things I learned from choir

This term, I sang tenor.

I’m an alto. An alto 2, usually. I’ve been singing on and off for a bit over ten years now; before then I played ten or so years of viola. And I realized — that’s twenty-plus years of musical experience in which I’ve always had the same part. Because really, altos and violas do the same thing. And it would seem like I should have this wealth of knowledge about music by now, except I only have this one tiny perspective. How terribly different would the musical world look if I were — say — a bass, and had developed by now some sixth sense for where the root of a chord was?

Well, I can’t (more’s the pity) sing bass. And I’m not all that credible as a soprano, and would blow out my voice if I tried. But I can sing tenor. Well, mostly. I wouldn’t put me as a soloist there or anything, but if the men cover those bottom few notes which aren’t always there for me I’ll cover the top few where some of them struggle and it’ll all work out.

So I’ve been singing tenor. And it turns out — as I lack any formal grounding in music theory whatsoever, I still have no idea how music fits together. I have utterly failed to learn what I set out to here. Not even a glimmer of understanding.

But I have learned. Tremendously. The first day of the season my brain essentially short-circuited from the stress (the wonderful stress!) of trying to keep track of so many things at the same time. As an alto, I can cut corners. I know I’m supposed to do all this vocal technique stuff, but fundamentally nearly all the notes I need are there when I need them and technique makes a difference to the subtler things, and I can’t be good without being always-on but I can be adequate.

As a tenor, that isn’t true. As a tenor there are notes whose presence or absence, or audibility, are vastly affected by this stuff. As a tenor I am jumping between bits of my range that are not both there unless I am paying continous attention to the fundamentals. Vocal placement. Muscles engaged — here — relaxed everywhere else. (Me? Relax?) Where my gaze is pointed. When I breathe. How I breathe. Breathe.

It is very hard to pay attention to that many things, continuously, all at once. When you haven’t internalized a one of them. And there’s still text and notes and rhythms going on. And so you can’t pick just one to focus on and make it work. Even if you could remember to, with so many other things pouring over you constantly…

I have learned more about fundamentals in a few months than, quite possibly, I have learned about them in my entire past decade of choir, combined. Humility, too.

My career will be, I think, a continual alternation between leaving my comfort zone and coming back home. Teaching took me way outside of my comfort zone, outside the realm of pure forms and intellect and into constant full-contact socialization, hammering on areas of weakness in ways where my strengths were relatively less useful. Sometimes, not useful at all. It was glorious and exhausting and it was, eventually, time to go back home. It is my hope that in librarianship I can use those strengthened weaknesses, but in a context where my natural talents are more useful, too.

One of these days I will go back to the alto section. I don’t intend to sing tenor — glorious, exhausting — forever. I’ll never be more than mediocre at it and, for all I’ve benefited from going outside my sphere of expertise and seeing how another section does things (this, too, a metaphor for career advice), it will eventually be time to go home. To be, per Lemony Snicket, “the crucial notes in the countermelody that no one hears”. One of these days I will be an alto again. And I will be far, far better at it.

Our concert is this Saturday, December 4, 8pm, at Sanders Theatre, Harvard. We’ll be singing Haydn. Do come.

11 thoughts on “things I learned from choir

  1. I had the same realization when I started learning the guitar. My musical experience was mostly melodic: flute, soprano with occasional alto forays. Learning a harmonic instrument, and trying to sing at the same time, about blew the gaskets on my jalopy of a brain. In a fun way. 🙂


    1. *g* Yeah, I admit that even if I could’ve done both equally credible, I would have gravitated toward tenor on the theory that I have more to learn from another harmonic part than the melodic part — I mean, it’s hard to avoid knowing something about melody, right? Although the prospect of actually *having* a melody line as more than an occasional, astonishing gift might be nice…


  2. I wish we could come listen! If you are ever out this way, stop by and say “hi.”

    Music is something I wish I knew more of but haven’t yet prioritized. I’m slowly learning along with Peter to play piano, and enjoying that tremendously.



  3. I have just gotten back into choir after years of being away and how I love it so! I’m still practicing the fundamentals since it’s been years since I’ve sung with a group.


  4. As a former singer, classically trained soprano, and former music historian and theorist, this really made me smile. I wish I could even number the ways in which being a musician and a performer has influenced my career in libraries.

    Oh, and I’ve always wished I could be a tenor. They always have the most interesting part!


    1. Classically trained soprano?!? eeeee!!

      Clearly there need to be more ALA conference karaoke mobs. Or conference sight-singing-major-choral-works mobs. Wonder if there is an Uncommons again. Hm.

      Also: time for you to write the blog post on that music-career-influence :).


    2. Oh hey — and any recommendations for books (or iTunes U/OpenCourseWare/etc.) on music theory fundamentals? I really need to know some of that stuff.


  5. Hi there. Saw your mother yesterday and she filled me in on your “doings.”

    Music theory: the area of my Ph.D….
    You will want to get through the fundamentals as quickly as possible, and what you are most likely interested in is music analysis/analytical theory. (Try itunes Music Theory 101 for a start) Stay with the fundamentals to learn enough to understand what things happen at the next level (chords, keys, harmony, form, and overall analysis). Music analysis is something you will enjoy immensely: when I taught you Bach Suites on Viola, you were fascinated with the compositional techniques and processes. Little melodies chasing other little melodies in a different voice are lovely, even though, in the case of the Bach Suites, they are “implied voices” but structurally obvious! Chords (and broken melodies, or implied bass lines) strung out across an entire page of a solo composition can be very fun to chase, to find, and to conquer! Grin. And, yes, fascinating.

    Music is not random. Philosophically speaking, music that lacks structure, purpose or intentional meaning, is noise!

    If you approach tenor, alto (or viola) parts with the right attitude, you can change the way an entire piece sounds. The world would be very odd if we did not have “harmony” accompanying tunes and melodies….it would be, um, somewhat medieval! 🙂

    So great to hear you are doing well. If you get back to Morgantown, please call, I’d love to meet Verity and show her my dart frogs (dendrobate leucomelas) and my small salt water reef tank. I think she would have fun finding all the creatures that life in my mini habitats, and, of course, it would be wonderful to see you.


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