We are in the final week of preparation for our end of season performance: long rehearsal on Wednesday, extra rehearsal Thursday, and a dress rehearsal on Saturday. We’re singing Bach’s Cantata No. 37. The Saturday rehearsal is with the orchestra. I’m way out of my depth.

My personal music background is primarily a couple decades of playing violin. And one semester of beginning voice. Fifteen years ago. I sang with the church choir for a year or so at that time. After a decade and a half, I rejoined the choir four months ago.

I still have a basic grasp of music theory (from a violinist’s point of view), and a rough of idea of the mechanics of musicality. Unfortunately, that’s about all that transfers. After twenty years of focusing entirely on treble clef, now I need to teach myself bass clef. Also, the layout of the music on the page is very different. As a violinist, the music is mostly laid out as a single part. You read it kind of like you read a page of text, left to right, top to bottom, one line after another. In other words, the only notes on the page are ones I play (with a couple of exceptions such as high-low split within a section). In vocal music, all four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and the accompaniment are on the page. It’s kind of like trying to read only the fourth line of every paragraph in quick succession.

Then comes the issue of sound production. Having been around various musicians all my life, I’ve heard lots about “breath support”. I even understood, in an academic way, what it meant. Convincing my body to do it is another matter. Doing it without letting the rest me tense up is also an interesting proposition. Why is breath support necessary? First, the obvious example, when was the last time you tried singing full voice for an hour and a half? Without breath support, I (at least) start losing my voice half an hour in. Another reason? Try singing at whisper levels without slipping into actually whispering AND with projection.

Then comes the intonation issues. I’m fairly good at determining in/out of tune at the register of the violin. I’m also decent at fixing it. Tuning not only a few octaves lower, but also adapting to a totally different sound characteristic is difficult at best. Now, after four months of tuning myself to a piano, we’re tuning to an organ and an orchestra.

After all the equipment differences, sound production, and intonation difficulties have been overcome. That should be it, right? AHAHAHAHAHA! Now comes pronunciation and enunciation. (Yes, there is a difference. Look it up.) I’m constantly amazed at how many ways there are to sing the sound ‘ah’. Oh, yes. Did I mention we’re singing this in German? Here’s the list of languages I’ve taken: Japanese, Russian, Kyrgyz, Latin. Here’s the list of languages I can usually sound out: French, Hebrew (with transliteration), Spanish. Oh look. No German.

Despite all these barriers, singing in a group is fun. The barriers make it challenging, make the effort worthwhile. Putting vocal music together is a challenging and multi-level puzzle, at the moment. Getting the mental components to line up with the physical components is a test of almost spiritual agility. When it work, the reward is nearly sublime. Even if I don’t particularly like the music being sung.

Putting this performance together has been frustrating, difficult, embarrassing, and a whole lot of fun. The icing on this rather bizarre cake? It turns out that my elementary school music teacher is one of the sopranos of the choir.

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