For the Love of Singing

Last week, I wrote, “A professional ensemble has the luxury of choosing repertoire, then hiring a choir that can sing it; my job is somewhat more complicated and challenging—and never less than interesting.”   I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the divide between Chicago Chorale and the paying groups with whom we compete and share the stage, and about the broad implications of “amateurism” versus “professionalism.” Chicago Chorale is all about enriching, and transforming, the lives of its singers, as well as its audience. We seek, unapologetically, a high production standard, and high artistic achievement; and we seek to perform the very best music literature available. But we do this, not for commercial reasons, but because we are persuaded that people are changed, are moved to be better, to strive for better lives for themselves and others, through making music, themselves, the best they can do it.   Yes, some music is more difficult to understand, and execute, than other music. But we believe that our collection of singers can understand, and share in, the most profound works of the greatest composers; we believe that, given sufficient rehearsal time, training, motivation, and will, we can do as well as any commercially-motivated group of professional singers—and that our end product will be special, and individual, because of the growth of understanding that we have experienced through the often difficult process of preparing it. Chorale’s performances are not only “correct”; they are also imbued with the spiritual, emotional journey each singer, and the ensemble on the whole, encounters putting them together.

I have lived on both sides of this divide. I have made a lot of money over the years, singing in performances, on recordings, sometimes with wonderful ensembles, sometimes with ensembles that aren’t so great but that paid me to help them sound better than they would otherwise. I have been grateful for my talent and skill, grateful that conductors have hired me to sing the repertoire they have chosen. I have been grateful, as well, for the company of other highly skilled singers, who have made my own job quicker and easier. I have learned so very much through such experiences. I have taken great pride, and felt considerable pleasure, in pulling off major works with minimal rehearsal and maximum pay. Finally, though, I believe that the most fundamental and valuable work is done by groups like Chorale-- groups that change lives, that transform understanding, that touch everyday people with divine fire. My experiences in school and community groups, in college choirs, were not just steps along the way, training grounds that weeded out the less gifted and brought the chosen few forward toward the truth of professionalism; they were glorious experiences that turned me inside out when they happened, that made me who I am today. Along the way, I learned that I may be selfish and neurotic much of the time, but under the influence of great music I am made better, and have the wonderful opportunity of giving the best of myself. And I learned this long before I collected my first paycheck for singing.

Wouldn’t we all have more hope for our world, knowing that our doctor, our professor, our neighbor, our lawyer, our child’s kindergarten teacher, shared our love of making great music?