A Requiem in the spring.
It seems odd to sing about grief and death as we watch new life blossom outside the rehearsal room windows. The National ACDA Conference schedule required that we switch our usual March MasterWorks concert with our “Season Finale” spring program on our concert schedule. As our advertisement states, Brahms’ German Requiem is one of the most exquisite choral masterworks ever written. So, we open our scores, listen to Jon play the first strains of music, and count ourselves “selig.”
Upon further consideration, a Requiem in the spring is apt for many of us. School years end in the spring. The teachers in the room may be grieving the departure of some of their favorite students. Many Emory student singers are saddened by the ending of their university lives even as they look to the future. Because we never really know what is going on behind the smiling faces of our colleagues, singing Brahms’ Requiem could be cathartic and healing for some of our singers as they work through personal troubles. Concert seasons also end in the spring. All of us hope we are asked back in the fall, but there are some of us who know that the Brahms concert will be our last with Atlanta Master Chorale. I am one of them.
This spring, my husband was offered his dream job in our home state of Michigan. After many nights of discussion and weighing the pros and cons, we decided that taking the job would be in the best interest of our family. And so, he left to begin work in Michigan while I stayed in Georgia to finish out my concert season and allow our two young children to finish their school years. While of course I rejoice to be near my family and friends again, I am grieving the loss of Atlanta Master Chorale. My time here has renewed my life.
When I arrived in Atlanta, I was deep in the throes of parenting two babies while my husband worked ungodly hours. We had moved to Denver, CO when our eldest was 2 months old. We were ready for a great adventure, skiing and climbing the Rocky Mountains. The reality hit: we knew no one, my husband worked 90 hours a week, and skiing with a baby is… not great. Two years later, we moved to Atlanta when our younger child was 2 months old. I had voluntarily given up a job in Michigan that I loved teaching music in order to be a full-time parent. Throwing myself into my new work, I assumed that I had no time to teach, to sing, to absorb music. This was clearly a mistake. Musicians need to make music in the same way that we need to breathe air. Without music, we are lost, broken, and I was no different. When I arrived in Atlanta, although I hid it well, I was very adrift. My old college buddy Don reached out to me on Facebook, invited me to sing the Brahms Requiem with his church choir, and insisted that I audition for the group he sang with: Atlanta Master Chorale. I knew deep down that I had to do it, but I was petrified. Three years away from my craft, delirious with lack of sleep, confidence whittled down to a stub from endless days in isolation cleaning up Cheerios and thrown sippy cups had wracked my nerves. I had a degree in music from an amazing university and a wonderful track record as a music teacher before I decided to exclusively stay home. If I auditioned and blew it, or simply wasn’t good enough, what would that say about me? What would it say about the 19 years I spent studying singing? What might it say about who I was?
We know the end of this story: obviously that remaining tiny stub of confidence and children’s naptimes spent polishing up recital repertoire and sight-reading skills paid off: I passed the audition and was offered a spot in Atlanta Master Chorale. Through my four-year tenure here, my confidence in myself and my musicianship grew because it absolutely had to. I had been offered a spot because Dr. Nelson and the audition panel believed I could contribute to this award-winning group; the agreement was that I would, on every note. Dr. Nelson asked me privately before our first rehearsal if I could sing a high B. I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He looked somewhat appalled and said, “No, if you can sing it, you can sing it– I need another soprano to sing this part.” I told him yes and realized that my acceptance into the choir meant that I indeed belonged in the upper echelons of choral groups. There was nothing to prove; just work to do. (And you can bet that I spent the rest of the week desperately bringing back my clear, floaty high B from wherever it disappeared to after college.) The things I had studied and taught and loved all started to come back to me, slowly, slowly. Naptimes and nighttimes were spent reviewing notes, vocal technique, foreign language pronunciation, sight-reading skills. Soon though, I found that I was anticipating rather than trying to keep up. The confidence and trust that are placed in Atlanta Master Chorale choristers seeped into my soul. For the first time in years, I blossomed.
As the move draws near, many people have assured me that I will find a choir to sing with in Michigan, and I smile and nod politely. I surely will, but there is something so unique and special here. I doubt even if I searched the world over that I could replicate it.
The singers, while world-class and extremely talented, are devoid of self-promotion. I am still amazed by the genuine appreciation of each other and the lack of ego. It’s a hard thing to sing in a choir: your mistakes and weaknesses are laid bare every second for the brilliant colleague next to you to hear. It’s easy to resort to eyerolls, pursed lips, aggressively hummed notes, forming cliques, gossiping about who is making mistakes, offering unsolicited suggestions to others and the director to protect yourself from this constant vulnerability. None of this is done here. We raise our hands when we make a mistake to acknowledge it so the entire group doesn’t have to stop. We ask our neighbor to sing the line or phrase for us quickly on a break. We observe mistakes in our section one too many times and take the mistake on as our own, saying, “I’m having trouble with this measure; could we please go over it?” Sure, the sopranos and tenors may smirk at each other to see which section can out-diva the other on an echoed phrase, but we also grin, stomp, snap, clap, and swoon when we hear our friends across the room absolutely nail their part.
Recently, Dr. Nelson asked a few of his conducting students/Atlanta Master Chorale choristers to lead rehearsal while he was on a concert tour in Spain with one of his college choirs. It says a great amount about the respect and trust that pervade the Atlanta Master Chorale culture that every singer showed up to this rehearsal, on-time, serious, and ready to work. We gave our “guest conductors” and “guest accompanists” the same attentiveness as we give to Dr. Nelson and Jon. They didn’t take the opportunity to reinterpret the piece as their own, and we obeyed their every gesture. Our guest leaders conducted beautifully, made it so easy to sing the challenging music, and worked fast in deference to our time and our voices.
We all know each other’s resumes, and we clearly hear each other’s talents. But there is no competition, no ego. It’s bizarre. And absolutely wonderful.
The whole experience reflected what seems to be the general attitude of the leadership here, from Dr. Nelson to our amazing Board to our volunteers: “If you are here, you have been asked to help us accomplish our great goals; we believe and trust in you and we will do this together.” This supportive environment is created from the top and it trickles down into everything that we do.
We have an incredible leader in Dr. Nelson. So far, he has requested that I “leave him out of the blog” insisting that, “they want to hear about your experience, not about me.” In fact, one post originally featured him prominently and he called me in the middle of his work day to politely suggest that I take a different direction. I ended up taking three pages of notes from this call, all quotes from him praising our abilities and hard work.
The mark of a true leader is someone who attracts the best talent, brings them to the goal (and past it), then calmly passes all the accolades attained from the hard work right back to the group. Having worked with many choral directors and administrators, I can say this type of humility is a rare thing. I’m hoping he will indulge me on this last post and allow me to publish a fraction of what we all say about him:
Dr. Nelson is the most-prepared conductor many of us have sung for. He comes to rehearsal with every note in his head, every gesture, every breath mark, and every reason why ready on his page. When he can’t decide on certain phrasing, he respects our musicianship enough to simply ask our opinion. Expectations are high, his confidence in us is real, and rehearsals move fast. Each Tuesday night is like a master class in conducting, teaching, music history, and singing. Our instruments are in safe hands when we sing for him: recently he spent a chunk of rehearsal time explaining and demonstrating the musical and textual themes that weave through the Requiem. We gained a deeper knowledge of the piece, but his plan also served to preserve our voices. The German Requiem is vocally taxing. He intentionally sacrificed precious singing time in his own rehearsal to safeguard our instruments for the rest of the singing and teaching many of us had ahead that week. By not having the kind of leader who says, “My group should be the most important thing in your life,” Atlanta Master Chorale retains singers who move heaven and earth to make this group paramount in their unrelenting schedules.
Lastly, and most significantly, it is clear that he truly cares about each singer in the group. I have no doubt that many of us have stories of the general culture of Atlanta Master Chorale more profound than this, but here is mine: when I realized I would have to tell Dr. Nelson that I would be moving out of state and thus leaving the group, I sent an email asking if he had time for a quick phone call in the near future. He called me three minutes after I hit send, again – in the middle of the work day. Dr. Nelson took 40 minutes out of his day to listen to me, reassure me, thank me, and let me know how much I was appreciated. At the end of the day, the impact of this announcement on my life will be far greater than the impact on Dr. Nelson or on Atlanta Master Chorale. After all, this is the nature of community choirs: lives and situations change, singers come and go. As we sing in the Requiem, I am aware that “my days are but a handsbreath” in the long and successful life of this group. But the fact remains that our Artistic Director, who has college choirs, masters students, doctoral students, Atlanta Master Chorale, and his own personal life to tend to, immediately responded with such genuine care to my little call. And that is the type of leader I will always be proud to have worked for, and one I hope to emulate whenever I have the chance to lead.
Back to Brahms: in that rehearsal where we learned about the themes of the text, we discovered that this Requiem does not use the liturgy from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass. Instead, Brahms chose passages from the Bible, written in German. As we learned, Brahms wants us to understand that yes, there may be grief now. Real, terrible grief. But later, and eternally, there is hope. Grief is the nature of humanity; so many of us are grieving desperate things. In this season of my life, I grieve the loss of my time in Atlanta Master Chorale; it is my biggest personal sacrifice as my family prepares for this transition. But because I was given a place here four summers ago, I have hope. I know I will continue to sing, to teach, to write, to lead. I know never to let the song drift away from my life again, because no matter what other titles I claim, I am Musician. I will leave a piece of my heart on the Schwartz Center Stage on Sunday evening, but I will fill the hole with the great gift Atlanta Master Chorale has given me: hope. Because I belonged to Atlanta Master Chorale for this brief time, I am eternally selig.