Better all the time

A few weeks ago, one of my private voice students (who also sings in Chorale) spoke at some length with me, about his reasons for returning to private study. He is established in his life’s work, and does not seek to sing professionally; but he has sung pretty well for a long time, is appreciated and in demand as a choral singer. As he ages, he has come to realize that his technique is flawed, that he is doing some things, habitually, that lead him in the wrong direction, and that these problems will become more pronounced with passing time. He will not be a good singer for as long as he’d like, and this worries him—not just as a matter of personal accomplishment, but because he realizes he is not doing the repertoire justice, not fulfilling the composers’ demands. Through the course of our discussion, it became clear that this thoughtful singer understands that he is in partnership with the composer--- that the composer needs his good singing, as much as he needs the composer’s good music. Without performers, a composer’s work is lines and dots on a page. He realizes that the more profound and compelling that music is, the more it demands of the singer. The relationship stimulates both partners—both are challenged to rise to the level of the other.

Over the course of this discussion, I was reminded of my own path to being a performer. When I graduated from college I was directionless, with no vocational plans; I drifted into singing because it was something I knew how to do, something that could pay some bills and provide me with a social outlet. I had the good fortune to run into conductors, teachers, mentors, who were committed to great repertoire, and were happy to work with me and point me in the direction they knew best—toward honest performance of worthy music. Beginning with Howard Mayer Brown, at the University of Chicago, I began to think about, and feel, that the beauty of the music itself, and the genius of the composers who had brought it life, were reason enough to want to sing-- and that doing a good job with their music was sufficient stimulation for me to want to be a better singer. Through Howard I made contact with the Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin Conservatory, where I came under the influence of August Wenzinger and Max Van Egmond; at the same time, I began to pursue study with Gérard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin, focusing on art song of the 19th and 20th centuries. A few years later, I began to participate in choral programs under Robert Shaw and Helmuth Rilling. In each of these cases, I was stimulated by the teacher/mentor’s commitment to faithful performances of great repertoire; I grew more than I ever could have, had I focused purely on vocal production or choral conducting technique. Repertoire brought me to life.

Last summer, as a part of Chorale’s current strategic plan, our members were polled about what aspects of the Chorale mattered most to them. Overwhelmingly, they mentioned repertoire-- the quality of the repertoire Chorale programs, and the growth they experience through learning to sing this repertoire. The Chorale experience is a big challenge for the singers, as well as for the conductor: we take on some pretty knotty stuff, and work very hard to turn it into presentable performances. What we do is not for everybody, or for every singer. But at our best, we build bridges of technical accomplishment and understanding between ourselves, our listeners, and our composers: bridges which enable the growth and exchange of spiritual perception, intellect, and emotion. As we wrestle with our music, and argue with our composers, we grow both inwardly and outwardly. The performance of great music is like the burning bush-- it burns but does not consume. It makes us better all the time.