More Than Ships Passing In the Night

Category: Choir

Amazing grace

Instead of posting about shoes, or fortune cookies, or my lovely co-workers today, I want to write about something a little bit different. Right now, the choir that I sang in when I was in college is currently in Korea on a two-week tour. God is using them in incredible ways to bring hope and comfort. Last night, they had the opportunity to sing for the families who are grieving their lost children and loved ones in the ferry sinking.

Dr. Shawna Stewart, the Biola Chorale director, described the experience on their tour blog: “It’s hard to put into words our experience last night at Jindo. We are humbled to have been invited into their grief. It sounds like much good has come from it even in the smallest of things like the expression of our emotion through tears. We concluded by singing Amazing Grace with the families, us in English, the families in Korean. Soli Deo gloria.”

During my time in college, we did not have quite the same ministry opportunities. Our choir tours consisted of trips to central California, Arizona, and New York. They tended to be more recruitment-oriented than anything else. They were fun in their own way, but I am truly awed and inspired by what the Chorale is doing this year. This trip is what the Biola Conservatory is about. It is what makes our Conservatory unique. We strive to be excellent musicians, but there is a greater purpose to our endeavors than just delivering an exceptional performance. Our purpose is to minister hope, healing, connection, and comfort – to communicate truth and light in the midst of darkness. This is why we do what we do – so that God can use our music for his glory.

After I graduated, I found that I had a strange double-standard when it came to supporting the Chorale. This group represented the community that was such an integral part of my college experience. I missed that community. I was jealous of – dare I say, even threatened by – these new choir members, this new era of Chorale, because I wished that I could be a part of it. It sounds childish to admit, but there it is. Oftentimes, my jealousy kept me from appreciating the good things that the Chorale was doing. Because I could not stay in the choir forever, I started resenting it.

But this morning, as I looked at pictures of their Korea trip, and read the blog posts and the news articles, something in me was convicted and something in me melted. I suddenly saw the barrier that my jealousy had created, blinding me from supporting this group in the way that I should. I will always be an alumna of the Biola Chorale, and I am so thankful for that. I am so thankful for the amazing ways that the Chorale continues to use music to minister to those around them. Please join me in praying for the efforts of the Chorale as they continue their Korea tour.

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The Biola Chorale singing at Jindo

 

 

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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!

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.