Tag Archives: rehearsals

What’s the Score?

Okay, this is how it all went down…

We were in the middle of the rehearsal and Maestro Suzuki suddenly commented that we, as a chorus, seemed tentative and were frequently late with our entrances. If you ask me, this was because he frequently asked us to start at certain measure numbers and we had to switch to the score for those moments.  (More cynically, sometimes it seemed he accused us of being late or early when I thought we sounded fine.)   He asked us if it would be better for us to have the score in front of us. We all laughed a bit and gave some sort of noncommittal reply about “if you tell us to, we will, but we are used to going without.”

Five minutes later, he stopped us again and told us he preferred that we use our scores.

This was a profound change. The way you sing with a score, I quickly learned, is quite different from the way you sing from memory. For one, you use the score as a crutch, looking at it more often than you ever needed to. Also, it’s HARD to find your place. Too many German and English words on the page to parse, plus four staffs. Reading it AND seeing the conductor is tough. third, there’s the weight of it in your hands as you hold it… Almost a physical barrier between you and the conductor.

So while there was a certain sigh of relief from some corners of the chorus, I think the decision was bittersweet.  Many of us are considering NOT bringing the score on stage, replacing it with just the little prayerbook we originally were given with the words to the chorales.  Then we’d hide the prayerbook in the black folders like a student reading a comic between the pages of his math textbook.  I’m gonna try that at today’s orchestra rehearsal, as a matter of fact, to see if I really can get by without the few spots where looking back at the score is helpful.  It’s not just a badge of courage… I prefer no score for all the reasons mentioned above.  I think I sing better without it.

Side note: at yesterday’s orchestra rehearsal we wondered where Maestro was going to stand — the conductor’s podium wasn’t there, and a harpsichord was in the way.  Lo and behold, he perched himself at the harpsichord and played all of the recitative interludes himself!  I wonder if that makes it more authentic for a performance.  (As my wife pointed out, however, you can only get so authentic with a Japanese conductor and an American chorus.)  One thing’s for sure, it’s even more clear that Suzuki lives and breathes this piece, if he’s capable of conducting AND playing the interludes without missing a beat or a cue.

Wet consonants?

Every once in a while John Oliver will instruct us to do something with imagery that almost doesn’t make sense.

Last night we did a fairly quick run through of the choral parts of the piece again, with Sebastian gently correcting our improper variations of the ch’s in ich vs. doch vs. nacht and the like.  Rehearsal took about half as long (about 75 minutes) because we spent less time rerunning entire movements to revisit issues.  But early on, John asked us to “make the consonants wetter.”


John is a big believer in imagery to fool yourself mentally into making the appropriate physical and mechanical adjustments to create the sound he is looking for.  I still remember one of my first pieces Tanglewood pieces with him, a set of three a capella men’s chorus pieces, where the middle piece had me labelled as a “Bass 3.”  That turned out to mean that I’d be singing low D’s, low C’s, even a low B-flat.  I honestly had no idea how to do that and sustain it, but John told all the basses (and especially the bass 3’s) not just to focus on posture and support, but to imagine a vast reservoir of energy, sort of an underground lake, somewhere below our navel, and that we should be tapping into that reserve as we produced the sound.  I don’t know how or why, but it worked.

At first blush, he might as well have told us to make the consonant sounds more yellow, more ethical, or more sans serif.  And yet, I could hear a difference, and the sound was better, so… it worked?  I don’t know what I was doing differently, but I suspect I was treating the consonants as more liquid, sort of blurring the lines between them and the vowels even as we focused on barking them out more precisely so that we could be quite particular about their placement and make the German as intelligible as possible (despite teasing by John that we were getting lazier on consonants as the rehearsal went on.)

At the first rehearsal, John reminded us of a lesson he learned years ago from Colin Davis while trying to prepare a chorus: “Prepare them as if you were conducting,” and so he did.  At this rehearsal, though, he had looked at some video and listened to some recordings associated with Suzuki, and gave us some suggestions of what he might want.  It will be interesting to see how Maestro Suzuki responds during our extensive chorus rehearsals… how much of this will he undo?

Back to Back (Bach to Bach?) rehearsals

Our  first official Bach rehearsal has been completed, with many more to come.  We’re on again tonight, and then in about 8 days a Friday night off-book rehearsal, and then two grueling 6 hour rehearsals that Saturday and Sunday — we’ve been informed that Maestro Suzuki “loves chorus rehearsals” and will probably spend extra time working through us on each and every note and word and tone and diction and…  it’s either a chorus’s dream or nightmare, depending on how picky he is and how much better we end up by the end.

Tonight’s rehearsal was all about getting comfortable with the piece and the text, with our native-speaking German coach Sebastian sitting next to John.  He offered advice and corrected us on improper pronunciations after each movement.  Since most of us have sung a lot of German, it’s not like we were learning from scratch.  But there were several subtleties that came into play.  That’s really where we as a chorus can up the level of our game.

For instance, Sebastian warned us that it was /ist/ not /eest/, and /in/ not /een/.  John partially blamed himself for this, calling it an unfortunate side effect of the qualities he looks for in singers (auditions were yesterday).  He prefers singers who he thinks can send a focused vowel through an orchestration, which encourages people to modify their vowels this way.  In another case, John said that we had the /e/ vowel correct technically, but it wasn’t the right character or resonance for the words.  We found new ways to produce that sound that measured up.

Another example were the double r’s.  We were encouraged to rejoice in the double r of Herr… even adding a shadow vowel behind it, so it was more like “Herr-reh”.   Furthermore, John wanted that /r/ sound has to be pitched.  He demonstrated singing the note on a rolled /r/.  This was especially relevant for the word Kreuzige — “crucify him.”  We had a lot of focus on this deliciously gruesome word.  It’s gotta be vicious every time you say it, with lots of /r/.  This is tough because during some of the Kreuzige movement, we have long sustained pitches on the /eu/ sound, which we tended to approach lyrically.  John shut that down quickly:  “You’re creating a plush, lush monster… stop it!  You’re not giving hugs here.”

As is true with any German piece, diction and overemphasizing the consonants is the name of the game.  My favorite piece of advice was when John asked us to treat the consonants and the vowels as equal weight.   A corollary to this was our approach to vowels in general, where our attach was just not enough.  “You’re sustaining the sound, but I need something more stabby,” were his words.  I liked that image and it was easy to keep that in mind with each new vowel… at least until we forgot again, being distracted by the next correction!

Finally, anyone familiar with Bach’s two Passions knows that they intersperse various chorales among the recitative narrative and the arias.   John warned us about an easy trap to fall into while singing the chorales: he pantomimed a double bass player sawing at his instrument with big bow strokes.  He asked us to treat these poems like we were speaking them or narrating them more than if we were singing them.

It wouldn’t be a rehearsal without some great Oliverisms.  My favorite of the evening was when the sopranos, altos, and tenors had a shaky triad to finish a cadence — “I liked that very much… once you got down to 3 notes.”

Ready for Oedipus? We are

After two mornings of orchestra rehearsals, we are ready to go for our performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday!  They should be a satisfying culmination of a lot of hard work on behalf of the chorus, not to mention the other musicians involved.

From the chorus’s perspective, the final rehearsals were NOT a cakewalk, by any means.  Our choral director John Oliver had warned us earlier in the week that we were giving into the temptation to shout the piece instead of singing it, and that the result was a hollowness of tone when combined with the orchestration.   He urged us to find better support for our sound and to be smarter about how we used our instrument.  But at the orchestra rehearsals,  we found that the more wholesome sound we were producing was not enough to cut through the brass-heavy orchestration.  The orchestra was completely swallowing us in some passages — even the soloists were having trouble breaking through.  Maestro Levine kept asking for more volume, and he wasn’t about to ask the orchestra to keep it down.   What to do, what to do?

Well, the gauntlet had been thrown, and so we went about trying to find a way to cut through the sound, without shouting, while keeping the character of the piece.  The answer was in our mechanics and in some visualizations.  John gave us several tips for how to penetrate the orchestra – ways to physically position our body — our instrument — so that we had maximum support from the triangle of our rib cage and sternum, even perching ourselves on the small of our back when we needed to give a little more.  He asked us to close vowels that normally tended to be open, like /a/ and /e/, pointing out that unlike /o/ and /u/ and /i/, they tend to ride too high to penetrate.  In some cases he directed us to produce a darker sound.  It was only by narrowing the vowel sound (and physically narrowing our mouths) as well as visualizing a more vertical sound coming from up higher in our heads — he gestured in front of his forehead and nose, like a dramatic Shakespearean actor — that we could knife through the heavily scored accompaniment, “beat the orchestra,” and reach the audience.

The result?  The sound I hear coming out of me now is probably the most intensely focused, highly efficient sound I’ve ever created.  I daresay the whole chorus is operating at this level now.  Each of us is so alive, so insanely focused in our intensity on each and every note, each and every vowel, each and every consonant, in order to be heard over the orchestra.  Every percussive consonant is spit out.  Voiced consonants launch the the vowel forward.  Vowels are carried forcefully through to the end of each held note without sagging, lest the audience hear the attack and nothing more.  It’s the complete antidote to the admittedly lazy, unfocused singing that we often fall into for the mind-numbing Holiday Pops concerts.  As a singer, you feel totally alive as you pour your essence and full concentration into making each and every note, consonant, and vowel count.

It should be a great performance.  (If you’re going, look for me in the back row, three from the right!)

Cacophony of Psalms: First rehearsal

The first true rehearsal for the Cacophony of Psalms felt great.  Okay, it’s called Symphony of Psalms, technically, and I’m actually starting to enjoy the piece as I delve further and further into it.  But this is another one of those boy is the audience screwed if they’re hearing it for the first time sort of pieces.  You know… the songs that, once properly studied, I really begin to enjoy… but it takes several listening sessions to get comfortable with the… call it the sonority.

Here’s the first movement, in all its mechanical WTF-is-going-on glory:

There are 2nd and 3rd movement recordings here and here as well, if you make it through that one.  The whole piece is only about 20 minutes.

It was comforting to have John Oliver tell us that he was specifically looking for a mécanique style coming from the chorus to emulate the helter-skelter clock mechanism of the piano and accompanying instruments.  Time values snap into place with little or no rubato.  He doesn’t want anyone gliding between notes.  (One great Oliverism: in a later movement, the tenors move from an e-natural to an e-flat over a few beats, and John cautioned them: “That’s an express… it’s not a local train. You shouldn’t be making five stops along the way… go right from one note to the other.”)

I really appreciated John being so involved in the rehearsal–this is not a piece that can be done on autopilot nor one he can leave to the conductor to make adjustments.  He had insightful comments such as “you’re on the right note but your color is wrong.”  He warned some of us that we weren’t at the center of a pitch where we needed to hold a dissonance against the other parts.  He stopped us a few times to ask for a more focused, brighter vowel so we’d cut through the orchestration.  At one point he told us it was okay to open up and just make a very raw sound, because “the brass are so loud there they’ll cover it all up.”  Finally, at one point during a held long note on a diminuendo, he cautioned that many of us were “parking” on the note–we couldn’t just get softer and stop, we needed to finish the whole phrase and that meant a continuous decrescendo throughout the note.  “Don’t give up on it.”

John spent a little extra time with us basses on a few parts, such as making sure we landed on our opening G in the YouTube clip I’ve linked.  Though, as any time the director singles out a section to work with, you find yourself wondering after each comment, “Is he talking about ME?  Or the people next to me?  I *think* I was singing that right… hmmmm.”  I’ve been in at least one chorus where the conductor literally would keep breaking down a section into smaller and smaller parts (“just the back row… just you five people…”) until he found out who was screwing up.  Fortunately, John trusts us enough to figure it out.  It’s a powerful feeling… being surrounded by other very competent singers and working together to go beyond the notes and make something beautiful.  Well…. beautiful in its awe-inspiring mechanical spookiness, at least!