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.