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seattle skyline from water

(This is the tenth post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the next post, go here; for the complete series, go here.)

Any chorister will tell you that the reason they sing is not actually the performances, but in fact the rehearsals. Performances can be fun and rewarding, and are often the climax of a lot of gradual build-up. They can give you a high in the moment and if they go well, there’s a buzz that can even last for a little while, say for several hours, maybe even longer. But you can’t sustain month after month of rehearsal if your only enjoyment is going to be that one evening in the distant future when you finally perform to an audience. You have to enjoy the rehearsals themselves, otherwise you are unlikely to continue singing.

I would like to say that it was exactly like that for me at TSSS, but it wasn’t quite. For someone who just loves the act of singing, alone or in a group, in tune or out of tune, the first few days were, somehow, just not magical enough. Maybe my expectations were too high. Perhaps being in a new setting, a new routine, around new people took some getting used to. After all, it was my first choral workshop of this sort. Or maybe it just takes a few days for a group to really feel like a group. In any case, I found myself wondering in the beginning whether I did really enjoy singing and Renaissance music, as much as I believed I did or whether I had somehow been kidding myself all along. A part of me believed (hoped?) that things would turn at some point, and I can safely say that it would have been -really- disappointing if they hadn’t. But the mind works in mysterious ways. On the day off (Tuesday), things started to shift within me. Saying that the view from floor 73 of Columbia Center changed my perspective would be too cute and convenient, but it was such a lovely day, especially on the water, that it was hard not to feel optimistic.

And so it was. Wednesday was fun, with the performance at the church service (with the “interesting” sermon). Once that was behind us, the rehearsals started to focus more on the chromatic or “frictiony” pieces, and I really got back into my “singing is bliss” mentality. Things too got busier, if that were possible, with the Sharing concert of Thursday evening, and by the time it was Friday I was simultaneously loving every moment, and suffering from separation anxiety. There was an internal litany that went something like, “Wow, it is so terrific to be doing this! And tonight it’s all just going to end.”

In more ways than one, the concert was the climax of it all. Certainly it was the peak of my emotional engagement, but musically too, things just felt ready to go after the Friday morning rehearsal. We weren’t perfect, by any means, but we were “not bad at all.” Then there was the rehearsal in the cathedral, where we went over the “choreography” of where the tutor groups would sit and sing from. And a little while later, it was showtime. The Monteverdi Mass went well, the tutor groups were good, and then it was time for my favourite part, the chromatic pieces.The Lassus, or the first half of it, was perhaps what we did worst on, but the rest were quite satisfactory. I thought we rocked the Gesualdo, and there were several moments from other pieces that I can still hear in my mind, such was their power. There was a small audience, and I hope they enjoyed it, but I suspect that most of us were singing for ourselves, for each other and for the tutors. It was good stuff, and it gives me the warm fuzzies to think about it.

During the week, I found myself wondering what it is that makes a choir “good” or even “great.” Certainly, it helps to start with individual singers of ability, who know their notes, rhythms and rests accurately and follow them precisely. But the individuals also need to work well together — they need to breathe together, stagger breaths as needed, shape their vowels the same way, shape their phrases together and be sensitive towards each others musical lines, and generally meld together into one cohesive unit, at least for the duration of the performance. If there is an orchestra involved, that too needs to meld in, and all of this is usually aided and abetted by the conductor. The main difference between professional musicians or groups and amateur ones, to my mind, is that the former can reliably and at will turn up the knob labelled “cohesion,” while the latter stumble upon it in one concert and rather miss it at another. I suppose if you started with 50-odd really high quality singers, they might learn to meld into a coherent unit in much less than a week. Given our mix of professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs, I’m quite sure we never fully got there, but there were times, or musical phrases during the concert when we momentarily were completely cohesive, and the rest of the time, we enjoyed just trying to get there.

At the post-concert party, if we needed further proof of how cool our tutors were, they obliged by posing in the tiny sunglasses they got in their gift packs. The gifts, the money for which had been collected from the students through a secret offertory of sorts, were all meant to be useless, but were generally attempting to be funny and/or were related to some incident or comment from the preceding week. David, thanks to his syncopation-constipation comment, earned some stool softener, to which his response was, “Organists need stool softeners. Because they are so full of shit.” Us students got something far more boring in return — certificates of participation, along with “physical contact” with each tutor. (It was reasonably exciting actually. Some student-tutor pairs got far more physical contact than others, it is fair to say.) It was a great night, with music, and dancing and conversation. It was also when the goodbyes began, because we all went our ways the following morning.

Which also means that it’s time for me to wrap up this sequence of TSSS posts. The next post will be the final one of the series.