Guest Blog: Sam Martin

Sam MartinSinging the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil is a uniquely physical challenge among Chorale’s repertoire. Every composer brings different obstacles: Bach requires mathematical precision to get “the grid” (as Bruce calls it) of notes and rhythms just right, while modern composers like Schoenberg ask singers to come in with perfect intonation on difficult intervals and non-traditional harmonies. No one tests the singer’s posture, breath, and vocal technique quite like The Rach.

I have spent my six working years since graduating from college working as a strength & conditioning coach, so I’m used to training for, and overcoming, physical challenges. Wednesday nights, during this rehearsal cycle, have become another workout. Rachmaninoff requires the baritone part (which I sing) to spend long stretches singing low notes: B, A, G, F—then builds quickly up an octave to Cs, Ds, and Es. There is a gravitational effect from spending a long time in the bottom of the register, and a high D never feels so high as it does during this piece. These vast shifts in register allow the singer no chance to rest his technique.

To survive this piece, one has to breathe correctly, and maintain enough intraabdominal pressure to be able to go big on a moment’s notice. In a lot of repertoire one can get away with more or less chilling out between difficult passages. Try that on Rachmaninoff and you’ll go flat and end up behind the beat, trying to figure out what happened.

It’s reminiscent to me of the CrossFit workouts I used to do that combined seemingly opposite tasks like heavy lifts with running. I’d come in after a run, breathing fast with a high heart rate and all of a sudden have to lock in my posture to keep my back flat while lifting a heavy barbell off of the ground. Even that was easier than singing Rachmaninoff, though. 

Why? Rachmaninoff combines the physical challenge of singing with the mental (and for the face, mouth, and tongue physical) challenge of correctly enunciating the nearly unpronounceable Old Church Slavonic language. I don’t sing in Chorale, though, because it’s fun or easy; I sing in Chorale because it’s worth it. On March 19th & 20th when this all comes together, it will be worth all the physical and mental labor it took to build.