From Singer to Choral Singer

At Chorale’s most recent rehearsal, our accompanist, Kit Bridges, did something so subtly wonderful during warm-ups that I stopped everything and discussed it with the choir—I wanted them to hear it, pay attention to it, be aware of what he was doing.  It was so small and simple—I asked the choir, in one particular exercise, to begin in the upper register pianissimo, sing down the arpeggio, then crescendo while arpeggiating back to the upper register, ending full forte.  They tend to be careless about this, singing the entire exercise about mezzo forte; but Kit, at the piano, played precisely and beautifully what I had asked the choir to sing, and they all copied him.  For the first time in twelve years, this exercise worked successfully—because of Kit’s imaginative responsiveness, his understanding of the exercise, and his subtle, behind-the-scenes leadership.  I’m not sure even he knew what he was doing—collaboration and responsiveness are second nature to him; I’m not sure the singers even knew they were responding—they simply copied, flexibly and collaboratively.  The exercise, which I learned from a former voice teacher of mine, Hermanus Baer, is important, even essential, in building control and flexibility in the upper register—something every singer, and every choir, needs, and something many singers, and choirs, lack.  I have no doubt that Chorale will be a better choir, because of Kit’s contribution in this respect, as well as in countless others.    As I told the singers at the time:  this is why we want Kit to accompany us, rather than just someone who plays the piano.  He listens, he responds, he collaborates.

Singers, too, must learn to be more than just singers, if they are to contribute successfully to an ensemble.  They have to respect one another, as well as the unity of the ensemble; learn to listen to one another and to the music; they have to adjust their vocal characteristics to the needs of the ensemble, as well as of the music; they have to breathe together, line up their entrances and cut-offs, their vowels and consonants, not only intellectually, but physically, emotionally.  They have to live together, musically, to sing together.

With a college-age choir, in a rigorous choral environment, all of this can be encouraged by rehearsing as often as five times a week; by memorizing music;  by holding hands during performance; by living together, eating together, cheering together, praying together, dressing alike-- all habits and behaviors which build uniformity of vision and approach.  And I have found, in the successful festivals in which I have participated, with Robert Shaw and Helmuth Rilling, a similar intensity of identification, built through constant interaction. In most cases, though, adults, no matter how well trained, talented, and skilled, who sing together only once a week, and lead widely disparate lives outside of rehearsal, will tend just to show up and “sing”-- to regard themselves as singers, rather than as members of a body.  Too easily, and pervasively, they do not listen to one another, do not breathe together, do not move and sound as one.  This is likely to be true from the most talented and best-paid singers, to the sketchiest of amateurs.  They just sing. They are just singers.  Too often one hears singers say, relative to a choral performance, “Well, we managed to pull that off!  Way under-rehearsed, but we made it through. Thank goodness we are so good, we can get away with this.”  And audiences become accustomed to this standard, do not expect more, often don’t even know how much better things could be.

Talent, skill, training, and rigor in the act of singing are very important; but that is only the beginning.  Singers, and conductors, have to be aware of this, and develop the disciplines to promote and encourage the rest. Vocal development is a good start:  expressing oneself through the medium of an ensemble, which strives to express the vision of a composer, and of a culture, is hugely more than this.   Singers have to learn to approach the choral art with integrity and respect-- have to realize that good choral singing is difficult and demanding, and rewarding; by no means something that one falls back on while waiting for a big solo break.

An ensemble is fortunate when a significant number of its members arrive having experienced the choral art on a high level, having internalized the essential standards and disciplines—bring the training and commitment with them, and lead member singers who have not been so fortunate in their backgrounds.  Adults haven’t the time or inclination to do all the things a top college choir does, to inspire excellence; but they do better if they remember those experiences, understand their essential value, and constantly reawaken in themselves the collaborative flexibility and high standards these habits have taught them.   Kit Bridges doesn’t have to eat, sleep, and pray with the singers he accompanies; his many years of experience have made him supremely responsive to them, while those same years have also made him confident in the choices he makes. This combination of leadership and responsiveness yields high-level collaboration and expressiveness, the goal of any corporate music-making venture.