Monday, May 12, 2008

Mother's Day Choir

Yesterday my church choir and I had quite a moving experience.

One of the pieces we did for the service was Bobby McFerrin's "Psalm 23: Dedicated to my mother." I introduced it at rehearsal on Wednesday, and I sent them a Youtube link to a good performance online (I try to do this whenever possible.)

For those who don't know, this piece is set with a very free rhythm - he just writes a whole note, and then writes a long line of text under it that is supposed to be sung in speech rhythm. (My understanding is that Anglican chant is similar to this.) Difficult to conduct, to say the least. So we were going through it on Sunday morning in our rehearsal before the service. And it was clear that we were having lots of trouble singing it together - everyone was at different speeds. So I went through it, giving them the emphasized words, and telling them where to put breaks (I did this on Wednesday as well, so doing this on Sunday was a refresher.) And then I said, "OK. This is obviously not coming together with me conducting, so here's what we're going to do. I am not going to conduct. Not even with my head. I'm just going to listen. And Maureen (the accompanist) is just going to give you your notes, and she's not going to play. You all just have to breathe together and go, and sing the piece together. This is an experiment - just try it." And they did. And it WORKED. In fact, it was amazing. They were really together, in a way that would have been flat-out impossible if I had been conducting. They had to come together as a group, b/c they didn't have me in there gumming up the works.

So that was the way we did it in the service. When the choral benediction came along, I just sat down in the front pew, and Maureen gave them their notes, and they sang the whole piece by themselves with no conductor, and it was great, and I just listened. In fact, I made the mistake of listening too vulnerably, and by the last verse I had tears in my eyes and wasn't sure I was going to be able to keep from really crying. This happens sometimes to me as a conductor when I make what I will mis-call "the mistake of listening." Obviously one of your primary jobs is to listen...but when you are working hard at being open, you run the risk of not being able to hold yourself emotionally together. The other notable time this happened to me was in the dress rehearsal for my masters' conducting concert. My teacher DM came up behind me while I was conducting Brahms' "Waldesnacht", and talked me through opening up and connecting to the music, and he succeeded a little too well - it was all I could do not to break down sobbing and I seriously felt like it was an effort of will to keep my joints together - I physically felt like I might break apart. It is one of the scariest challenges as a conductor to figure out how to open up the channels to emotion, to connect to the music yourself and thereby enable other people, both performers and audience, to connect to the music, without totally losing it yourself.

But the fact that my choir's performance affected me so strongly was a clear indication of how well they succeeded at making some real music. And what better story for Mother's Day? I taught and prepared them - they had the notes, and they knew what words they were heading for and what the rhythm should be, and where all the breaks and breaths were. And after they learned it I tossed them off the cliff and they flew. I love my choir.


  1. What an amazing story. Thank you for telling it -- it brings tears to my eyes.

  2. I've known some very experienced conductors who found themselves unexpectedly emotional during a stirring performance. And as a singer, sometimes I'm just terrible at keeping it together during something that's especially meaningful to me.

    Ah Boston! what a great place to hear (and make) music!

  3. Yes, that's definitely Anglican chant; the men on the recording likely grew up in that tradition as kids in England.
    When it's done in American Episcopal churches (of a high church tradition--several in Boston do it all the time) the choir and congregation are generally supported by organ. The key is that the choir can see the organist, who is leading by singing and a few head gestures. With those guides, and prior markings about where the emphases and breaks are, the choir settles into breathing and speaking together,
    If you use the same chant setting week after week, it's a nice opportunity to taste the different words.

  4. That is a wonderful experience. Ironically enough, my church choir will be singing that piece this Sunday! I didn't really like it at first, but it's growing on me. :)