Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Enthusiasm, Part the Second -or- From the Soles of Your Shoes

So in this space, during the last few months, I’ve occasionally mentioned my pie-in-the-sky attempt to become a Serious Composer.

But I haven’t chronicled the process of getting those compositional attempts in front of a live human group, and of getting the stuff rehearsed and prepared. Suffice to say, it was both measured and also a little frantic.


As much as one can lay out a strategy for preparing a Large Work so that everyone has plenty of time and opportunity to get comfortable with the material … life has a way of conspiring to, um, thwart. Or at least challenge.

For starters, a church choir is (oh by the way) responsible for preparing music for weekly regular worship services. And we don’t wish to prepare “baby music”, music that clearly takes no time to put together, with all the inspirational impact of a C-SPAN rerun. So that’ll cut into your Large Work prep time!

Also, a volunteer choir is full of people who have lots on their plates: work, home, kids … the list goes on. We have folks who travel on business. We have folks who succumb to the local autumn and winter virus germ bugs. Family emergencies happen. Unforeseen things come up. Rehearsals are missed (not super often, but enough) for legit reasons.

And in my case, one more wrinkle. Thanks to the tendency of public school calendars to place school music ensemble concerts on Thursday nights, that’s where I spent the last two Thursdays prior to the third Sunday in Advent … which is when we had intended to present the Large Work. This is not ideal. At least we’d seen it coming in advance and had planned for it. Also … at least our choir members didn’t elect to disown me, over it.

So I won’t say I was exactly happy that a winter weather event on the third Advent Sunday caused us to postpone the presentation till the fourth Advent Sunday … but perhaps that did serve a purpose.

You can never have too many rehearsals on a piece of music. Well, maybe you can; but with a volunteer choir, repetition is good, repetition is good, repetition is good. In fact, four years ago, we experienced a similar winter-weather postponement, except then we had to postpone our Christmas Cantata presentation till January of the new year. The Epiphany we had (joke) was that we had spent an extra month living with the piece not to learn any more notes but instead to get so comfortable with the music that when we finally did present it, five weeks later than planned, we weren’t so obsessed with the individual notes that we couldn’t make a little music. And we could really enjoy ourselves. So as we abandoned last week in favor of this week, I thought perhaps history could repeat, if we were lucky.

(On top of which, this past Thursday did not contain any school concerts. Kind of a bonus to have the choir director present for the last rehearsal. Sheeeee.)

My fine colleague, our church’s organist and music director, assured me that things had gone very well during those two aforementioned Thursday rehearsals. I thanked him and assured him that I owed him a couple of lunches at least. But still, I hadn’t been present when he and the choir had integrated the choral work with the playing of our instrumental helpers – horns, string bass, and various other congregation members and friends. So that Total Art Work was still all in my imagination.

In fact the tunes were totally assembled in only two places in my life up until this morning: in my imagination; and in the MP3 rehearsal tracks we put together for the choir. And a weird thing had happened to me in late November: I’d been driving to and fro, hither and yon, playing a CD of those rehearsal tracks … and realized with a start that I was actually bored with it.

This is not a good thing to be, if what you’re listening to is your own stuff.

Then the truth of it occurred to me: I was listening to a computerized rendering of the music, which meant that as lifelike as the individual sounds were … and my music notation software can offer fairly authentic sounds of strings and pianos and drums, and sometimes horns, and not very often voices … still, I was listening to a computer following instructions, rather than humans making music. (So the computer voices weren’t presenting the actual text; but instead, some very nearly authentic “ooh”-ing.)

And this morning was the final, clinching proof that humans will never ever be replaced in the game of making music – expressive music which features spontaneous decisions and which evokes actual emotions from audience and performers alike.

For one thing, computers can’t smile and joke and look more and more relaxed the longer the early-morning warmup and run-through progresses. Humans can. This choir did. The styles covered by the musical material (jazz, pop, rock, gospel) were perhaps more conducive to the smiles and good humor and swaying and occasional belly laughs than would the music of, say, J.S. Bach. The Mass in B Minor may suggest more strongly to a group that gravity and dignity are absolutely called for. Let’s be honest: there’s a difference between a Baroque-era work that is in triple meter, and a 1940s-style slow swing tune, in spite of the fact that they both seem to have triplets in them.

For another thing, computers don’t need conductors, so they’ll never experience ensemble members and conductors feeding off of each other’s energy and enthusiasm and, yes, moments of irreverence to produce a musical performance that is more than just the right notes.

And when computers produce music that humans would consider challenging, audiences will quite rightly expect that all the notes will be correct, so long as the power doesn’t go out in the middle of the performance. There will be no suspense about this. When humans go after music that stretches them a bit, or in fact when humans present any music at all, it’s always some version of a tightrope act. The hundred, thousand, million decisions made by every individual person involved … are in fact rocket science, and then some! And computers could do what humans do … if there were enough programming time available. But humans make decisions “in the moment” that make each performance different (slightly or vastly) from any that had come before or will happen thereafter.

Computers make lousy jazz musicians.

I’ve written arrangements before, and heard them played and sung by many different ensembles at many different levels and in many different environments. I’ve written a few relatively small pieces: a couple for the high school band which I led for almost a decade, and a couple for the church choir that I’m thinking fondly of this evening. In all cases, it was exciting to hear that the ideas did work, that the pieces were coherent, and that the people seemed to like playing or singing them.

For many reasons, this morning’s presentation was all of that, but more besides. In part, yes, it was the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people, and also the addition of a few instrumentalists to our musical ensemble whose presence and performance added just that little spark of something that helped us “take it to the next level” – and what a cliché that phrase has become, and yet it’s fairly accurate. But there was something else that coalesced.

The first of the eight pieces stood alone, as our worship service’s Prelude. Lots of ethereal “ooh”-ing from the choir, providing backing for a pair of soprano soloists, and the effect during the heat of battle was positively hypnotic. We got a good start.

Following a hymn, a scripture reading and the “children’s message”, the second through fifth selections comprised the block of service time during which the sermon would normally have happened. (Our senior pastor annually gives up his sermon time for some or all of our Advent Cantata presentation. For a lot of pastors this would be a really hard thing to do!) Following another hymn, the reading of congregational concerns and celebrations, movements six and seven made up the “offertory” music slot; and after a closing hymn, the final movement served as Postlude.

As has been chronicled in this space before, the third movement was a lazy swing thing that I wrote while unabashedly thinking of Raymond Chandler private eye novels, and this morning the choir seemed to not worry so much about the notes that made up the close-harmony, minor-sixth and flat-ninth Manhattan Transfer chords, but instead relaxed their hips and shoulders and Swung Out. If they’d had fedoras, they’d have tipped them rakishly to one side.

And as good a time as I had, listening to the second and fourth movements even as I conducted them … and as much as the sixth, seventh and eighth items created great effects – and the Big Finish was indeed a big finish! …

Oh, that fifth anthem.

We got finished with that piece, which can be described stylistically as slow gospel, but that doesn’t really cover it … and I leaned over to my accompanist colleague and whispered, “we could stop now. In fact, I’m not sure how we follow that.”

During Thursday night’s rehearsal, from somewhere outside my own head, I had found this stage direction for movement five: “bring the sound up from the soles of your shoes.” There’s singing the notes, and then there’s singing the notes with depth. And I had the feeling that descriptions involving vocal anatomy or deep philosophical constructs would be way too scientific or way too ephemeral to be effective in a music rehearsal. So, as is often my wont, I tossed out a weird little phrase and hoped it would be just odd enough to work.

Yeah, that one kinda worked on Thursday night.

Add firmly controlled adrenalin, add a live congregation, add the momentum of the four prior anthems, stir and serve … and that one more than kinda worked this morning.

Let’s just say that I want the recording of movement number five like very few tangible things I have wanted for quite some time. I want to find out whether I really heard and felt what I thought I heard and felt.

You are perhaps familiar with the phrase that gets used by and about pro sports teams: “leave it all out there on the field”? As in, this is the moment of truth, and who wants to look back for the rest of their lives and wonder what better results would have come if we hadn’t held anything back?

We left it all out there on the field.

Particularly with that fifth anthem, yes … but also all morning long.

Quite simply, it was a privilege and a joy to be associated with that choir this morning – regardless of whose music they were singing. All you had to do, to know that they’d held nothing back – aside from maybe listening to them do their thing – was to watch them.

Oh, yes, that’s another thing that computers will never be able to do: finish a calculation, or an operation, or a function …

and smile that smile. The very small one that still manages to reach the eyes. The one that says: “had it all the way, and it was a kick.”


December 23, 2013 - Posted by | choir, music, SUMC, technology | , , , , , , , , , , ,


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