Guest Blog: from Sarah Idzik

Chronic sleep deprivation is a serious thing. (This may not seem relevant to Chicago Chorale, but bear with me a moment.)

You only have to read a little about it to be terrified into attempting to prioritize a proper night’s sleep. The effects can range from increased risk of obesity and stroke to stress on your relationships to, of course, decreased daytime alertness. But the thing I worry about most is the effect on my cognitive functions—the idea that my ability to think and process information can actually be impaired by chronic lack of sleep.

Of course, this kind of thing can be hard to quantify or to anecdotally observe. In college admissions, the field in which I work, April is a notoriously difficult month, requiring absurd hours and strings of consecutive work days that, for me, reached a record 19 this month. All of which I assumed I was handling fine until Chorale rehearsal several Wednesdays ago.

I’ve sung enough Bach with Chorale by now that I have come to think of Bach’s choral works as something akin to very beautiful math. The precision required for Bach, for the constant motion and ever-changing chords and delicate texture and language, means that the singer must perform at his or her highest possible level of engagement, unrelentingly and at all times. And when all the singers are on the same page, the result is nothing less than the collective effervescence described by French philosopher Émile Durkheim. I know that about Bach going in by now.

My expectations for Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes were not so well-developed. I suppose some part of me assumed this would be easier: a secular spring concert, ostensibly lacking the scale or gravity of many of our other concerts, notably Bruckner’s E Minor Mass, which we just completed; even the concert postcard, cheerful in muted spring yellow, gives off an air of warmth and ease.

Until I showed up to that particular rehearsal with all the cognitive awareness of an actual sleepwalker, running on single-digit sleep hours for the week and a veritable metric ton of caffeine, and was—if you’ll excuse the colloquialism—completely and utterly schooled by Brahms.

These Liebeslieder Waltzes are not easy. They are nowhere near easy. They are quick, they are musically witty and restless, they are stylistically diverse, they change on a dime, they are in German. As Bruce pointed out in his April 1 blog post, Brahms “pulls out every trick” with these waltzes, and as a singer, you certainly feel it. They may be composed in a secular style, but this is not music that you get comfortable with easily. Every time I think I’m starting to fall into a rhythm, Brahms pulls the rug out from under me. It takes just about every unit of my brainpower, and every ounce of my intellectual flexibility and strength, to stay a step ahead—and what I found during that one particularly sleep-deprived rehearsal was that I could not fire every cylinder that Brahms demanded of me. I could manage intervals and dynamics, but then I’d stumble over the language; or else there was some other combination of compromises. I was perpetually a step behind, not able to achieve the whole. And it was immensely frustrating.

It was also a valuable lesson learned. The Liebeslieder Waltzes are wily and challenging and, yes, difficult—but, as with Bach, they are equally as gratifying and rewarding when sung correctly, and sung well. There are few things in this world more satisfying than successfully and deftly navigating a particularly difficult passage, and then putting your final consonant on at the exact moment as everyone else in your section—and I’m happy to say I’ve had some of those experiences too. This music requires so much work and energy, but it pays dividends in the end, for the singers and for our audience. Sleep is only one part of the responsibility we take on as a choir in order to present this music, and all of its nuances, well.

The other lesson learned here is that Bruce would, of course, never program a concert without works that challenge us and our audience, and that give us opportunities to grow, learn, and succeed in ways we haven’t before. It is why I am so thankful to be a member of this group.

I’m excited to be well-rested enough to give the Liebeslieder Waltzes the energy they deserve, and am equally as excited to present them to our audience on May 18.