Rediscovering singing

So, it turns out I still like singing.

You may have thought that a given. Why would there be any doubt? Heck, I’ve got a whole blog dedicated to the subject, and decades of ensemble singing experience. So why is there a question?

Well, yeah. Turns out there was a question.

It had been almost 18 months since I had truly sung with a proper group of singers. That was back in December 2019, as part of my 22nd tour of duty with the Holiday Pops concerts at Symphony Hall.

One insidious aspect of the global switch to video conferencing is that it gave a semblance of normalcy to everyone’s ability to accomplish work. For white collar workers like myself, I could still attend meetings, exchange ideas, and finish deliverables, and a variable fraction of a second delay in the video feed wasn’t a big deal. As many aspiring chorus collaborators learned, that delay completely prevented any hope of collaborative singing. Try it yourself the next time you’re on Zoom — see how impossible it is to synchronize your clapping with anyone on the call. So while the rest of the world limped along, all live performances of two or more groups ground to a halt.

Virtual choirs? We had been warned about their inability to satisfy the singers, but many of us, desperate for our singing fix, charged ahead with a few initiatives anyways. My wife and I gleefully jumped at the chance to be part of a few Holiday Pops virtual performances. We got all dressed up, rehearsed and rehearsed, set up the iPhone cameras, and had a good time producing satisfying solo recordings to be part of the composite performance. We recorded a few duets in our home. We fooled around with multi-track recordings of ourselves. We helped church choirs create virtual anthems, including Advent and Christmas performances… and I got a lot better at Final Cut Pro.

But it was not ensemble singing. None of it was.

When a part of your life disappears for so long, you begin to not notice it’s missing. Humans are good at adapting that way. We adapt to the new freedoms and responsibilities of life after high school. We adapt to the pain in our joints as we get older. We adapt to mask-wearing and extra sanitizing in a pandemic. We adapt to the loss of loved ones. In each case, we adjust to the new reality and try to retain memories of the old one. But like Chicharron’s final death in Coco, those memories fade if not renewed.

And so, like everyone else reprioritizing their lives in the pandemic era, I begin to doubt.

Did I like singing any more? It was a question I mentally asked myself now and then, once the opportunity was taken away. Might this be the right time to hang up the vocal cleats, and retire from the onus of rehearsal commitments? After all, it was rather nice as a family to not spend December 2020 playing schedule Jenga so we could rush back and forth to Symphony Hall and tag team our way through 18 holiday concerts. Not to mention having the summer free, even if travel was limited by the pandemic. Sure, the chorus has been an integral part of not only my life, from proposing to my wife on stage to tons of Symphony Hall and Tanglewood concert, but also my the rest of my family as well. But college was part of my life. Regular hockey and basketball games were part of my life. Various companies were part of my life. Life moves on.

Besides, singing at a high level takes constant practice to maintain, and extra work to catch up if there’s a hiatus. It’s like how professional athletes out of the sport for a few years can’t jump back in without a lot of training or rehab. Since singing is an avocation not a vocation for me, I don’t possess the time or discipline to maintain it on my own.

The pandemic permanently changed a lot of attitudes. Wearing masks during the winter now seems like a great way to avoid the flu. In 2019 I would have said that there’s no way I’d ever want to work remote full time; now we’re considering office/home hybrid schedules. Who needs movie theaters, 100+ cable stations, or live TV? Streaming services solved that problem. I could feel my attitude towards singing changing too.

On top of all this, as the chair of our chorus committee for 2020, my negative associations with the chorus grew as we faced month after month of no good news about singing in the future. All of the drama, none of the reward. The committee tried valiantly to plan virtual events to keep disaffected chorus members connected, because at some undetermined point in the future, we’d jump on the risers again. Hopefully. If enough people were left to do so.

I began to wonder if maybe I, too, was one of those disaffected choristers who didn’t miss singing so much.

Until last Sunday.

Sunday, ten friends, all of us experienced choral singers, assembled at a friend’s house out in western Massachusetts with a purpose. One of our number was getting married in a few weeks. With mask restrictions lifting and fully vaccinated invitees attending, he wanted a choral piece sung as part of the ceremony — specifically, this gorgeous arrangement of If Music Be The Food of Love by David Dickau.

All of us had copies of the music so we could learn notes on our own beforehand, to make the time together as productive as possible. Even then, once we sat in our semi-circle, we spent 5 minutes with our pencils going through the score together and agreeing on phrasing, breaths, dynamics, articulation, and divisi. We had a pre-recorded accompaniment, but someone had volunteered to conduct so we could watch her instead of guessing at timing ourselves. There was comfort in the ritual of marking up the score, like checking the tires for air and tightening the brakes before getting on that bike again.

And then we hit play, and started singing together.

In one of my favorite fantasy novels, there’s a scene in which the heroine has to spar with a friendly opponent. It’s not a big deal for him, but for her it’s the first time she’s picked up a sword since a terrible ordeal that left her physically and mentally crippled, and unable to fight. She had gone through a long process of healing, and suddenly the moment had come upon her to find out if she could do it again:

“With the clash of the blades her mind seemed to clear a little. Her arm moved of itself, countering his first slow strokes[…] If this, then that. The elbow bent so allows the angle here – she met each stroke squarely. It felt as if she were learning all over again: she had to think about almost every move. More came back to her; she tried a thrust past his guard. Blocked: but he looked surprised. So was she. Her body moved less stiffly, the sword began to feel natural in her hand again[…] “Enough.” […] She felt dizzy with relief: she had not dropped the sword, had not run away, had not fainted.”

That’s what I was feeling. No matter how much I had practiced solo, or harmonized with my wife, it was nothing compared to following a conductor and going through the actions of staying in unison with your stand partner, tuning to the other parts, feeling out the rhythm together, and achieving a group consensus of how you would distill the soul of the composer for an audience. It quickly became familiar in an overwhelming rush of unlocked memories. And… we sounded gorgeous. The harmonies, the interplay of the overtones, the legato, the swaying movement of the phrases… it was an in-your-face reminder that recordings never fully capture live performances, that listening is no substitute for creating, and that an experienced group of singers can manufacture joy.

I got emotional. I had to drop out after the first few bars, and then when I tried to come back in on the second page, I got choked up again and had to gather myself.

The rest of the 90 minutes or so was us going about the usual process of turning 80-90% good into 95-98% good. Balance and dynamics issues. Missed notes and cutoffs. Finding better places to breathe. Agreeing on how long a fermata should be, given our tempo was dictated by the recorded accompaniment. Rediscovering those breathing muscles to stretch 4-bar phrases into 8-bar phrases. Given everyone’s experience, we could self-regulate enough to identify problems and implement solutions.

So now I’m all in again. The wedding in a few weeks will already be a cause for celebration: certainly for our friend’s marriage but also for the opportunity to be with 50+ people in one place. Now, we can add another reason: a first live performance in 18 months, and the dispelling of doubt about my love of singing. It may not be till the end of this year that we’re singing as a chorus again. But at the downbeat, I’ll be ready.

3 responses to “Rediscovering singing

  1. Love, love, love being a part of this story…
    I felt much the same way… no conducting or singing… what would happen when I had to conduct students again?? Would they want to be there, would they follow? And then I had the opportunity to conduct all of you and it all came flying back… and now I am truly excited both for the wedding and next school year! Thank you folks for “breaking me back in!”

  2. When I dropped out on page four, it was also because I was emotional, and not because I hadn’t learned the notes at all.

    All kidding aside, thanks for this. I’m glad I could be part of your recovery.

  3. Len Giambrone

    I’m so glad I could be your catalyst for rediscovering your love of singing. Singing with you all again did similar things for me. Like hugging a long lost friend. I’ll be honest; part of me has enjoyed not worrying about the next thing I am singing, or upcoming auditions, or the countless hours we have to spend in rehearsals. But the part that was rekindled misses it terribly; even the hard work required to create music at that level.

    Thanks so much for helping to make my wedding that much more memorable.

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