I was the kid that hid behind Mom or Dad’s leg when introduced to somebody new. My first day of pre-school had me full of anxiety to say the least. I distinctly remember walking into the classroom/playroom of my pre-school class and bursting into tears out of fear. My teacher walked over to me and took my hand. Giant tears rolling down my cheeks. There are probably 20 kids sitting cross-legged in a semi-circle, facing the chalkboard. Everyone was wiggling, giggling, and whispering. The teacher sits in front of the group of tiny gawkers and has me stand right next to her. “This is Maria” the teacher says. “Hi Maria” the class shouts back. She says, “We were just about to sing some songs, but we need to warm up first.” she addresses the class, “Can everybody show Maria how we warm up our voices?” And all the kids pinch a little bit of skin on the front of their tiny necks and start singing in their tiny, high-pitched voices, “mi, mi, mi, mi, mi!” I stopped crying at the sight of this and joined right in with the class. This was my first “choir.”
I’ve learned a few things since then.
What makes great ensemble? So many things can factor into this process. There’s the individual study and practice of the music. Digging into a piece and finding not only the meter and pitch, but divining personal meaning in every word so that it can truly be said that, “she was getting her message across”. There’s also the intense work with the other members of the ensemble.
Ack! That dreaded word makes many a musician shudder. It’s a process by which a piece of music is analyzed by a group of musicians together. Each note, phrase, word, dynamic, and rhythm is given meaning and motivation in a public setting. Often there is unanimous agreement, but fierce debate also ensues. Not many people actually like the process of wood shedding. Especially professional musicians who are usually expected to know their music when they arrive to rehearsal and should be able to perform close to performance worthy at that first rehearsal. Most look upon this process as frustrating for many reasons. Not the least of which is that it exposes those who have learned their music well, those who have not, as well as those who are struggling.
To those who are the most prepared, it sends the message that their time is about to be wasted while other people learn notes/pitches/text that they already should know. To those who didn’t prepare, it’s a humbling, excruciating, embarrassing moment when they must concede to the fact that yes, we’re sitting down and doing this now…right now…in front of all these people…and they’re not happy about it…
Let’s not forget about those who struggle. Those who have put in the hours of learning text, rhythm, pitches. Who have listened to recordings over and over and over. Who have sat at the piano, possibly found outside help and are still struggling. These people are no less skilled than the other singers. They require some time with the ensemble. They require a bigger picture than they can paint on their own. In fact, all of these singers need that bigger picture. Wood shedding in this case can become the great commonality that brings musicians of all types and learning levels/styles together. There’s no doubt that by the end of this painful but careful preparation, all will be on the same page.
I have been all three of these singers: Prepared, unprepared, struggling. I’ve also been doing this for many years and have been all three people many times over. I have found that I am fiercely loyal to this particular process for the way it brings together a group of individuals. We are all fighting this tooth and nail. We’ll come out bloodied and bruised on the other side, but the test of will power and the strength simply to keep going will ensure that we will survive and be satisfied with our work. Sharing this group struggle is just as important to me if not more so, than making the pretty sounds culminating at our final performance.
There’s at least one more important part of the fabulous ensemble. It’s how we treat each other. Ideally, everyone’s opinions are respected. There’s lot’s of listening going on, no matter how whack the idea sounds. There’s also no bullshit. Everyone should be able to trust themselves and each other to tell the truth–as kindly as they know how. These are the people that will tell me if I have something stuck between my teeth rather than let me show that off to the world. They won’t let me look like an idiot and I’ll do the same for them.
So, today, I am not 4, I am not so shy and – in addition to all my other singing commitments – I sing with the Julians. When I walk into a Julians rehearsal, I don’t burst into tears, yet we still wiggle and giggle. Each time we rehearse, I’m reminded of the ‘Three Singers’ in all of us – equally prepared, unprepared or struggling. Still, we dig into each piece, we woodshed until we’re all satisfied – and we continue to learn.
For those brave souls who powered through my rambling, or just simply didn’t fall asleep, here’s a present for your viewing pleasure. A gift for you