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.

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.