Posted by: facetothewind | April 28, 2008

An A-choired Taste

Look at my face. There is only one time in my life when my face looks like that. It is the freshly-you-know-what face. Recently I acquired another reason to have that face. Or shall I say, a-choired?

When one is 44 it isn’t so easy to find a project that is so completely overwhelming and joyous that it is life changing. In January, I talked my friends Nancy (pictured above) and Alex into joining the University of Arizona Community Chorus. We had no idea what to expect, though I think we all thought it was going to be a lot of fa-la-las and doodley-doos. It was not. Our first night, Dr. Schauer walked into the choral rehearsal room and kicked our butts. Hard. Relentlessly.

She stepped to the center of the room just to the right of a big, black Steinway with an accompanist and watched the clock, “5-4-3-2-1. OK, quiet everyone. Open your Haydn to page 11, bottom system, tenors and altos. Pitches please. Here’s your tempo, now sing. What was THAT? Where do you get your tempo? Did you like how you sounded? Then how about you make an adjustment and sing it right this time? Stop stop stop. When I say stop that means stop singing. When I say no talking that means no talking! Altos, open your mouths and sing PRETTY. Sopranos, if you can’t make the right sound, then don’t sing it. Just don’t sing it. Basses, you were late. I’m in three and if you slow down like that, we’re never going to finish this piece. Tenors – why didn’t you come in – are you afraid? If we do it again, do you think you can get the pitch right this time? If your neighbor sang in the rest, hit them. Is that what you’re going to do for the performance? Write it in your notes and when I say write it in your notes I don’t mean stand there and look at me. I mean take your pencil and write! Didn’t I tell you not to breathe in between those notes? Mark your music. Altos – nice solo in the rest. What are you going to do next time? That was a G-sharp on the ‘um.’ Respect the choir.”

It was clear there was going to be no hand-holding and molly-coddling here. Now, I am a good sight reader of music and yet I opened the score to layers of notes and parts I had never seen before. It was terrifying. I’ve hardly ever sung anything other than Over the Rainbow and suddenly I’m reading 4 parts + piano, soloists, orchestra and singing in Latin. My first thought was, oh dear what have I done—what have I dragged my friends into?

Then came the wall of sound…150 voices stacked up in risers, belting out a Kyrie from Haydn’s Lord Nelson mass. The sopranos towered over all of us like white lillies, the altos provided a smooth mother’s voice, the tenors a majestic velvet and then the basses. Oh the basses…my people…singing us down a river of rich dark chocolate like we were in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. I became addicted in that first wave of sound that practically blew my clothes off leaving me naked with goose bumps. I sneaked in a glance at Alex over in the tenors. The sweat beading up on his forehead told me he was freaking. I looked back over my left shoulder at Nancy in altos who gave me a composite look of surprise, terror and joy.

We met up with each other in the break, still panting from our first hour at musical boot camp. Among the three of us, this it what it sounded like: “Holy shit, I had no idea, I’m sorry I dragged you into this. I don’t think this is going to work. I can’t do this. This is just too advanced. I don’t read music. I can’t keep up. She’s going too fast. I’m way over my head. Well, I’ll just come and learn and I won’t sing at the concert.”

It seemed like it was curtains for our overly ambitious attempt at choir. What we wanted were some fa-la-las and doodley-doos. We never got them. Instead we got visibilium omnium et invisibilium omnium…ad nauseum…which translates to “they shall cry, but there shall be none to help them.” And don’t forget the goddam G-sharp on that last um. Ugh.

Alex, Nancy and I agreed to give it another week before we would decide whether to drop out. I talked to Dr. Schauer (“Betsy” to her contemporaries) and told her that even though I read music, I’m not sure I’m going to make it. “By the time we get to the performance, you’ll be leading the group,” she told me with a big smile. What happened to the musical drill sergeant? She seemed so friendly. Considering her extreme knowledge, I was willing to give her words of encouragement a chance. I went home, got into bed and cracked open the Haydn. I was going to master this damn piece. I dug into the text and read all 80 pages of Latin, word-by-word. I didn’t sleep at all.

Next Tuesday arrived and more of the cursory butt-kicking, only this time I was starting to like it. Not because it felt so good when she stopped, but because I could feel my neuro-pathways opening up. My brain was expanding rapidly and I knew that if I stuck it out, even if I didn’t perform out of respect for the musical integrity of the choir, I would have grown enormously. I committed myself to it.

I checked in with Alex and Nancy after rehearsal #2. Nancy was in. Alex was still on the fence, not wanting to commit for sure. Both of them work full-time jobs and a 7-9:30 pm rehearsal was thoroughly exhausting. But each week we came back and our collective conversations were starting to sound like this:

“Betsy was so funny tonight. Don’t you just LOVE her? She’s both tough and funny at the same time. I love getting my butt kicked. Did you love that part in the Benedictus in measure 128 when the altos are coming down and the basses are going up? Wasn’t that GORGEOUS? Oh, and the vibrations. It’s unbelievable. Indescribable. I’m definitely going to do this. I think I can do the performance. It’s starting to make sense. Oh I just love being in the choir. It’s the highlight of my week.”

The three of us did some private rehearsing at my piano a few times. We did some ear training and I gave them some tips about how to read musical notation. And little by little, like a butterfly, the beauties of choir came to alight on our outstretched hands.

Fast forward to the performance yesterday at Crowder Hall on campus. We mingled backstage in our tuxedoes and black dresses waiting for word that it was time to line up for our procession on stage. For the past 3 months, I had spent an hour or two each day at my computer with earphones on, repeating each section on iTunes, over and over until I basically had the entire mass memorized.

Betsy called for us to line up in the backstage hall. I plucked hairs off my neighboring singer’s tux jacket and fixed his collar. I sucked down some more water. With our music books in our left hands, we quietly filed through the backstage toward the stage door. And then we each stepped onto the risers and walked in single file to our designated place. The lights brightened. Betsy stepped onto the stage for a round of applause and we opened our books. Betsy was a blur of waving arms at the distant podium as seen through my reading glasses. The audience was invisible behind her.

The 23-piece orchestra and pipe organ began the Haydn. I tried to smile but nerves wouldn’t allow my lips to part. In just about 10 more seconds, we would be making our big choral entry. The mass begins big and bold with a high D – too high for me as a bass singer to sing with chest voice. I had to sing it falsetto and I had to get it right the first time. The orchestra continued its lead in and Betsy looked up from the orchestra at us and raised her eyebrows. It was time. She opened her mouth in an exaggerated way to indicate that we should be inhaling for our first big, forte “kyrie!” I let go and out it came like a smoke ring…a perfect “Ky…” in falsetto at high volume and an immediate octave drop into chest voice to a more reasonable D for the “…ri-e.” I did it! I felt as triumphant as this mass – to commemorate the English victory over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Within moments, I was able to relax and sing this mass like I meant it. It went by at lightning speed. The scribbles in my score passed quickly before my eyes telling me where to breathe, where NOT to sing, to sing pretty, to LISTEN. Half way through I had not sung in a rest, I had not dropped my music or bonked my neighbor’s head. I had not fallen off the risers, I hadn’t lost my place or sung a wrong note. I was dripping sweat. I felt droplets working their way down my legs. I could smell the wet sheep rising up as my sweat soaked my wool tuxedo.

Keep going, David, keep it up! Don’t screw up now, I told myself, you can do it.

In the Benedictus movement, my notes on page 67 say, “SING BABY!” and then on page 68, I had written “O SING GIRL – OPEN MOUTH!” (Funny that I called myself ‘girl’ in that note – as if a guy couldn’t sing with passion.) And I did sing with open mouth. We basses went up and the altos came down and then I lifted off the stage. I floated out over the choir, over the orchestra, over Betsy who was earnestly waving the choir on toward the Hosanas. I floated out over the audience, my body tingling in nomine and Domini. “Oh Lord in thy holy name” it translates in English. Oh Lord, get back on that stage and sing, baby, sing!

I landed back safely tucked between Jeff the bass singer and the alto woman to my left who likes to sing in the rests. Finally the Dona nobis movement arrived. The end was in sight. Damn it. How could it be over? Why can’t peak experiences last forever? I was high as a kite, tired from standing for 2 hours and smelled like a sheep in the rain, yet I was blissed-out. I was in love…in love with the human voice and the beauty of communal singing. And the absolute drive we humans have for perfection…even the woman who sang in the rests.

I fell asleep last night nuzzled in bed with my face against Al’s gently snoring face feeling like I had done a few things right: I had respected the choir, I sang pretty, and I got that damn G-sharp right. What more could I ask for?

Another semester of choir. I can’t wait.

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