More Than Ships Passing In the Night

Month: December, 2013

Conducting pattern, part 2

My choir has surprisingly strong opinions sometimes. For example, I never imagined that a concert attire of “all black” would elicit so much discussion. When I announced my decision during the rehearsal, you would have thought I was making some sort of incredibly avant-garde request.

All black?”

“What about white and black?”

“Can’t we have an accent color or something?”

I was genuinely surprised at the extent of their reaction. To me, all black is standard concert attire. All black is simple. All black is professional. All black is less visually distracting. All black means everyone is automatically coordinated.

This was one of the few visions I had for the choir on which I stubbornly held my ground. And when they were up on the stage, singing for the first time during our church service, I couldn’t help feeling pleased at how uniform they looked.

My choir is also very democratic. They like to offer spontaneous suggestions about how we ought to spend rehearsal time. Sometimes I have a hard time with this because it makes me feel like I’m not in control and it feeds my not-so-secret fear that the choir thinks I’m incompetent. My gut reaction is to tighten the reigns and insist that we follow my schedule for the evening. But I’ve also learned to be grateful for these suggestions, and to flow with them. After all, I don’t know what I’m doing, exactly. So, I think one of the best ways to learn how to effectively rehearse with the choir is by listening to the choir members when they are telling me what they need. I’m learning to be sensitive to their suggestions and requests, and to view their thoughts as a constructive component of our rehearsals, as well as a way to encourage participation, commitment, and better musicianship overall, rather than as a personal threat to (or criticism of) my directing abilities.

My choir is also very diverse. The youngest person in the choir is an eleven year-old boy soprano and the oldest person has grandchildren. Their musicianship levels are widespread, ranging from accomplished musician to amateur music appreciator. About half of the choir does not actually read music and learns by ear instead. But the bottom line is that no one is there out of a sense of obligation – they are there because they want to sing. I think that makes an incredible impact on what we are able to accomplish. They bring to the table a variety of backgrounds, skills, musicianship levels, and abilities, but their dedication, commitment, and work ethic in rehearsals is the same – and it really is evident when they perform.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I said at the end of my last post, I was feeling very ambitious about what we could accomplish until I actually looked at my calendar. I realized that we had five rehearsals left before the church Christmas program, and three rehearsals before our next performance. We had four pieces of music to learn. This might not seem like an insurmountable goal, but you have to remember that we had spent the previous month learning one piece.

The next song in our line-up was an a cappella arrangement of “Down in the River to Pray.” I was excited about it. They were excited about it. I realized we only had three rehearsals to learn it. I decided to postpone it until the spring. I wanted to do the song justice, and I wanted to be able to focus on learning our three Christmas pieces. Instead of “Down in the River,” two choir members (namely, my parents) suggested that I substitute the hymn, “O Worship the King.” It was an easy, page-long, a cappella option with which everyone was already familiar. I made a few “artistic” choices to add variety and interest to what was otherwise a four-verse repetitive hymn. We ran through it for about five minutes at every rehearsal for the next three weeks and it was good to go.

A day or two before we were scheduled to sing it, I happened upon an unsettling realization: the hymn was probably too short. When the choir sings during the service, it’s almost always when the offering is being taken. So, there’s sort of a space of time to fill while the offering bag is being passed along the pews by the ushers. If the piece of music intended to fill that space is too short, then you end up with ushers silently processing down the aisles, offering bags traveling silently across the pews, and everyone is sort of holding their breath awkwardly, waiting to move to the next section of the service and fill the space with sound again.

So, I made hasty arrangements with the church pianist for that Sunday to have some “filler” music ready to play softly in the background in the event that we finished before the offering was over.

As it turned out, the timing was perfect. No filler music was necessary. The choir pulled off another eleventh-hour rise-to-the-occasion and exceed-expectations phenomenon and did a wonderful job singing a cappella (not to mention looking great in their all-black concert attire). I had survived my second performance as choir director.

We could now focus solely on the Christmas pieces, and those were another story entirely.

Conducting pattern, part 1

This fall, I stepped out of my comfort zone and into one of the most terrifying roles I’ve ever taken on: church choir director.

It seemed like a deceptively small time commitment: we only rehearse once a week. By the end of December, we will have performed only 5 songs. Even so, it has been an incredibly challenging season of trying to find my pattern as a first-time choir director. Especially since my conducting experience boils down to one semester’s worth of a Basic Conducting class that I took in college. And that was four years ago. And while I’ve been singing in various choirs for, well, as long as I can remember, it turns out that the roles of choir singer and choir director are not interchangeable. It’s like telling a student, “Okay, you’ve been in the classroom setting as a student for a long time. Therefore you are qualified to be a teacher.” While some people may have more of an innate ability to step into that role and translate their experiences accordingly, the mere fact of having been a student does not necessarily qualify one to be a teacher. Thus, the mere fact of having been a lifelong choir member did not, in my opinion, qualify me to be a choir director.

I took on my new role with a weird mixture of ambition and reluctance. I had these grandiose ideas about what I would accomplish with the choir: we would be singing sacred choral works in Latin and deeply soulful spirituals. Our accompaniment would always be a live musician: we would never sing with a track. We would do more a cappella pieces. The choir would be encouraged to practice rehearsal etiquette – things like showing up to rehearsal on time, not talking when the director is talking, not providing a running commentary every time we stopped singing, always bringing a pencil and a bottle of water to rehearsal. In my vision for the choir, we were going to sing beautiful, rich, complex music and function like a well-oiled machine.

Ah, how preciously ignorant I was – how adorably naive!

The first rehearsal is a very vague, distant memory for me. I remember feeling very disorganized, very clueless, and babbling somewhat disconnectedly about Palestrina and motets and where the term “a cappella” originated. I remember that I felt more comfortable talking about the music than actually trying to rehearse it, which suggested to me that maybe a career as a music professor was more suited to me than I had once thought. During that first rehearsal, I forcibly experienced what I already knew to be true: that I was in WAY over my head and desperately needed some guidance.

I sought out Mr. D, my first college choir director, with a desperate plea for help. Shortly thereafter, I was in his office listening to his advice about running rehearsals. That meeting made a huge difference in how I structured my rehearsals moving forward. I felt empowered. Mr. D’s suggestions were helpful and easy to implement. Suddenly I felt in control. Still clueless. Still inexperienced. But I had a road map now.

Even so, I dreaded rehearsals. The worst thing about rehearsals was that, even after getting through one, I couldn’t rest easy – I would have to do it all over again the following week. Rehearsals were frustrating. Concepts didn’t stick. We didn’t make progress as quickly as I would have liked. I worried that the choir was bored because we kept drilling the same things out of necessity. I was intimidated to be under the scrutiny of 16 pairs of eyes every week, watching me fumble my way through directing while trying to pretend that I was totally competent, even though I felt completely inadequate. It seemed like there was inevitably at least one point during every rehearsal when I either wanted to break down in tears or throw my hands up, declare that I was quitting, and walk out. It was hard not having an accompanist on a consistent basis: my accompanist is a wonderful musician and an excellent collaborative artist, but also a very busy wife and mother who works full-time. Consequently, she had very limited availability for rehearsals: sometimes she was there for the first half, sometimes for the second half, sometimes not at all. I had her schedule in advance, so it wasn’t a guessing game. But the days when she could not make it at all were hard. On top of that, the choir attendance was on a rotating basis. Every week it seemed like different people had to miss for various reasons. Because of the volunteer, low-pressure, minimal time commitment nature of the choir, I quickly discovered that I was powerless to enforce any sort of consistent attendance without feeling like a bully. So, I never knew exactly who would be showing up each week, or how many people were technically in the choir. At our scheduled rehearsal time every week, I would simply cross my fingers and hope that enough people would show up to hold a viable rehearsal. And they always did – within the first 15 minutes or so.

We spent the first month of rehearsals working on an arrangement of “Tantum Ergo.” It was sacred, it was Latin, it was a cappella – I thought it was perfect. There was only one slight problem: although it was musically repetitive, even so, the intervals were challenging and counter-intuitive. It was not accessible for the choir. They were making progress on it, but after a month’s worth of rehearsing, it was still not clicking yet, and we hadn’t even started to learn the Latin. Then, there arose a bigger problem. An objection was raised regarding the content of the song – that it was not appropriate for an Orthodox Presbyterian church. So, I consulted our pastor, who is also my boss in the context of my choir director role, for his approval. He explained to me that the song was, in fact, not suitable for performance in our church service because of fundamental doctrinal objections to the implications of the words in their interpretation of the sacrament of Communion. This necessitated a complete about-face and a scramble on my part to find a less controversial piece that would be easy enough for the choir to learn in a month, as we were one month away from our first scheduled date to sing. We ended up learning an arrangement of “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” that I had fallen in love with when I was in the church choir in high school. It was lovely, it was fairly straightforward, it was safe.

The choir’s first performance was on November 3. After two months of rehearsing, and church members repeatedly asking, “So, when is the choir going to sing?” I necessarily felt the pressure of my directing debut. Dr. S, one of my other college choir directors, has a phrase that she uses to describe the sort of eleventh hour rise-to-the-occasion effect that happens on performance days. I can’t remember what the phrase was exactly, but I definitely saw it manifest itself in my choir during our first performance. Interestingly, I experienced the phenomenon myself in my conducting. I suddenly felt “on” – I was focused, I was aware of what cues I needed to give, I was expressive, and I was smiling. (I have a really hard time smiling when I direct. It’s hard to do it naturally throughout a piece, without one’s facial muscles freezing into a grimace-grin or without appearing to have a spastic jaw muscle. Also, during actual performances, my mouth gets very dry. When that happens, the corners of my lips stick to my teeth when I try to smile and I’m convinced I look ridiculous so then I start making weird faces trying unstick my lips from my teeth and probably end up looking even more ridiculous. Fellow choir directors – please tell me I’m not the only one who has this dilemma.)

But I’m getting sidetracked. The point is that I felt like I was really connecting musically with the choir and it was exhilarating. Yes, “exhilarating” is actually the word that I used to describe my first time directing the choir in a performance setting. In spite of the weekly trial of facing my fears at each rehearsal and working through my insecurities and pushing forward even when I didn’t think I was doing a good job, those moments of directing the choir, making music with the choir during our Sunday service, suddenly made all of the difficulties leading up to that day worth the struggle. It made me excited for what we could accomplish together. We had another performance scheduled for later that month, followed a few weeks later by a Sunday morning performance, and then the Christmas program.

I was feeling ambitious on behalf of my choir. Until I actually counted up the number of rehearsals we had left.