A few nights ago, I was making tacos for dinner and singing in my kitchen. Feeling in need of a distraction, I sang through some of my favorite old standards. “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a tune I adore, and I sang the intro as I stirred the filling on the stove,
“There’s a saying old: says that love is blind…”
Continuing on, I gave a little push of breath and a change in vowel placement to the higher note “Seek… (and ye shall find”)
On the third line in, I took my first intentional breath to give some steam to the ascending scale that ends the introduction.
I paused, then began the first verse as I reached for some spices and twirled back to the now-burning pan of filling. “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see…” It sounded nice, I was having fun. I bent down to answer a burning question from a little “somebody” who had scampered into the kitchen. In lieu of a decent breath, I began the next phrase with a big scoop as I stood and grabbed another container out of the fridge. That phrase was -if I’m honest- a hair pitchy because there was no breath behind it and I wasn’t paying much attention to vowels. Distracted again by a request for a snack, I hummed the rest of the song until my little audience had departed, cookie in hand.
It was fun, and it was all fine- the kid with the dinner-spoiling cookie was fine, the half-scorched tacos were fine, the song had sounded fine. “Someone to Watch Over Me” wasn’t performance-ready of course, but I wasn’t really rehearsing. I was cooking. While singing. Casually.
Cut to Tuesday evening, as the Atlanta Master Chorale choristers rehearsed for our three upcoming performances. Near the end of rehearsal, we pulled out Josef Rheinberger’s little choral jewel “Abendlied.” Many of us had sung it before and it isn’t technically difficult. As often occurs, Dr. Nelson gave a little nugget of information about the song, a small reminder; many of us gave a laugh or a smile or quiet remark to our neighbor, we heard the pitches, took a unison breath, and immediately began to sing. There isn’t time allotted for massive preparation. We don’t completely change our posture, we don’t take several beats to get mentally prepared, we definitely don’t hum our note aloud for several seconds, and we don’t close our eyes and contemplate choirs singing to change the world. Dr. Nelson gives the downbeat, we breathe, and we sing.
To the observer, it can look almost as casual as my taco night serenade, but the sound produced would beg to differ. When we begin Abendlied, we are managing every element of technique. The first pair of consonants is “Bl” and belongs to the German word “Bleib” (meaning “bide,” or “abide”). Both of those sounds need to be voiced on pitch, at the exact time as 30 other women. The next sound is a vowel sound much like “awh.” This vowel needs to be warm, full, connected to the very bottom of the breath. It also needs to match across the board, and the F major chord needs to ring with intonation. The dynamic is piano (softly) but the tone needs to retain life, warmth, and depth. We need to immediately remember that German pronunciation can be tricky and the word “bleib” is not pronounced “bleeeb.” That takes us to the end of the word into the next, which requires a “p” sound immediately followed by the “b” of “bei” (“with”). As we know, P and B are different consonants and need to sound that way, in unison, in a millisecond, to the person listening in the very last row of Schwartz. The last word of the phrase is “uns” (“us”) and demands a stoppage of sound, a tiny, in-tune, bump called a glottal. This glottal must be done on a pitch, with nary a scoop from any of the women, and without interrupting the flow of breath. When we sing “uns” on the downbeat, the men make their first entrance echoing our “Bleib bei uns.”
After all of this management, all of this purposeful, thoughtful, connected singing has passed, we are only five seconds into the song.
During last dress rehearsal, before the Christmas concerts, we were having a lot of fun with the familiar tune, “Sleigh Ride.” Dr. Nelson acknowledged our gleeful attitude, but added a reminder:
“You can have fun, and you should. This is fun. But this song--and every song--deserves your full attention; your full scope of musicianship. You can’t relax for a second.”
So many of us multi-task for what seems like an eternity. We so often give each task the minimum of attention needed for its completion because the task list is endless. While we work, messages zap through our concentration on our phones, computers, even now on our wrists. We fight off distraction (or give into it) countless times a day, even in our interaction with other people. It’s rare these days to be encouraged, or even allowed, to give 100% focus on anything.
We each show up to rehearsal every Tuesday for our own reasons. But I would argue that the demand for our entire musicianship, our complete, undivided attention to the music for a few hours, is a big draw. It is a welcome change to the pace of life to open a folder of challenging, heart-wrenching, soul-opening music and know that you must dedicate 100% of yourself to it that evening. And we don’t do it alone: we must make this music in agreement with our fellow choristers. Every breath, every vowel, every consonant, every cut-off has to be together with and agreed upon by the people surrounding us. When we are successful, we immediately hear the results. We have the opportunity to engage with a task we love, and with people we’re happy to see each week. Every second we are singing, we abide with each other.
Bleib bei uns. Abide with us.
We hope to see you soon.
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