How do we get it all done, with our personnel and resources?

Chorale approaches a major project like the St. John Passion from several different directions.  One, reflected in the blog topics these past few weeks, is, what is the music about?  What is the religious/historical context? What is Bach’s intent, and  how do we best accomplish it?  What did Bach’s listeners expect, and how do we make these expectations relevant for a modern audience?

Another is far more mundane, at least at first glance:  how do we get it all done, with our personnel and resources?

I worked as a camp counselor during my college summers, near Isabella, Minnesota, adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  Eleven miles down the road from us, on the Kawishiwi River, sat the Minnesota Outward Bound School. Almost anyone who cared about camping, canoeing, and the outdoors, was aware of the place, though I never knew anyone who attended.  Once, during free time, several of us counselors drove over to the place to check it out. As luck would have it, an enthusiastic staff person met our car, gave us a tour of the facilities, spoke at length about the program, and gave us some literature to take home.  What I learned about the program, that day, has stuck with me ever since.

New students, arriving at the school, were a surprisingly motley crew. Far from looking like Forest Service recruits or L.L. Bean models, many looked out-of-shape, pasty-faced, self-absorbed, whiny, and extremely uncomfortable-- one would not have given them a snowball’s chance in hell of sticking with the program (which, as I remember, lasted several weeks), much less of accomplishing all that was asked of them. I had expected to admire them; I had expected to want to be one of them; and they disappointed.  Our guide, without referring specifically to the students we were seeing, told us that all were rated on their skills and physical fitness when they arrived, and then placed in groups-- not in high, middle, and low groups, but spread out evenly, so that no one group had an advantage.  These groups, or teams, were then given tasks which required teamwork-- the best example I can remember is an obstacle course of sorts, which included some really difficult problems like a high wooden wall over which each team member had to climb, one way or another.  No one person’s accomplishment counted for anything; only the team’s accomplishments mattered, and each team, as a unit, was required to complete the obstacle course.   The more gifted were not allowed to race ahead; the less gifted were not left behind.  If a guy could not get over the wall, his teammates pulled, pushed, and encouraged, until he was over.  Only through working together, and developing an objective, dispassionate view of its situation, could a team hope to succeed at all, much less to win.

Several weeks of this sort of regimen, experienced through a variety of outdoor, wilderness-related activities, was said to have a transformative effect on the students.  Yes, they learned skills and got in shape; but more important, they learned cooperation, teamwork, patience, appreciation of the particular strengths of others. Along with confidence in their ability to cope and solve problems, they learned humility; the program left nowhere to hide.

Richard Vikstrom, former director of music at Rockefeller Chapel, once told me that one could stand on a corner, choose the first forty people that walked by, and make a choir of them.  I believe, back in the early years of the Luther College choir, that is exactly what Weston Noble did:  took whomever he could get, taught them to sing, and developed techniques for making them sound good together.  I expect, in fact, that many choral conductors the world over do this as a matter of course.  Their groups have one or two, maybe a handful, of obviously talented, facile singers; the rest need a lot of help, encouragement, and training.  “Professional” choirs, in some cases, are actually composed of the cream of the crop in their respective locales and literatures.  In most cases, though, the word “professional” just means that the singers can be compelled to show up regularly and on time, and only indirectly refers to a musical product.  Choral conductors, reading my description of the newly-arriving Outward Bound students, must surely see the very image of a season’s first rehearsal:  How am I to get these people to sound like anything?  How will they ever sing Bach? Chicago Chorale has been around for twelve years now.  Those who joined early on have improved, and we attract better-prepared singers, year by year.  But the question always hangs there: will these people be able to sing Beethoven? Nystedt? Shchedrin?  A conductor presents the task, and requires that it be accomplished; but something must happen within the group, some growth must occur, again and again, which connects all the singers, greater and lesser, with their disparate gifts, into a willing team that gets one another over the wall, and in good time.  As with the Outward Bound program, the skills learned are effectively a byproduct of the experience:  the life lessons of cooperation, compassion, humility, patience, and generosity, are the real, fundamental prizes that will open Bach’s world to us, and enable us to share it.