(Photo: N. Voelker)

I wrote these exact words in my music while rehearsing for our Season Premiere concert.  The song was “Come to the Woods” by Jake Runestad.  The part that struck my heart started with Jon Easter lovingly playing the second theme of the piece: the one that rises in hope at the end.  It continued with the men singing, strikingly beautifully, the following invitation: “Come to the woods, for here is rest.”  Listening to Jon and his fellow men perform this small section had me in tears Every. Single. Time.

There is a piece (or two, or three, or four…) on each concert that goes straight to the heart of each chorister.  Singers not only bring their professional musical backgrounds to rehearsal, but their lives, loves, passions, and past come along for the ride.  For me, a song that touches on the sacredness of nature speaks to something deep within me.  I grew up visiting the family cottage in Northern Michigan.  We were nestled in the woods, surrounded by birds and animals who greeted us in the morning.  Meals were eaten on the dock over the shimmering pale blue lake.  I have memories of floating down a narrow woodland path on my grandfather’s shoulders as he taught me the names of trees.   My grandmother Mimi would sit and catch dragonflies on her hand, pointing out the delicacy and beauty of their big wings so we wouldn’t be frightened.  When I was in high school, my family moved “Up North.”  Friendships were cemented and the great existential crises of every teenager were wrestled with under a canopy of trees hiking back to the Big Lake.  The man who would become my husband and I bonded over a mutual understanding of the spiritual significance of Up North.  Every summer, I stand at the edge of the dock at my husband’s family cottage to take a breath of simple gratitude.

These memories, some as hazy as the light shimmering through the leaves on an Up North summer day, leap out of my heart as I listen to the men sing the beautiful line, “Come to the woods, for here is rest.”  Each time my memories connect to the gorgeous music and the stunning performance, I get choked up.  Unfortunately, there are side effects to tears: a tightening of the throat and a shallowness of breath.   I really need my breathing to be deep and my throat to be operational to, you know…sing.  My section has an entrance just one measure after the men finish the line that gets me so worked up.  One measure is not enough time to have a complete emotional breakdown, recover, and be ready to sing.  Hence, I write myself a little note:

“Don’t cry; just breathe.”

So what do we do as singers?  Do we become robots, devoid of emotion so that the consequences of our feelings don’t interfere with the technical operation of our instruments?  Of course not; that would be inauthentic, and in a word, boring.  Do we lean back and indulge in our own private experiences, shaping each phrase around our memories?  No, we can’t do that either because we would disconnect from each other.  Dr. Nelson reminds us that each time we move to a new note, we are creating a new chord.  So phrase, yes.  Tone, yes.  Text, absolutely.  But also: chord, chord, chord, chord.  Intonation creates a significant magic in and of itself.

How can we combine the technical proficiency and the heart?  There is a phrase that is often said to me by strangers (usually when I am in public with my small children resembling a miniature circus.)  The phrase is “Cherish every moment.”  Each note that is performed in a concert needs to be managed on several levels: placement, tone, dynamics, intonation, text.  At the same time, we are aware of the song’s meaning, both what the composer may have intended and what it means to us personally.  When the second sopranos sing the repeated phrase that rises to the flat sixth in Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine,” we need to be sure that that note tunes perfectly with the chord being sung underneath.  At the same time, we need to express what that phrase may represent: the idea, the world, calling to Master Leonardo?  The foreshadowing of his machine rising into the air at the end of the piece?  And of course, we should be aware of the experience: we’re singing an amazing Whitacre piece with incredible colleagues under inspirational leadership in a beautiful hall for a wonderful audience.  The answer to the question is: we have to do it all, bring everything we have, to each moment.  Each note must be enjoyed, thought through, cared for, blended to the notes being sung around us, and then given to the past.

Cherish every moment.

When my voice students prepare for a recital, we speak about the impact of their performance.  I remind them that while they participate to showcase their learning, they will never know who may be sitting in the audience needing desperately to hear what they have to sing.  The singer has a responsibility to perform with technical acumen and authenticity, allowing those in the audience to connect their own memories and feelings to each piece.  During our concert, perhaps there was an audience member/musician who had a moment of nostalgia thinking of the lives they had touched while listening to Dr. Nelson’s “We Are the Music Makers.”  Maybe there were people struggling with the great amount of dissention and injustice in the world whose feelings were acknowledged in the performance of our very own Joel Thompson’s “Dreams.”  To that point, I’m sure there were folks looking for a moment of levity who may have found it in “Life is But a Dream” or “Mister Sandman.”

Over the weekend, I pondered my personal enjoyment of the Season Premiere performance.   Something occurred to me:  The audience gives us an incredible gift.  Each person in Schwartz Center on Saturday night made a significant amount of effort to be there.  From taking time away from weekend responsibilities, to fighting Atlanta traffic, to allocating money for a ticket, every audience member made some sort of sacrifice to come and listen to us sing.

If any of my gentle readers has the care and keeping of their own personal musician, you know we can be a dramatic lot.  We have an inherent need to emote, to express, to feel.  And many of us feel very deeply.  You, as audience members, could not know what we brought with us in our hearts on Saturday night.  You had no idea which one of us; maybe all of us, needed desperately to be heard.  Perhaps our creative ideas had been dismissed at work that week.  Maybe we were struggling to be understood by the people closest to us that day, that week, that year.  I’m sure several of us had something wonderful we were remembering during the concert and we just did not know how to express our joy other than to sing.  But on Saturday night, you were there.  You heard us.  You listened.  We were thrilled and humbled by your generous applause.  But more than that, we felt your presence in those silent moments.  The anticipation, the total silence filled with rippling energy told us that your feelings connected with ours.  You understood what we worked so hard to express.  You came and you listened.  And for this gift, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

With that, gentle reader, I must conclude this rather long blog post.  I have to wipe my cheeks and unclench my throat.  And probably take a few deep breaths.  I’m going to need my instrument to be operational in a few hours.  It’s rehearsal day.