Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.


There are perks to being a church choir conductor. There are also Things That Have To Happen.

I’m lucky enough to have a monthly meeting associated with my church gig which is actually pretty enjoyable to attend, because the people involved are a lot of fun. But meetings and planning and prep and such can more often be filed under necessary things that are not necessarily a party.

But … boy, when those “perk” moments happen, they can be pretty resonant.

A tradition at my church gig, now maintained over the course of decades, is the Easter Sunday morning singing of the Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel’s Messiah. After an hour-plus service, which usually includes several hymns and between two and four choir anthems, at postlude time the choir takes a deep breath, turns to page 193, gathers its last remaining bits of stamina, and goes after one of the best-known pieces of music on the planet.

It’s a dangerous piece. It’s from the Baroque period, which means it’s full of ornament-y series of notes, and complex interplays of different vocal and instrumental parts, and it’s just BUSY. It’s familiar to everyone, for which reason lots of people probably assume it’s pretty easy (“you’ve heard it before – you must be able to do it”). There are absurd high notes for many people. The keyboard accompaniment, which is a reduction into two hands and two feet of an orchestra score, is a bear. Relatively speaking, the conductor’s job may be the least challenging, although there’s much to keep track of, lots of cues to give – and lots of times where, like all good Baroque music, the strong sound is not on the first beat of the measure but halfway through. (What did they teach me? When in doubt, keep conducting a two-pattern. When in big doubt? Keep conducting a one-pattern till you figure it out.)

On top of that, often our choir rehearsals are so focused on the other anthems of the day that we get to the last moments of the Thursday rehearsal before Easter – already a later-than-usual affair – and have to summon our last little bit of energy that’s left after a long day at work, and try to realize Handel’s vision. Even as our own vision is beginning to swim a bit. (Every year, I mutter, “next year we’re breaking this bad boy out in January.”)

Happily, at my church gig, there is one wrinkle to the production that always gives the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus a little extra excitement, and probably does make it into that much more of a fun thing. Before we start, we invite anyone in the congregation who has sung the work before, or “would rather like to try!”, to come up into the Chancel, find his or her probable place in the soprano, alto, tenor or bass section, and sing with the choir.

We get former choir members who are visiting. We get long-time congregation members who either have sometimes or never sung with the choir. We get people of all ages. Teens and pre-teens often come forward with their parents; some of them sing with their school choruses; some don’t. Some are far too young to have ever come face-to-face with a Baroque choral score; but they look excited to be up front singing with the choir. Usually, at the mid-morning service, for every two choir members up there, there are three “guest singers”.

For the last twelve Easters, it has been my privilege to stand in front of all those singers (and pretty much flag down a passing freight train).

For one thing, clearly, I get to conduct one of the best-known and best pieces of music that Western civilization has yet produced. (Not everyone on earth gets the opportunity to do this once, let alone annually.) Every year, I come away with a clearer picture of a moment or two of music theory, or music composition technique, or orchestration, or some other academic bit of knowledge, contained within this incredible work. And for another thing, my partner in crime, the church organist who is also my brother-in-law, is a rock-solid accompanist who I know will help to keep the hulk moving no matter what. So I never feel like I have to grab the rope and pull the mule across the finish line. Start to finish, coast to coast, alpha to omega, we’ll bring this thing home.

I’ve conducted the Hallelujah Chorus on enough Easter Sundays, since I started in as choir director, that in the last couple of years I’ve scarcely looked at the score, which allows me to keep both eyes on the massed singers, as well as any volunteer instrumentalists who may be joining us. Cues are good, especially when a conductor can deliver them while making eye contact. More effective that way, somehow. We’re all in this together.

But this morning, for some reason, it was especially great to step to the podium – or in our case a place on the Chancel floor from which I could see everyone and they could see me (not always the traditional front and center!) – and flail.

Yes, it was a great big massed choir and there was no danger of not hearing them!

Yes, it’s glorious music that seems an appropriate way of celebrating Easter Sunday, even if it does come from the Christmas half of the Messiah.

Yes, it’s fun to carry out my annual tradition of mouthing “Happy Easter!” toward the singers during the final chord.

But this morning, I think it was the faces that I saw, during the singing of “Hallelujah”.

Sounds corny, but I saw the 11-year-old girl who was obviously thrilled to be even pretending to sing with the big choir … I saw the basses who were smiling because they made it through page 195 (which is one of the less intuitive passages for singers without a lot of formal training) … I saw the sopranos who were smiling as they kept singing that “King of Kings!” passage where they sing Ds, then Es, then F-sharps, then the high Gs, and they knew my smile meant, “here it comes, hang in there!” … and on the last chord, in my mind, I saw the smiles of the conductors who came before me, when I was a high-schooler or a recent college grad or a young adult in that choir. And I suspect that my smile was a lot like theirs.

And I saw the smiles on all of the faces, every one, in the Chancel after it was done.

There are bills to be paid. There are taxes to be done. There are houses to be cleaned, lessons to plan, sleep to be caught up on, meetings to be conducted.

But for that four and a half minutes at the end of an Easter Sunday service, there was only the music and the smiles.

March 31, 2013 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sick Days

Sick days aren’t like snow days. You don’t have to shovel snow, but you wish you could.

Sick days aren’t like mental health days. There’s no need to feel guilty. (Even though I usually achieve this anyway. Read on…)

Sick days are included as benefits in my professional contract. I often suspect I have more of them available than do members of some other professions. Can firefighters take sick days? Can troops stationed in faraway places take them?

Sick days can be spent wondering what’s going on in the location where you would have been. And hoping all the furniture is in the same place when you return.

Sick days can feature a lot of looking out the window and wishing you felt right enough to go out and play. Unless you live in the part of the US where I do, at the time which is now, in which case, you’re not so disappointed. Brrr.


Sick days, for me, are often a challenge for one other reason. One of my high school teachers, it was rumored, had taken only as many sick days in his multiple-decade career as most people have fingers. He was just that kind of person – neither snow nor sleet nor rain, nor pain, nor sprain, nor migraine, nor anythang (it almost rhymed), would keep him from his appointed rounds. Classical Studies Must Be Taught! More importantly, he felt he owed it to his students – his kids! – to be there for them.

Professore, we used to say … that’s very sweet of you, and we’re that much more inspired to do our homework assiduously! … but you look … like you feel … like poop.

That was part of an actual conversation in an actual class, one day during my junior year of high school. (Not the word “poop”.) The man walked into class, and a pack of high school kids – whose spheres of awareness had only recently grown to a size bigger than their own heads – took one look at him and said, “Professore, what’s wrong??”

Oh, I’ve just got a little temperature,” he said, and looked at us lovingly with a pair of the glassiest eyes we’d ever seen. “I’ll be fine! Let’s start.” And at least a quarter of the room replied, “Professore. Go. Home. To. Bed.”

Later, one of my classmates said, “he always looks at us at the beginning of class, and says, ‘Morning, scholars! Are you doing all right? You look so tired, gang!’ But today, he earned all that sympathy back from us in one shot. He looked like he was going to die.”

He did have the flu, as it turned out. (Several years ago, I had the flu for a week, and came in to school one day during that stretch because, well, the rock/blues band had a gig at a music fundraiser that night, and because obviously. I remember the gig … just not a lot of what happened during. And that was rock ‘n’ roll, not the works of Cicero.)

Sounds like an extreme case; and it was. Sounds like a tall tale … and it wasn’t. Somehow he taught that day. His classes probably listened extra hard, just out of feeling his pain! … but during that whole class, we all had a little voice in the back of our heads saying, “that poor man … that poor man … that poor man …”

So when I take a sick day, and it’s a genuinely sick boy taking it … I still feel just a little twinge of “we are not worthy”. (This particular school year, I’ve taken more sick days than I’m used to taking. November, as has been chronicled hereabouts, sotto voce!, was particularly awful.) I’ve been working on that. I may be working on it until I retire, or expire. Sometimes, yes, you’ve got to take a mental health day. But on balance, my job actually contributes to my mental health. I have taken those kinds of days, but happily not often.

Anyway, beyond Medieval Lit, and translating Latin, and all … one of the other things I learned from Il Professore was, dig in and do the work. He didn’t tell us … in a more effective and lasting lesson than that, he showed us. So I’ve got a standard to shoot for. An absurdly high standard, but … as the Argus poster saying goes, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll still end up among the stars.

Every day, in every way, getting better and better …

March 23, 2013 Posted by | education, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment