When you’ve sung the Verdi Requiem several times, including a few times with the same choral score, your score starts to look like it belongs to the Half-Blood Prince.
Harry Potter fans will recognize the reference. In the sixth book of the series, Harry accidentally ends up with a beaten-up Potions textbook from someone called “The Half-Blood Prince” that has all sorts of scribbles in the margins and strange recipe modifications. He soon learns that if he follows the annotations, he outperforms classmates who are going strictly by the book.
My score has notes from past me’s scattered throughout: circled notes in tricky passages, eyeglasses warning me when to watch for a new tempo, pronunciation reminders, emotional tones to convey, explicit phrasing indicators, dynamic corrections, and other modifications inherited from previous conductors who had reached some areas of consensus for how the piece should be performed.
This is not without its disadvantages. The helpful quarter-rest out given to you three choruses ago to let you tackle the next fugue strongly may not be what the current conductor wants. So you have to be judicious in deciding what scribbles to keep and what notes to erase.
The danger of all this – as it was to Harry Potter in the books – is trusting the notes too much, and falling prey to the sense of complacency that comes from having sung a piece many times. Yes, I could walk in without rehearsals and sing One must always be hungry for more. One must always improve.
Just as a good actor knows his lines but a great actor knows everyone’s lines… or how a good team leader understands his role, but a great team leader understands how to bring out the best of each teammate’s abilities… a good chorister knows his part down cold, but a great chorister knows not only his notes but also how he relates to the other parts.
Our conductor James continues to ask us to focus on vertical alignment and listening to each other. That means knowing that third of the chord or the fifth of an inverted chord needs to be a little sharper. Or that the women and men in the Lacyrmosa movement dance around each other as countermelodies. Or that our opening theme should be strong in each fugue entrance but then fade into the tapestry afterwards. It’s those sorts of advances that take us beyond what’s on autopilot and lets us truly live each performance as if it were our first.
That’s what I’m striving for from this performance.