by Hannah the Zebra
Some of you might remember my post Something to Capture Your Heart in which I described building up the courage to audition for the choir that I now sing with.
One Sunday last spring my stamina was very low (I was still on medical leave), so I took it very easy and stayed in bed most of the day. The only thing I had scheduled was the performance of Evensong. Some composer’s work I am ambivalent about, others I like a lot, and some others I am passionate about. This evening we sang a work I am passionate about, and I did everything I could to rest during the day so that I would be able to perform in the evening.
Singing takes work, just like any musical instrument does. It requires discipline and practice, and patience with yourself. And the knowledge that you can always improve and grow as a singer. But at it’s best, singing can be transformative.
Once you have learned the notes, the conductor, you, and your fellow musicians can begin the work of turning the piece into music. A good rendition of the music should reach out and grab the audience and leave them no choice but to be engaged. Even if they decide that they do not like that particular piece, they still have engaged enough to make that decision.
We all have our preferences of course. Music that speaks to us more clearly and easily than others. But there are always surprises. I did not used to be very fond of Benjamin Britten’s music until we performed his Rejoice in the Lamb four years ago. I frequently hear parts of music we are working on going through my head during the day. But when I started waking up and realizing that I had been hearing parts of Rejoice in my sleep, I knew it had worked it’s way into my soul. I’ve been hooked on Britten’s vocal work ever since.
Music of the Renaissance has always spoken to my heart. This particular evening we performed Orlando Gibbons’ (English, 1583-1625) Almighty and Everlasting God. Renaissance music had moved away from the single voice of chant into polyphony of two or more independent musical voices. That means that each voice (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) has its own melodic line. So you can look at a piece of Renaissance music, especially if you are looking only at your own part, and think that the piece is relatively easy. And usually you are wrong.
I think that all Renaissance music is beautiful. But the music written by a genius, and Orlando Gibbons was certainly that, can make your heart ache with its beauty. I first looked at the Gibbons piece and thought that nothing in it looked particularly difficult. There were no prolonged runs of sixteenth notes, no text that had to be enunciated clearly at the speed of lightening. But I had forgotten. Renaissance music is very transparent, and any weaknesses you have as a singer becomes glaringly obvious. The pitch has to be dead on, your counting has to be absolutely right, and all the parts fit together so perfectly that if one voice gets even half a beat behind, the whole thing can fall apart.
This piece required that each of us had to be extremely precise in our musicianship. Yet the music had to sound effortless, and each note needed to be loved, almost caressed into being. But when all of that happens, we have helped to embody a miracle; the music surrounds us, moves through us, becomes part of us, and transforms us with its beauty.