lessons from choir

Wednesday was the first choir meeting of the season. This time, I’m singing tenor.

Let me back up a bit — twenty years, say, when I started with music. Since then I’ve played, on and off, viola, and I’ve sung alto. There was a semester of harp in college but all my ensemble experience and nearly everything I know about music? Viola, alto.

And last term I was listening to the basses (of course I sit next to them; basses are fun times) and they’re all talking about the root of the chord, because they’re always singing it, so they just know where to find it all the time, and I…don’t.[*] I know how to be an alto. And a violist. But those are really the same thing, musically; they play the same role in a piece. So here I am with twenty years of knowing about music and I actually just know this one tiny, tiny perspective on how songs fit together. If I were on some other part, the entire musical world might look different.

Well, I clearly can’t sing bass, and I probably can’t hack second soprano (and definitely not first), at least not at the level of competence demanded by major choral works. (There’s a high B flat in me…but maybe not more than one. One a good day.) Tenor, though, is hanging out right there a few notes below second alto, so there I was on Wednesday being a tenor for the first time in my life.

I felt like I’d spent a few hours straight running my brain over a cheese grater. In the good way.

Here’s the thing: it really was totally different. I mostly got the right notes — which is not at all the norm for me in sight-reading — was it because I was standing in front of an amazing tenor who kept me on track? because tenor lines are far more likely than alto to have the melody? Who knows!

But my brain was wildly overclocked, all the time, trying to keep track of vocal technique stuff I don’t normally have to pay quite that much attention to, because here I am in a completely different part of my voice and it doesn’t respond the same way and I cannot skimp on vocal placement or breath support and get away with it. They’re all skills I used as an alto, but I’m using them in a different ratio and all at different levels of intensity and it was basically one bloodshot desperate marshalling of everything I’ve got to cling white-knuckled to adequacy.

I was adequate. It was awesome. I’m going to need to sleep a lot after choir.

Back at the school I used to teach at, we once discussed the idea of job-shadowing our colleagues in different divisions, but we never got around to it, and that made me sad. Because, really, I didn’t know anything about what their jobs were like, even the ones who had the same basic job description as me, “teacher”. And choir underscored this. Same basic job description — “singer” — same basic skillset; totally different experience.

In the library world we often — as I just did — talk about the library in the singular. We talk about “the future of the library”, or “library 2.0”, or “the value of the MLS“, like they’re all only one thing. And it leads to sloppy debate and miscommunication, because, even if they’re part of the same music, there are so many perspectives on it.

[*] I like to think I’m a reliable choir member, but let’s be clear here: I don’t get by on talent. I have neither a formal background nor noticeable intuition for music theory; I am not my relatives who have perfect pitch, or who pick apart motifs and their elaborations without even trying. I get by because I have a reasonably pleasant singing voice, I work very hard, and I obey my directors with slavish devotion.

FYI, the choir is Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus, and we’ll be singing Haydn’s Theresienmesse December 4 at 8pm on the Harvard campus. Y’all come down, y’hear.

8 thoughts on “lessons from choir

  1. I know *exactly* what you mean. I love singing along with the tenors or basses—it makes my brain work 🙂

    Not that I currently need it—I just joined the Masterworks Chorale, and we’re doing a piece I’d never heard (or even heard of) before. I’m still singing soprano, but it has been months since I had to sightread, and years since I did something difficult like Handel (We’re doing “Alexander’s Feast” on Nov 5, it’s fun!)

    Happy Musicality!


    1. Yeah :). Not that there isn’t brainwork as an alto — there definitely is, especially in the more modern pieces (“where am I in this chord and, oh wait, what IS this chord?”), but it’s a very different kind, and in particular a kind I’m much more used to and can do with less cheese-grating…


  2. As an amateur {vocal bass/percussionist; French hornist; other brass stuff; composer}, I find this quite interesting. I’ve always wanted to learn that ability that many altos seem to have – sightsinging harmonies. It’s just not something I’ve ever had training on, and I’ve never known where to begin.

    I’d love to hear/read more about your tenor experiences!


    1. Well, if you figure out sight-singing harmony, tell me how 😉 — I really only do get it by obsessive focus and listening carefully to the people around me and the other parts. (At least I can generally tell if the thing I’m singing doesn’t belong in the chord, if the piece isn’t too modern…)

      Also, vocal percussion is awesome.


  3. Ha! I had to laugh when you mentioned needing to rest after choir. There’s nothing so wonderful as being exhausted from singing for hours on end. Your head, your lungs, your throat… it all just buzzes after a good practice session!

    (I’m a tenor… who often sings with the altos). =)


    1. Whee! It always amazes me when guys can do that :). (And drives me nuts. Y’all get to have a falsetto that gives you extra high range, but I don’t get one for extra low range? Harrumph. 😉


      1. I had a bass falsetto when I was a teenager. It was awesome and weird and useful for informal harmonizing (too weird for real performances). Wish I could still hit those notes!


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