Updated: Jan 11, 2020
The first rehearsal is a bit like the first day of school. The excitement of seeing old friends, the anticipation of the new kids, the gathering of bags, supplies, sharpened pencils. There is the apprehension that your skills are up to par, the hope that your hard work produces success, and the thrill of accomplishment. But unlike the first day of school, being a member of a choir is not about individual success. Every bit of hard work, study, and sharpened pencil is focused on a goal larger than yourself. It is about serving your fellow choristers, serving the artistic decisions of the Director, serving the music, serving the audience. If you do it right, you can serve the world at large through an expression of indefinable beauty.
As I walk into the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts to attend the first Atlanta Master Chorale rehearsal of the 2016-2017 season, these thoughts run through my head. My voice is ready because I sang vocal warm-ups in the car, and decided not to belt out the C on “I Dreamed a Dream” when it came on the radio. I stop just before the doorway to take stock of my supplies: my pencil and auxiliary pencil are in my purse, even though I know that there will be a brand new one from our volunteer librarian tucked neatly into my music packet. When Dr. Nelson gives marks to my section, I don’t want to be notating them in my score with sweet Georgia air, or worse, a pen. My phone is not only on silent, but turned all the way off. I would be mortified if it bumped against something in my purse and the strains of “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” that my kindergartner watched that morning shattered through a pianissimo chord. I take a sip from my giant water bottle, essential fuel for a singer. I sling my official Atlanta Master Chorale tote-bag over my shoulder which will keep my music folder safe for transport. Finally, I enter.
Before the very first rehearsal of each season, we gather for a light dinner. Choristers come in as they are released from work, family, and the tangle of Atlanta traffic. Old friends greet with hugs and hellos. New singers tip-toe in, almost always early. As all musicians know, early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable. Because I brought the food as Hospitality Chair, I get to help welcome the new choristers. I remember vividly the feeling of walking into that room: you know you have joined a top tier group, you hope your voice is warm and your sight-reading is swift, and also, you wonder who you will sit by at the lunch table. Happily, choristers old and new begin to mingle and blend, just as we will in song. Dr. Nelson comes down from whatever wonderful work he stepped away from as Director of Choral Studies at Emory, gives greetings and grabs a sandwich. At his entrance, choristers finish their meals, gather their water and pencils, and begin to file into the rehearsal hall. I quickly clean up some of the food and look around for my own things. Dr. Nelson thanks me and says what might become my new life motto: “Katy, stop cleaning. Come and sing.”
In the rehearsal hall, there is a traffic jam at the music stand which displays the seating chart. The seating assignments are decided by Dr. Nelson in consultation with the audition panel, made up of long-time choristers. Where you sit is determined by your voice type (Bass, Baritone, Tenor, Alto, Soprano), which part you sing when the music has many parts, and the tone color of your voice. I am thrilled to discover that I am placed next to our resident violinist/soprano, who is both extremely kind and an extremely good sight-reader. Grateful in the knowledge that the correct notes will be beautifully sung into my ear from the first run-through, I walk to my chair. While my sight-reading skills are good enough to earn me a place in Atlanta Master Chorale, I will be sure to circle any missed notes and learn them at home. I can’t be singing wrong notes into my friend’s ear.
Dr. Nelson steps up to the podium and the naturally chatty group of singers settles down. He gives a bit of a preamble, thanking us for our time and praising our talent. He lays out the expectations and rehearsal procedures: we sight-read fast, rarely stopping to play through individual parts. It is our responsibility to learn the parts sung that evening before the next rehearsal. It will be clear that he gives many breath marks and dynamic cues that we are to write down as we sight-read. With seven, only SEVEN rehearsals, to prepare music before the first concert, there is no time for re-teaching. He acknowledges that although we make music at the level of professional choirs, we are a true community choir. No singer is paid; on the contrary, we pay dues for the privilege of singing with Atlanta Master Chorale. No one is flown in; we all live, work, and raise our families in Atlanta. True, most of us have had musical training, and many are professional musicians and music educators. But as Dr. Nelson points out, we are doing this in the margins of our lives. We all make sacrifices from work, friends, family to be in this group. I think of my three-year-old and five-year-old at home with my husband who leaves work early every Tuesday so I can be here. Singing, and especially in such a fantastic group, makes me a better mother and wife. Participating in Atlanta Master Chorale makes me a better person in general. The beauty, the challenge, the artistry, the leadership, the kind, excited, fun fellow choristers around me are such an asset in my life. I glance around to see the reactions of the choir. No one is sighing at the workload, there are no rolled eyes at the challenge we are undertaking. Everyone, every singer is nodding and looking eagerly at Dr. Nelson. We know there is something special here. Something extraordinary.
At last, it is time to make music. Dr. Nelson asks everyone to breathe in unison. Then slowly, he builds the first sound of the year: the basses sing the root of a chord. Tenors join on the fifth. The altos echo the basses on the root and the sopranos soar in on the higher fifth. Dr. Nelson gives the downbeat. We sing, surrounded by this beautiful, warm, glorious in-tune chord. The sound feels like the best of humanity, hope and beauty enveloping the room.
The season has begun.