Conducting pattern, part 3

So, the Christmas program.

Thankfully, I am not in charge of directing the program. The challenge is that not being in charge also means working with someone else who IS in charge, and helping them realize their vision for the program – even when that means making concessions about personal preferences regarding the choir. Compromise is one of the most difficult – and most essential – components of relating well to others. Not in the sense of compromising core values, morals, or ethics. But rather, in the sense of discerning when something is non-essential, and then being willing to let go of one’s opinion about said non-essential thing for the sake of furthering the relationship rather than furthering one’s own sense of security. Or something like that. I’m kind of making this up on the spot as I type, so I reserve the right to revise my statement at a later time.

Anyway.

I mentioned in an earlier post that one of my goals for the choir was to never use tracks, but instead to always have live accompaniment or sing a cappella. This was all well and good until the Christmas program director approached me with a piece they had found for the choir that involved using a track. At first I was reluctant, for various reasons. I had already found a beautiful (but challenging) arrangement of “What Child Is This?” that I was set on having the choir perform. Given the more difficult nature of the piece, I was worried about dividing our rehearsal time between too many songs. However, the Christmas program director was optimistic and suggested that we learn both songs. So, I decided to give it a try and see what would happen.

Then there was the issue of track vs. live accompaniment. I told the program director my concerns about the track, including my apprehensiveness about the simple fact that the track would not follow my conducting the way that my accompanist would. If we used a track, then I followed the track, not vice versa. Personal preferences about acoustic aesthetics aside, it was fundamentally intimidating. But the program director really liked the added orchestration in the track because it gave the piece a fuller sound. Plus, it would make life easier for my accompanist to have one less piece to learn during the busy Christmas season. So, we decided to use the track.

Finally, the program director approached me with a request about concert attire. Because it was a Christmas program, it would be nice for the choir to look a little more festive than usual. The director asked if it would be possible to have the choir wear black and white with a red accent – red ties for the men and red scarves for the ladies. I’m not a Grinch or a Scrooge and I have a weakness for scarves, so I had no trouble making this exception for the choir. I even wore a red scarf myself!

So, with our program repertoire selected and our concert attire defined, we commenced the rehearsal countdown to the Christmas program. And that was when things got scary. Thankfully, although the first few rehearsals had been rocky, the choir quickly mastered the gist of “Newborn Ancient of Days” (the piece with the track). I felt confident about how that piece was coming together in terms of being performance-ready by the night of the program. But “What Child” was proving to be problematic. Even my accompanist had mentioned that she was finding the accompaniment to be challenging. The choir was struggling with some of the more complex harmonies and rhythms, as well as unexpected deviations throughout the arrangement from the traditional melody.

A week before the Christmas program, they were just starting to make noticeable progress. Problem areas that we had been working on were just beginning to lock. We had one more rehearsal, and then the dress rehearsal, and then the program. I did not see how the piece was going to be performance-ready in time. During that rehearsal, I started brainstorming for alternate solutions even as we continued to drill the piece. Then, at the end of the rehearsal, one of the choir members asked if we could schedule an additional rehearsal before our last rehearsal. It was absolutely what the choir needed, but there was no way I was going to ask that of them at the last minute like that, especially in the middle of the crazy month of December. However, since the suggestion was made by one of the choir members, that was a different story. To my surprise, the rest of the choir actually seemed on board with the idea, so we scheduled an additional rehearsal. Meanwhile, I discussed with the program director my back-up plan of replacing “What Child” with “Still, Still, Still,” which the choir was scheduled to sing a week after the Christmas program. It was a gorgeous piece but also fairly straightforward and simple. We had hardly spent much time at all working on it, yet I felt certain that we could have it ready for the Christmas program if necessary.

The day of our extra rehearsal was a long day for me. My parents and I had flown to Oregon immediately after I got off work the previous Friday to attend my cousin’s wedding. I flew back early Monday morning (as in, we left my aunt and uncle’s house at 3:45 am so I could get to the airport on time), arrived in time for a co-worker to pick me up from the airport on her way to work, and proceeded to work a full day. My parents picked me up from work at 5, we stopped by the house briefly, and then picked up dinner and headed to the church for rehearsal.

That being said, I was little bit loopy during rehearsal – not at the expense of productivity, but sometimes at the expense of coherency. Thankfully, when I was at work, I had made a list of sections that I wanted to go over and goals that I wanted to accomplish during the rehearsal, so I had a 3×5 card of bullet points on my music stand to keep me on track. We spent the rehearsal primarily working on “What Child.” One of the bullet points on my index card was to talk about the arrival points in the piece. So, I gave the choir a speech about the two most important climaxes in the piece and went off on a tangent about why they were the most important points because of the way the music emphasized the words and how these moments underscored the primary theological truths contained in this familiar Christmas carol and the whole reason we were even having a program to celebrate Jesus’ birth was explained in this song. Well, something like that anyway.

And after I had waxed eloquent for a little bit, we ran through it again. And this time, something was different. I’m sure any choir directors reading this know what I’m talking about. That moment when you can tell that something connected on a musical and emotional level for the choir as a whole and suddenly, the piece that you’ve been losing sleep over starts to sound… good. Suddenly, not only are they grasping the rhythms and the harmonies and the intervals, but they are singing sensitively – phrasing and building and tapering and the piece that was “work” suddenly transforms into “music.” It was an incredible moment to witness that transformation.

Fast-forward through the next rehearsal, where I almost had a meltdown because I couldn’t get the darn cut-offs just right, and through the dress rehearsal the day before the Christmas program, when I had to leave in the middle of said rehearsal to start an exam for work and then came back to catch the end of it, all the way to the Christmas program itself.

Warming up: the thing about sound checking right before an event such as this is that everybody (including myself) inevitably forgets that there are other ensembles and soloists who will also want to sound-check at the same time. So, our final warm-up and run-through was somewhat accelerated and inhibited because the sanctuary was full of other people watching us in a non-performance setting. But the worst part about the warm-up was when we ran through the piece with the track. Up until that point, we had never had ANY problems with getting out of rhythm from the track. There was even one point that I was certain would be a trouble spot for the choir and it never came up as an issue. But on this, our last run-through before performance, suddenly a few voices started speeding up during the bridge and it was a run-away train. I experienced that horrifying gut-wrenching sense of being off from the track and frantically trying to guide an entire ensemble back onto the correct rhythm. At some point, we reconnected, but the fact that it had happened at all, and especially right then, definitely shook my confidence. I’d planned on giving the choir a “Way to go! You all are awesome!” speech at the end of our run-through so that I could tell them how proud I was of their hard work and what they had accomplished, and how good they sounded. Instead, in the rush to finish up and get off stage so the next group could have their turn, compounded by the panic of what had just happened with the track, I ended up basically saying, “Whatever you do, JUST WATCH ME,” and that was it.

But then there was the program itself. Our program director did a fantastic job of putting it together! People commented afterward that it was one of the best Christmas programs our church had done. And the choir, never ceasing to amaze me or make me proud, came through and did a wonderful job on both pieces. Yes – there was a moment on the one with the track where there was an attempt to rush the beat, but I started pointing fiercely at my eyes and mouthing the beats at them, which seemed to help keep everyone together. “What Child is This” was lovely. Really, I was so proud of them and what they had done with the piece – how far they had come with it. It was truly a special time of making music together and hearing the way that our hard work as a team paid off in performance.

The positive comments after the program from those who attended confirmed that it was not just my desperate imagination, but that we had in fact accomplished much as a choir. On the way home after the program, all I could talk about over and over was how proud I was of the choir and how wonderful they sounded that night.

The following Sunday, they sang “Still, Still, Still” for the offertory and it was just another experience of being amazed at and inspired by the hard work of the people in the choir and their commitment to making music. Once again, they did a wonderful job. In just under a month and a half, we had learned and performed four different pieces. They were making so much progress and it was inspiring to see what they could do when given the opportunity. Whereas a few months ago I had wondered if I might step down from the directing position after the Christmas season was over because I was so stressed out by the job, I was now excited and motivated for the spring season, ready to start picking out new repertoire to learn and looking forward to seeing what kind of music we could challenge ourselves to make in the coming months.

And so, the adventure continues!

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