Last Sunday afternoon (December 20th) I had the enormous pleasure of being a ringer for the superb vocal ensemble Pomerium at their Christmas concert in New York City at All Soul’s Unitarian Church. I’m not exactly a newcomer to group. Alex Blachly gave me a spot in Pomerium soon after I moved to New York, in 1980, and I sang with them regularly for my first four “journeyman” seasons as a singer in that city. Then I spent a further couple of years singing with the group in its more expanded size (the forces generally included a few more singers than in those early years, say 15 instead of 10) in the late 1990s. Since then, I’ve really missed singing with them, but in this country large ensemble singing does not a living make, and I couldn’t justify the time and long commute from upstate that would have made working with Pomerium possible, so I had to quit when my partner and I moved out of the city in 1999.
On Sunday, being back inside that sound (and if you’re a countertenor, you are nearly always truly “inside” the sound of a choir) gave me the greatest singing pleasure I’ve had in several months. What is it about singing in a crackerjack choir that gives such pleasure? First of all, lining up your voice’s overtones inside a perfectly tuned ensemble gives one, me at least, a visceral thrill. Second, working with singers who are at Pomerium’s level musically (and by that, I mean the highest) puts one on one’s mettle, to say the least. Though I had sung two of the pieces before, the rest of the stunningly wonderful repertoire (by Josquin, Cipriano da Rore, Byrd, Dufay, Willaert, Palestrina — in short, the towering chefs of 16th century polyphonic yumminess) was new to me. On only two rehearsals, it was a blast to both know that I could rely on my choral colleagues to catch me in any fall and also that I could be ready to field any small misstep myself. Thirdly, and most importantly to me, though, the concert was a fabulous lesson in vocal discipline.
For years I have felt my blood pressure rise to dangerously dizzy heights whenever I’ve picked up a copy of the NATS bulletin and read some of their voice teachers’ assessments of how choral singing fits in to the rising classical singer’s regimen of study. On average, their entreaties go like this: For heaven’s sake, keep your students out of choirs at all costs, because nothing will destroy their voices faster than being asked to reign in their “natural” sound. Meaning, as I have continued to read it: vibrate and sing loud at all costs, and the choral conductor who asks for diction and blend over these things is to be shunned for not recognizing your special timbre. In addition, admonishment abounds for what sorts of vocal damage submitting your vocal will to the whims of a choral conductor might incur.
So it was with a light heart that I felt like I could have sung the entire Pomerium program — a dense 2 hour production of rich chocolate overtones wrapped in delicious polyphony — easily again from start to finish. And not because of singing out as fully as possible, or singing with much (in fact, hardly any) vibrato. It all had to do with the stupendous tuning (just intonation is one of Alex’s strong points, and the possible subject of a future blog), and also singing the true vowels, all in a range which was easily manageable for everyone in the ensemble (though one or two of the tenors might take issue with my making that statement!) I felt that we were singing true to the music and words, but also true to ourselves and our own voices (kudos to Alex for being able to hear and dispose people to their easy and proper ranges). Having that inner assurance meant I was vocally fresh as a daisy at the end, even though the music was not all firmly in my mind or body, as something memorized might be.
Here’s a fun game to play with your voice students, when they’re tying themselves in knots with misspent energy pushing their voices or trying to sing in inappropriate ways. I learned it from a kinesiologist I worked with in Paris years ago. Have them raise their writing arm and test their muscle response by pushing down and asking them to resist. That’s to get a baseline for their strength level. Then have them resist your pushing down while they say their own name, “My name is [their name].” Their response will be normal, strong. Give them a second to shake their arm out, and then repeat the exercise, only this time have them say, “My name is Groucho Marx” (or Sting, or whoever, as long as it’s someone they are not). You will feel their resistance to your pushing evaporate! Why? The body doesn’t believe it!
The lesson? If you truly believe in what you’re singing (or saying), you’ll say it with your whole body, and your voice will not suffer. Just like a baby’s being able to cry for food for hours and hours until it gets satisfied. Of course, that’s like the first line I used to read in one old singing treatise after another, back in my university days when I was trying to figure my own way out of many vocal tangles: “If you can breathe fully and speak properly, you can sing well.” Well, of course. But there are a thousand ways to skin that cat.
Last Sunday, I skinned the cat with twelve others under the superb leadership of Mr. Blachly. And the wonderful thing about it? It was a genuine group effort. We all kept each other solidly on the ride. Singing solo is fun, and nobody who does it would deny that the adulation of an audience is very gratifying after you have personally given them a good performance. But being a soloist can easily acquire an element of artistic masturbation in front of onlookers. In fact, I’d be willing to venture that there is an element of any audience that is in attendance for exactly that kind of thrill. In group work (choir and chamber ensemble), the audience is grand, and it’s great to share the moment; but sending those rumbling, perfectly tuned sonorities into the cosmos, something only possible when other voices are riding the same wave, is a thrill I wish all those NATS detractors could experience. I’d liken it to great sex, and not masturbation. It’s perhaps a little scarier and certainly requires more control and care for others.