Category Archives: Holiday Pops

Assume someone special is listening

When I was growing up, I remember practicing flashy piano pieces and thinking to myself, “Imagine there’s someone important walking down the street right now who’s going to hear me playing – maybe a talent scout, or a future girlfriend, or someone with a paying gig.  I want to make sure they get the best show I can give them.” And I’d use that to fuel my concentration and make it my best performance yet… even if no one witnessed it.

Whenever I’m performing with a chorus, there’s usually some sort of audience, be it the Tanglewood grounds, the crowd at Symphony Hall, or the congregation in the pews… so there’s no question of witnesses.  But it’s somehow more special if there are people close to me in the crowd — that whole “look for your mom” mentality ingrained in us since grade school holiday concerts.  I wanted to make sure they got my best performance.

But I don’t want just the people-I-know-attending concerts to be special, though.  So these days I always assume there’s someone there to see me.  And if I don’t know who it is, I’ll even play a little mental game and try to make some sort of connection with the audience – pick someone out to sing to, imagine they’re there to see me.  This is important because when you’re doing nine Holiday Pops concerts, you have to do something to make each one fresh.  You may be doing nine, but that audience is only doing one.  Sometimes the results are kinda hilarious — like the year I befriended a gaggle of grandmas on the walk from the parking garage, then had them all waving at me crazily from their seats because they proudly considered me a de facto member of their family.  Fun.

There’s another reason to sing like someone you know is there to see you.  Sometimes they’re really there.  As I was leaving my most recent Holiday Pops concert, I received a text from a friend.  “My sister, her family, and my mom are at the concert tonight,” she wrote, and included a picture to prove it.  I didn’t know they’d be there beforehand, but I was sure glad I pretended that they were.  It turns out concerts can be retroactively special, too.

Pops view from the crowd

Musings from the 2010 Holiday Pops season…

Musings from this year’s Holiday Pops season…

There’s always a slight let down when John Oliver just does a quick run through at the rehearsals he attends.  I think a lot of chorus members wish he would more actively direct us in rehearsals as much as he used to in years past.  It’s certainly true that preparing for the Holiday Pops concert series is not particularly musically challenging, and that we like being given the benefit of the doubt that we can be good singers.  But we certainly appreciate it when he steps in to re-voice or re-balance a harmony.  Or when he offers us specific direction, either on technical matters like breath locations, dynamics, and proper breath support, or on interpretative matters such as a particular tone or character  required for a passage.  We don’t get as much of that for Pops as we might for, say, a Prelude concert featuring the chorus.  Even the best singers benefit from those adjustments.

On the flip side, the complaint often heard when Bill Cutter takes over a warmup is that he’s too anal with his adjustments and picks on everything we do.  Even though the end result is that he gives us those same tips and tricks that I think we appreciate from John.  The lesson?  People like to complain!  No surprise there… any group of people always have ideas about how things should be run.

In one of those warm up adjustments on Saturday, Bill told us to sing the Hallelujah Chorus “like it was the first time we’d sung it” instead of singing it “Pops style” by belting it out.  “Where’s the emphasis?  Ha-lle-LU-jah, not Hah! Le!  Lu! Yah!  The crescendo is built into the shape of the line.  Think about where you’re going.”  We rehearsed it and it sounded MUCH better.  Bill continued: “Now apply that to the Rutter and to ‘Light One Candle.'”  We did, and the look of appreciation on Keith Lockhart’s face was quite palpable.  In fact, he told our chorus manager afterwards to relay that “that was the best performance of ‘I Wish You Christmas’ so far this year.”  Warm fuzzies.

We used to get the Stink Eye from Keith all the time for bad mistakes.  I remember him once mouthing “What was THAT?” to us after a blown entrance, or him furiously beating time and tapping his eye to tell us to watch closer.  So far, haven’t seen that this year.  Either we’re doing better, or he’s mellowed.

One of my favorite Oliverisms made a repeat appearance at the tutti rehearsal.  “How many of you are piano players?”  Several proud chorus members raise their hands.  “That’s the problem.”  Then, amid slightly nervous chuckles, John explained that we were punching out all the notes, and he pantomimed a violinist using long bow strokes as he asked us to make the lines more connected.

And yes, that’s the same advice Bill gave us for the Hallelujah Chorus.   Usually as a chorus we’re good at taking direction the first time, but the blurring jaded nature of Pops concerts sometimes requires a few reminders.

I love the Pops.  It’s really quite a privilege to be part of the group, and I never forget that when I sit up there on the risers with the best seat in the house.  That said, the 7 required concerts can really wear you down.  I don’t understand how some people manage 9 or more concerts, but friends don’t understand how I can manage 7.  It’s still the toll you pay for the opportunity to “make real music” with the BSO during the winter and summer seasons.  Still, as we found out yesterday afternoon, there’s nothing preventing you from making real music with the Pops, too.  It’s all about the attitude, and making your smile on stage genuine instead of forced (or nonexistent.)

As a whole, we’re doing 37 concerts this year — I think that’s more than ever before.  The chorus manager sent us out 9 dates and told us we could choose to be excused from up to 2. More than a few chorus members did not read that email, and accidentally ended up doing all 9.  Once again, the power of opt-out vs. opt-in wins again.

We all rolled our eyes this year upon initially getting the music — oh no, we’re doing ‘Must Be Santa’ again?  My opinion changed dramatically when I found out it was one of the songs my 5 year old was learning in Kindergarten.  So far, I’d say it’s one of the biggest hits on the program.

Likewise, there was initial groaning when we saw at the orchestra rehearsal that “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Bring Them Home” would be performed with a series of pictures and videos juxtaposing military personnel celebrating Christmas away from home or being reunited with their families.  It felt vaguely political and cheesy at first, but the images were so touching they brought tears to my eyes as I thought of my own family.  And it’s gotten a standing ovation for each of the three performances I’ve been in so far.

The lesson, of course, is that this is why I am not paid to determine Pops program content!

Kids Matinee was a blast!

I went into the Kids Matinee this year with a sense of dread.  We had several “kids songs” that didn’t feel like very good kids’ songs.  “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas?  (Do kids even watch that any more?)  “Must Be Santa?”  They say kids learn this one in school but I had never heard of it until this year.  (Then again, I had never heard “The Man with the Bag” until our Santa Medley included it.)  Plus “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” for which I think everyone expected a soloist who was a stereotypical Big Black Woman with some gospel soul in her heart… only to see the diminuitive, perky, and very white Maureen Brennan make an appearance at the orchestra rehearsal.  She would be the guest soloist for all the kids’ shows this year.  It was a  facepalm moment.  I was so happy I only had one kids’ matinee on my concert schedule.

Fast forward to last Satuday at 11am.  The concert’s about to start.  The chatter in the crowd was decidedly in a higher register as I saw all the kids in the crowd clearly excited to be there.  When the opening piece started, one 3 or 4 year old in the 1st balcony stood on his mom’s lap and waved his arms frantically trying to imitate Keith conducting.  When Maureen came out all perky and bouncy with her hi-boys-and-girls attitude, it felt very genuine and really engaged the audience, young and old.  (As opposed to when she turned it on briefly at the orchestra rehearsal a few weeks earlier, all she really got was a lot of eye rolls from the choristers.)  When Keith announced that we’d be doing an excerpt from A Charlie Brown Christmas there was definitely an oooh from the crowd as they recognized it — even though, as Keith jokingly pointed out, when he was little it was only on once a year.  If you missed it you had to wait a whole ‘nother year to see it.  There were no DVRs, no On Demand, no cable.  Didn’t matter, it was a hit.  And don’t get me started on when Santa came out, and stayed for all of Must Be Santa (with everyone singing along).  In fact, the whole show was a hit.  It really put me in the Christmas spirit and left me quite energized.  It was nice to remember that THAT was why I sang at Holiday Pops!

So I almost feel bad that we didn’t drag our older son Jack along to a concert this year.  Almost.  Last year the big sing-through piece was The Polar Express and that was a big hit with him at 3-1/2 years old.  This year it was a medley of Christmas carols telling “the original Christmas Story” with Robert Honeysucker or our old pal Jim Demler narrating and singing.  No one was foolish enough to think that would keep the kids engaged, so it wasn’t even on the children’s matinee program.  Yet at almost a full 90 minutes this year (with no intermission!) I think there were enough fun things that Jack and his attention span would have made it to the end.

Volunteering vs. Giving Freely

Interesting lunch conversation the other day with other TFC chorus members between Holiday Pops performances.  We talked about how, as much fun as the Holiday Pops is, in truth the Pops Orchestra would find very few volunteers from the chorus from the TFC if it wasn’t a requirement for staying in the chorus.  Oh, sure, nothing is ever written out to this effect, as far as I’ve seen.   But there’s very much an attendance and participation requirement as for being part of the chorus — stories abound of people not making later rosters after cancelling out last minute or missing too many rehearsals.  A lot of us are part of the TFC because we love the higher level of performance (and accountability!) that comes with the pieces we do as well as the thrill of getting to perform at Symphony Hall or out in the Berkshires.  So it’s understandable that the BSO/Pops require us to sing the Holiday Pops concerts — there are a lot of good singers, and why not judge just on your voice but also on your attendance, reliability, and availability? 

It also made me feel bad for one singer who missed the morning concert that day; he had written down that he was doing 2 concerts but thought it was the 3pm and 7:30pm.  He knows it’s a black mark that may come to haunt him some day when rosters are chosen!

Now, mind you, I love singing for the Holiday Pops.  It’s been a part of my life for… 13 years?  14?  I’ve lost count.  But by the time you hit that 6th and 7th concert, you’re mostly Pops’d out.  Especially given how busy December is for everyone anyways.  There was a stretch of several years during which I was ONLY on the Holiday Pops roster, sort of the TFC Junior Varsity team.  If you’re on that side roster, then you are very excited to be doing Holiday Pops!  It’s your one chance all year to get on stage and be a part of the spectacle that is a Symphony Hall performance.  I took great pride in those appearances.  It helps to remember that.  But that was a man in the desert happy to find an oasis.  When you’ve got running water, the oasis pond looks kinda muddy… are you really gonna drink that?

We noticed that this year they stopped saying that we “sing for the joy of it” and that we were a “completely volunteer chorus” during our introduction.  Now Keith Lockhart simply says that we “give freely of our time” during this busy season.  Definitely more accurate.  We give for free because we want to be a part of this chorus, and committing to 6-8 Holiday Pops concerts is the de facto admission price.