Singing to each other

No matter how hard I try, I can’t blot out the childhood memory of sitting in a row of other girls against the gymnasium wall, being among the last chosen for a kickball team. Perhaps my discomfort with the words ‘team player’ began way back then.

Corporate jobs found me dissatisfied with whatever tasks I was assigned. The result?  I constantly looked for ways to break out of my confines by doing something different – something distinguishable – so that no matter what ‘team’ I was supposed to have been a part of, I made myself different from the others.

As notable as these tendencies may sound, however, people like me can end up berating themselves for years, wondering why their thresholds for the prescribed, supposedly ‘normal’ activities in life fail to satisfy us.

I have come to discover that I can play on one team, however. It’s the kind of team that raises its voices in song.   My fascination with choral singing began in elementary school, when singing was a daily activity in class.  Most of the songs we sang from our songbooks were in unison, but a few were ‘rounds’ like ‘Hey Ho, Nobody Home’ or ‘Row,Row,Row Your Boat’ in which the same melody begun on different beats came into harmony as it repeatedly tried to catch up with itself.  I was fascinated and loved to hear the other ‘parts’ of the class singing different notes that complimented my own.

Soon I found myself searching out the harmony parts in popular songs, always opting for the alto voice.  Choral singing became a godsend to me, at last making me feel like a player on an important team. Throughout the years, I have belonged to small and large choirs, some trained and others merely made up of people who had little or no training but loved to sing.

If you have ever been a part of a rigorously-trained choral group, however, you would agree that choirs are more than just a collection of voices that can read music, sing on tune or warble out their vibratos—more than a variety of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass voices.  Good ones are truly teams, looking not only to the conductor to lead them but also to one another to make the music work.

Of all the choral groups of which I have become a part, none has taught me the beauty of the team concept than the little six-voice women’s chamber group I which I am now participating.

Only six voices, you may ask?  Believe it or not, being one of only six singers is the biggest vocal challenge I have ever faced, apart from an occasional solo, when I’ve tried hard to picture the audience in its underwear.

Catherine, our choral director, is a stickler for proper musicality, pronunciation, tone, posture, and even attitude. After our vocal warm-ups, she dives with gusto into each piece of music we are to perform like an orchestra conductor, making us repeat each musical phrase. Then she follows up with explanations that paint mental pictures of what she wants from us.

For vocal quality, she pretends to pull a string from the top of her head in order to make us emit sound not from our throats or our noses, but tones reverberating to the tops of our heads.  For pronunciation, she exaggerates operatic lilts, so that our American hard vowel sounds and lazy consonants are moderated, made sweeter and easier on the ear.

But her most remarkable feat of all in a tiny group like this is teaching us to blend our voices – to actually create single chords out of six unique voices at once. To do this, she has us face one another, three in each line from across the room.  “Sing to the people across from you,” she says.  “Realize that when you sing your notes, they aren’t meant to eclipse the others. They are meant to compliment them. So listen to one another other as you sing.”

As I’ve said, singing in harmony is fun.  But even more challenging, especially for a tiny choral group, is to blend when singing notes in unison.  Why?  Because God granted us all different voices, each with a different vocal color attached to them.

For more blending instruction, Catherine orders us to put our music down and hold hands,. We look at one another in bewilderment.  “If you are holding hands, you can’t help but want to match one another’s tones,” she explains.

We obey. And like children on the playground ready to walk in a circle, we grab hands.  She plays the lead-in music to the piece, the first page of which is unison singing, with no harmony required from us whatsoever.  And as we begin singing, we feel the voices magically strive to match one another in tone, in pronunciation and in volume.

As the piece ends, we look at one another in awe and surprise at our small musical feat. And our director smiles and says, “Can you hear and feel the difference?”

Ah, if only life were like singing!  If people could just listen to one another, the way we learned to in this tiny choir, think of how many of the world’s ills would be lessened or even eliminated . . .

And so, after more than five decades of life, I have suddenly discovered the beauty of becoming a team player.  No need to stand out. No need to be different — just the sublime feeling of blending with five other voices to make one coherent and mellifluous sound.

The lessons, of course, are endless.

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Filed under Dena's Lady Boomer Column and personal musings

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