Alive and singing

This morning I accompanied a choir of first and second grade students. They fidgeted and whispered. They made accusations of poking, kicking, and hand-squeezing. A few stood dazed and silent, as though they had never heard the songs before. “My throat is parched. I can’t sing any more,” one boy whined dramatically. (Yes, he really said “parched.”)

As I looked across the stage at the children, I couldn’t help but think of the young victims at Sandy Hook Elementary. Maybe they knew the same songs or watched the same cartoons. They were just as small, so very small.

After rehearsal, the music teacher apologized for her students’ behavior. “I didn’t want to yell at them today,” she admitted. I think we shared the same thought: The kids are alive and singing, and for that we are grateful.

Choral Accompanying Anxiety

Because I’m a sucker for choral music and terrified of mental atrophy, I am once again the pianist for the Boston Conservatory Chorale this semester. 99% of the time when I’m accompanying a chorus, I’m really enjoying myself. The other 1% of the time, I’m having a panic attack and restraining myself from crawling into fetal position under the piano.

One problem I suffer from is The Curse of the Disappearing Entrance. You know that moment when the conductor says, “From bar 53,” or “From rehearsal Q,” or “From the alto entrance on laudate,” and you can’t find the spot anywhere? You turn the pages back and forth frantically, but that bar has gone invisible on you, even though you played it just a few minutes ago? I hate when that happens.

I’ve witnessed super-awesome pianists falling victim to The Curse, so I’m fairly certain that it’s an unavoidable, inconvenient phenomenon. Just like how you always pick the slowest checkout lane, even when you trick yourself by picking one line and getting in a different line. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you.

Another problem I suffer from is Open Score Reading Brain Fart. My least favorite question of all time is: “Eileen, could you play that really interesting chord in the chorus part?” <INSERT AWKWARD PAUSE HERE.>

What’s happening during that awkward pause?

Let’s see… Left hand B2 B1 T2 T1, right hand A2 A1 S2 S1. Tenor is in treble clef, not bass clef. My hand can’t reach that interv—oh right, an octave down. OMG, the whole chorus is waiting for me. T2 is lower than B1, tricky bastard. OK, right hand. Hurry up and think harmonically. Dominant 7? F*** just play a chord, any chord!

This awkward, two-second pause feels like an eternity, during which time I also curse myself for studying chemistry instead of something useful like music theory. I’m actually quite capable of playing from open score as long as everyone is singing and not staring at me, waiting for me to play that “interesting chord.” I’m no Martin Amlin, that’s for sure, but hopefully my skills will improve with experience.

The Baton Doesn’t Fall Far from the Podium

I’ve now performed under three generations of conductors who have mentored one another:

  • John Oliver, conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
  • Dr. William Cutter, John’s assistant conductor at MIT from 1990 to 1996 and currently his assistant conductor for the TFC
  • Kelby Khan, graduate student in choral conducting studying with Bill

It’s fascinating to observe what’s been passed down from master to apprentice: gestures, rehearsal style, and even jokes! I’m not a conductor myself, but I recently led a church choir rehearsal and found myself saying, “Last time through. No mistakes.”

Maybe someday I’ll work with one of Kelby’s students.