Guest Post: Chasing the Unicorn

Managing Director Megan Balderston By Managing Director (and soprano) Megan Balderston

Sometimes it is really easy to go into default mode, and default mode is a danger zone for singers. We had an exasperating rehearsal a couple of weeks ago because of it.

Some rehearsals are tough but satisfying; you work efficiently, people are focused and on the same page, and you leave feeling that you accomplished something. Then there is the unicorn rehearsal: that one that seems like a fantasy but does in fact occasionally happen—when everything inexplicably goes right and you leave on a high of fellowship, musicianship, and fun. Not two weeks ago. We went over and over things we ought to have known; I’m sure we didn’t get to everything; none of the voice parts were completely on. Boy, did it show. And our pronunciation—the vowels for which we hope we are known—were not there yet. The music by our June composers is individually compelling; together it will make a gorgeous concert. In our “e-blasts” and blog posts we talk a lot about what makes for good singing, most particularly language. I’ll get back to that later.

Learning music involves a lot of kinesthetic detail. It takes diligence, and precision, and intellectual curiosity. There may be people who don’t think about it that way—but I’m not one of them, and I share the stage with 60 people who feel the same way I do. There is, of course, learning the notes. Notes are important, certainly…and wrong ones are sort of beside the point. But we also have to feel an internal rhythm—the bones, so to speak. I had a college professor who used to have us march or dance along to music, just so that we would internalize all of the inner subdivisions of rhythm in each note. Bruce has his own tricks to make this happen. But the final thing upon which transcendent performances hinge, is communicating through our language. We can’t rely on the first two to make a complete choral work.

Almost our entire group comes to the party with a flat, Midwestern speaking voice. It’s not particularly attractive, but it’s the dreaded default mode for most of us. Maybe you remember the Saturday Night Live “Da Bears” skit? Now imagine those actors singing the Schubert Ave Maria in character and you have an exaggeration of the default we struggle against every day. To make ourselves understood in speaking, we exaggerate certain consonants and vowels. The letters R and A are good examples of this. But sing them in an exaggerated way and you sound like Gomer Pyle, or those fictional Bears fans.

One of my favorite voice teachers once said to me, “Come ON! Singing…is just talking. But stupid talking.” If we talked our vowels the way we should be singing them, we would sound at best Grey Gardens pretentious, and at worst stupid. It’s hard to compete against what you do naturally 12 hours a day, for the 3 hours we come together each week.

So here we all are, learning our 15th anniversary program. A program that will show our long-time followers and friends just how far we have come. A program in which we sing English, like British choir boys; we sing Latin; we sing French. We have only one person in the ensemble that grew up in the United Kingdom. The rest of us work hard to get those vowels pristine. As Bruce famously said in a rehearsal several years ago, “Deep in my heart, I know you can pronounce French. The French do it every day.”

Chicago Chorale is special because of that human need to strive for more; to create more than even we think we can. All beautiful things require some form of hard work and concentrated effort to get them that way. If we have to “stupid talk” to get our vowels to ring along with the beautiful music we are singing, so be it. We are jolting out of our daily default, and as such, we were due a giant leap forward. Thank goodness for that. Last week’s rehearsal was efficient, fun, and rewarding. Sometimes you take a step back before going two steps forward. Next stop: having a unicorn rehearsal!