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.

Learning About Singing From Fifth-Graders

Yesterday a fifth-grade chorus visited the Boston Conservatory Chorale. The kids sang a few pieces for us, everyone read through a piece together, then the conservatory students sang a few pieces for the kids.

The conservatory chorale performed selections from the Brahms Zigeunerlieder. Since the piece was in German, after each movement, our director asked the kids what they thought the music was about. Their earnest and candid answers were priceless.

The vengeful, bitter movement? It sounded loud and exciting and happy. Maybe like they’re having a party! Did the singers look angry? The kids shook their heads and gave a resounding “No!”

Great singing must be communicative, and the kids’ honest feedback was a great way for the conservatory students to learn how effectively they were communicating. Kids tell it like it is, whether you like it or not.

Choral Bootcamp

Last week I had the incredible experience of being the pianist for the Central District Massachusetts Music Educator’s Association Senior Festival Chorus. The chorus was comprised of the top 10% of high school students selected by audition to perform at Mechanics Hall under conductor Dr. William Cutter. With just two days to rehearse a challenging program, we had our work cut out for us.

Although he could have easily spent both days drilling rhythm and pitches, Bill held the students to higher standards. Pitch and rhythmic accuracy alone do not make music. “We’re here to make music!” he insisted.

Making music didn’t come easily. We shared the frustration of repeating phrases over and over and saw the occasional rolled eyes, but overall the students were attentive and cooperative. They learned about solfège, articulation, breathing, phrasing, diction, dynamics, shadow vowels, glottal stops, composers, music history, and all the other ingredients for making music.

The three days were like boot camp for me too. Aside from a stint at age 12, I had no choral accompanying experience. I knew what to expect from years of being a choral singer, but observation is no substitute for direct experience. As the first day of rehearsal approached, I became more anxious than excited.

Playing with the chorus was harder than anything else I’ve done musically, and I made my fair share of mistakes. I mean holy crap, I had to watch the conductor, play the piano part, listen to the singers, and play any/all of their parts if they needed it, while being musical?! At the end of each day, I was mentally exhausted and ready for a glass of wine.

Although Bill challenged them more than they expected, I think the students learned a great deal about music and musicianship — I certainly did. There were moments when I thought, “We’ll never be ready for Saturday,” but our performance reflected a level of achievement that we could all be proud of. Several students approached Bill and me to express how much they enjoyed the experience, which was definitely heart-warming.

Most of all, I was inspired by my colleagues, Bill, Ginny, and Reagan. (That’s Ms. Bailey and Mr. Paras to you, kids!) It was amazing to collaborate with such dedicated professionals who were absolutely passionate about their work. I was almost embarrassed to be in their company, just dipping my toes in the music profession. I have so much to learn — what next?