On the evening of the last Friday of July, I sang in a concert with about 50 other singers, having rehearsed as little as I ever have. It was challenging music — a Monteverdi mass, and chromatic pieces from the Renaissance — and rarely done by amateurs, we were told. An amateur is exactly what I am, and yet it was one of the most enjoyable concerts I have had the privilege of singing in recently. And I say that as someone who routinely raves (and raves) about the concerts she sings in.
We were singing in St. James Cathedral at the Gala Concert at the close of the Tallis Scholars Summer School (TSSS) in Seattle, and it marked the end of an intense week of learning and singing. The repertoire for this year was themed “Chromatic music in the time of Gesualdo,” and on the Saturday six days prior, we had taken a first crack at some of the music, under the (non-)baton of Peter Phillips, David Woodcock, Janet Coxwell and Deborah Roberts.
The Tallis Scholars, described as “rock stars of Renaissance vocal music” by the New York Times, are a choral group founded by Peter back in 1973, when he was a 20-year old Oxford student. It was one of the groups that led the resurgence of Renaissance music research and performance, and though it took a while for the group and the “movement” to fully take off, it is fair to say that Peter had basically started his life’s work at 20. Today, the group gives about 70 concerts a year around the world, in places as culturally and historically diverse as Rome and Tokyo. Additionally, the group also conducts around three summer schools every year (in England, America and Australia), where Peter, along with a few current, former or occasional Tallis Scholars leads a troop of enthusiastic singers through selected Renaissance repertoire.
I first heard about the Seattle summer school on the mailing list of one of my San Diego choirs. It was one of those times when you just know instinctively and immediately that you must do it. At least for me, Renaissance music + Tallis Scholars = YES! I felt a little tentative about whether they would accept me (the application included a resume of musical experience, and a recommendation form to be filled out by a director/teacher who knows your voice) and worried that even if I were accepted, I would be too poor of a singer compared to the rest of the students there. At the same time, it was fully clear to me that I wanted to apply. I had discovered that a soprano-bass couple that I sing with had been to TSSS twice (and also to another related workshop in Italy) and they too encouraged me to apply. Another friend had a backhanded way of reassuring me. “They probably accept everybody who applies,” he said.
In any event, it was nice to be accepted. About a month before the start, a large part of the music was made available as pdfs, and about 15 days before, all of it was in place, with the expectation that we would rehearse on our own before showing up. I would find out later that people who are more clued in than me, or who have more practical constraints, apply to the summer school only if the repertoire really appeals to them. I admit that I applied without paying any attention to the repertoire at all. Exactly a week before flying out I finally started looking at the scores, and checking to see if any of them were on YouTube. It turned out that all of them were there, some with multiple versions from professional recordings, others with just the single recording from a live performance, complete with poor audio quality and shaky camera. Some even had Peter himself conducting.
I sometimes think that officially being put in the role of a student brings out the best side of me. In that role I become a sincere, committed, homework-doing, hardworking person, which is a great contrast from the rest of my lazy-bum life. Once I was done cursing myself and feeling guilty for starting so late, I spent a lot of time with the music in those last seven days. I sang the alto line with the YouTube video playing, I went over difficult spots, a lot of which were exactly the chromatic bits that were the theme of the repertoire, I went over the rhythms alone, without listening to any music, and even wrote in comments about when to count in 2 or 4 or 8. And in the process my anticipation started to really build.
I love Monteverdi, and his mass was very pleasing, of course. As for the rest, my enjoyment of and curiosity about Renaissance music was more than enough to get me into the piece, and once I was in, the pieces were so rewarding that every night for those seven days I would have a new favourite piece from among the set. The music was very enjoyable, but also challenging. I knew that we were meant to perform them all in concert at the end of the week-long school, but the expectation that we would actually pull that off seemed unreasonable. All the choirs I have been involved in have had weekly rehearsals for 2-4 months before performing something like this. On the other hand, I told myself, if the quality of singers was high (better than me!) and if a lot of them worked on the music beforehand, a week of intense rehearsing might just be right. Also, these folks had conducted so many summer schools over the years that maybe, just maybe, they actually knew what they were doing!
I’ve learnt over the years that my concerns about my own singing and that of the choir get over-ridden in a few ways. When the quality of the choir and the conductor(s) is high, as I hoped and expected would be the case here, I learn faster and screw up less, and can even “hide” better (vocally!) in performance if I absolutely have to. But I think that the sheer joy of singing is what really tempers my worries to the point that they become irrelevant, and only the anticipation remains. It was with this familiar mixture of trepidation and excitement that I flew to Seattle.
 A fellow summer school student made a hilarious yet weirdly accurate comparison between Peter and Mark Zuckerberg when we were discussing this. Zuckerberg co-founded Facebook at the age of 20.
 I even wondered about making a YouTube playlist, but discovered a few days later that a similarly minded TSSS attendee had beaten me to it. It was quite cool to randomly discover a fellow student in this way.
 To put this in perspective, Peter Phillips puts together a program in about 3 hours of rehearsal. If the music is unfamiliar to the singers, he might set aside 4 hours. That really speaks to the quality of singers available to him in London and the UK, and also the extent to which the Renaissance a cappella repertoire has been popularized, by him and by others.