (that is, is there even coverage on all parts)? How does the number of singers on my part affect how I sing? What sort of choral sound does the ensemble typically produce? Is it light and clear, or rich and full? What are most of the voices like? What do I need to do to blend in with the ensemble’s sound?
Preparation: Take note of assignments across the entire group, especially for divisi or soli groups. Know where you fit in. Anticipate how you might need to sing differently if you are part of a smaller division.
Rehearsal: Listen carefully, making every effort to blend and balance. For example, if you are a soprano and there are four times as many sopranos as tenors, keep that in mind and sing with some restraint. If you are the only one singing with (or without) vibrato, modify your sound to be more like the others, if you can do so in a comfortable way.

DIRECTOR’S STYLE. How does the director tend to conduct this sort of music? How might his or her interpretation might affect my vocal production? For example, does the director specify when vibrato may or may not be used? Will the director expect “full throttle” in every rehearsal, or will he or she allow quiet “marking” of sustained high passages, such as in the Beethoven?
Rehearsal: Receive instruction and feedback with an open ear and an open mind, making adjustments as needed. Take careful notes to aid your at-home practice. Set your ego aside (more on that here). One soprano I know, having been asked by the director to sing senza vibrato, replied, “I worked years to learn how to sing with vibrato and I’m not going to take it out now!”
Practice: Continued practice sessions to work the music “into the voice” and to make any adjustments indicated by the director.

PROGRAM CONSIDERATIONS. What else is on the program for the performance? Is there a great deal of music that is very high, very low, or very loud? Where does this particular piece fall in the program order? If it’s first to be sung, and if it requires some special techniques or strength, do I need to do anything special to be sure I’m warmed up properly? What do I need to consider in order to sing comfortably and to produce my best sound for the entire concert?
Preparation: Score study and listening.
Rehearsal: Take it easy in the first few rehearsals as you become familiar with the vocal and stylistic demands of each piece.

PERFORMANCE VENUE. How large is the performance space? How will the chorus be placed vis-a-vis the orchestra and the audience? What is the acoustic like? How will these factors affect my singing?
Rehearsal: Listen, listen, listen, adjust, listen.

A few nights ago, I began rehearsals for anupcoming performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.The chorale finale (“Ode to Joy”) is perhaps the most taxing choral music I’ve ever sung. The soprano part has about 75 high A s (yes, someone has counted them), and many of these are sustained forte or fortissimo over many measures. Read here my insights on how I applied the questions listed above to my preparation for the rehearsals and performances of this most marvelous music.

To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here:

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Still Small Hope for Our Ultimate Survival

I believe in the power of human creativity.

A few weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the entire world seemed numb with shock and horror, the man who cares for my piano came to my house for a previously-scheduled tuning. I recall my feelings of selfishness as I spent money on the luxury of a piano tuning, when so many families were suffering with unspeakable horror and loss.

I asked Herb, the piano tuner, if his work had declined since the terrorist attack. I wondered if the weight of grief — and for some, the need to consider essential survival strategies — had taken priority over music-making in his clients’ lives. His answer, which brought tears to my eyes, was this: In the two weeks after September 11th, he had received more calls for piano tuning and restoration services than he had received in the previous six months. His customers told him that they wanted to restore old family instruments, or tune newer instruments, so that they could make music together at home with family members.

For these families, making music together was a balm for the wound of September 11th. Music was a means for finding stability and closeness in a time of uncertainty and separation. Music of years past transcended the terror of today.

I believe in the power of human creativity to balance the horrors brought about by human weaknesses.
I remember, too, that in the days following the attacks, I listened almost exclusively to news coverage on National Public Radio. I appreciated the quality of the reporting, of course, but what spoke to me most eloquently was the music NPR played between news segments. In place of the short, snappy interludes, we were comforted by long stretches of the most beautiful, most tender, most human music, along with meaningful, thoughtfully-presented poetry and literary excerpts. Here was affirmation that human-ness transcends inhumanity. Here was evidence that goodness exists, even in the presence of evil. Here was proof that though a single day might bring more hurt than we can possibly bear, yet human goodness, in the form of music, can endure for centuries.

I believe in the power of human creativity to connect us, to uplift us, and to elevate us, both as individuals and as a people.
In the years since 2001, my own life has been enriched and uplifted in music. A career change in 2003 enabled me to devote more time and thought to music-making, particularly choral singing. I’ve had opportunities to sing some of the world’s most glorious music, explore some of humankind’s most profound texts and ideas, sing under the leadership and by the sides of a few incredibly gifted musicians, and find my own place in the long history of musical creativity. For this I am profoundly grateful.

I believe in the power of human creativity to transcend time and place.
The great American musicologist H. C. Robbins Landon (b. 1926) once said that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was “as good an excuse for mankind’s survival as we shall ever encounter, and perhaps, after all, a still small hope for our ultimate survival.” * Certainly we can extrapolate Landon’s assessment, applying it to the entire realm of human creative endeavor. Thus, human creativity may be considered "as good an excuse for mankind's survival as we shall ever encounter, and ... a still small hope for our ultimate survival."

Our creativity makes us human, in the best sort of way.

I believe in the power of human creativity.

* Landon, H. C. Robbins. 1791: Mozart’s Last Year (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999).

Monday, September 8, 2008

Preparing and Working With Your Choral Scores

Fall choral rehearsals have begun!! Oh, I love this time of year. (Whose idea was it to suspend most music-making during the summer months??)

Over the next several days, I’ll accumulate a lovely collection of choral scores which will be my constant companions over the next several months. I’ll have some of the scores for only a few weeks (anthems to be sung in church early in the season), but others will be with me throughout the fall as I prepare for concerts taking place later in the season. In all cases, the scores require some attention prior to rehearsals. I’ve found that I can get more out of rehearsal time if I’ve taken the time at home to prepare my scores and folders.

Be organized. If you sing in more than one ensemble, keep the music for each group in its own folder. Find a means of distinguishing each folder from the others, so you don’t end up at the Chorale rehearsal with your church choir folder. Organize the contents each folder so that you can find music quickly during rehearsal. This will depend on the rehearsal style of the conductor. For one of my ensembles, I keep the music in concert order, since the director tends to rehearse in order. For my church choir, the director refers to scores by their library numbers, so the music in that folder is arranged in numerical order. Sometimes the Director will specify how the folders are to be organized. If the folder contains more than a half-dozen scores, consider adding "sticky note" tabs to help you find individual items quickly.

Be prepared. Bring all your music to every rehearsal. Get to rehearsal early enough to pick up new scores (or other handouts) and get them into your folder in the proper places. Take a few minutes to glance through new music to find out where your part lies and to be alert to any divisi. Mark your name or initials (in pencil) on the front cover; it’s always nice to get your own scores back again if the music is performed again in the future. (This is especially useful in choirs where the scores are not numbered or otherwise assigned to individual singers.)

Be thorough. Some directors prepare “master scores” from which the singers are to copy into their own scores the director's instructions for breathing, interpretive dynamics, divisi assignments, etc. Be sure to get all these advance markings and annotations into your score before the first rehearsal. While marking your own part is of primary importance, consider taking time to edit all the other voice parts, too. There are at least three good reasons for doing so: First, your voice section may be asked to sing along with another voice part. If your score is fully marked, you’ll be ready! Second, you will benefit by learning more about the score and how the voices work together. Finally, singers who may use your score in the future will thank you. (I like to use “sticky notes” to record instructions that pertain only to a specific performance, such as sit-stand cues or notes about performance-specific cuts.)

Be responsive. Use your pencil. (Use only a pencil.) Mark all instructions, interpretations, dynamics, corrections, pronunciations, etc., from the Director that apply to your part. It is impossible to remember all the instructions; you must mark your score. Your attentiveness and care in taking down instructions will save the Director from having to repeat instructions at subsequent rehearsals. Consider marking in your score the instructions for other voice parts, too, so that you can understand the Director’s interpretation of the entire score and better understand how your part fits in.

Be responsible. Keep your music clean, protected, and in good condition. If your music has been lent to you, be sure to turn it in after the concert(s). The librarian, who most often volunteers his or her time, will be grateful! Most choral groups are on tight budgets, and music is more expensive than you might think. In some cases, older music may be out of print and cannot be replaced. Remember, too, that the music lent to you may have been borrowed or rented from another organization, and your ensemble is responsible for returning it on time and in good condition.

You might also be interested in my thoughts on “Getting the Most Out of a Choral Rehearsal,” posted here. That essay was also reprinted in April (with permission) in the newsletter of the Rawstorne Singers (based in Longton, near Preston in Lancashire, U.K.).

Happy singing!

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Mighty Missa Solemnis

In a few days, [an ensemble in which I used to sing] and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra enter "production week" for performances of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis ....
Production week (also called tech week) can be daunting: we rehearse every night but one, the evenings are very long, and our first few rehearsals this week will be held in a crowded, airless room that is visually and acoustically barren. Thorough preparation and utter attentiveness on the part of every singer will be key to good rehearsals and satisfying performances. Later in the week we move to the stunning and graceful Mortensen Auditorium at The Bushnell, where we'll have better light, space, room, and acoustic. In an earlier essay, I wrote about the challenges of transitioning from piano rehearsals to orchestral rehearsals. Much to think about as we work through our final rehearsals.

Adding to the challenge will be grappling with the work itself: Beethoven's mighty and magnificent Missa Solemnis. Beethoven's dramatic quasi-operatic score calls for a degree of vocal , physical, and intellectual stamina that surpasses anything that most composers dare to contemplate. Of course, the vocal challenges of the Missa Solemnis are well known, as I wrote about in the same earlier essay. We sing VERY HIGH! We sing very low! We sing VERY LOUDLY! We sing very softly. We sing suddenly, we start, we stop. We shift, we soar, we dive, we grovel. We embrace, we reject, we reconcile. We weep, we pray, we rejoice, we shout, we rage.

The choir sings nearly from start to finish; there are no solo arias or ensembles during which the choir may sit for entire movements, as happens in many masses or oratorios. (We will be seated very briefly — just 60 seconds — between movements.) ... I was about to write "And we must also contend with the orchestra," meaning that we must be able to sing over, through, and with the instrumental forces that are seated between us and the audience. But "contend with" sounds adversarial, and that is not at all the case. Rather, the chorus is part of Beethoven's orchestra. The Missa is not really vocal music, is it? It's instrumental music overlaid with text.

By calling the vocal writing "instrumental," I do not mean to imply that Beethoven writes without regard to text. On the contrary, his mastery of the texts and their historical and theological subtleties is complete. (I could write an entire essay on the word-painting and textual expressiveness in the Missa Solemnis.) Rather, I mean that Beethoven does not write sympathetically for the voice, as, for example, Mozart did so instinctively and so successfully. When singing Mozart, one always senses that the composer understood the vocal instrument completely and had it in mind as he wrote, much as he completely understood the clarinet, writing for that instrument the two seminal works (Concerto, K. 622 and Quintet, K. 582) that remain the best in the repertoire. Bach might be a better contrasting example; his vocal music is also essentially instrumental, yet he wrote with innate understanding for the voice, such that performing his music is a physical and vocal pleasure even as it is intellectually and spiritually fulfilling.

Beethoven, on the other hand, seems to have made no effort to accommodate the vocal instrument. On the contrary, the vocal writing in the Missa seem to be deliberately imitative of orchestral instruments, and I believe that we should sing them that way. Beethoven expects that the choral singers will be able to sing the Missa with clarity, conviction, and command. To do so requires finding the right voice for this particular music; I'll explore that topic in my next essay.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here: