singing with all your body.

July 30, 2012

I’ve just returned from a fairly intensive weekend rehearsal and I’m still full of that excitement and calm alertness and controlled, bone-deep satisfaction that comes when you’re doing something you love that challenges you. We’re performing Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor in two weeks and we’re rehearsing with the orchestra tomorrow evening. It’ll be three days of choir, one after another, and I love it. I love it. I don’t believe I’ll ever get tired of this. It’s stunning and so damn satisfactory and I swear I could do this forever.

I love rehearsals. The music is glorious and complex and challenging. I’m mostly untrained as a singer but the amount you learn in choir, particularly doing difficult music like this- oh, how I love doing requiems! They are the most exact, finicky and precise pieces of music ever, and the most boundlessly wonderful. Every time I’ve done one, I’ve come out the other side a better musician.

The first one I encountered, ever, was Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle in my first year of university- oh, five years ago, now?- and it pushed me into this upper level of awareness and achievement that I’d never experienced before. It was like new sight, a new level of ability suddenly unlocked. At that time I could barely sight read; I’d come straight from school choirs with a repertoire of mostly popular songs. My range was incredibly limited (no headvoice at all, no upper register to speak of; that I gained in singing lessons over the next couple of years) and I could play no instruments and knew next to no theory. The only things I had were a really good ear, an instinct for harmony and a very clear, strong tone.

And I learned so much. The rudiments of sight-reading and difficult-music-learning, for one thing, and- a love for the complexities and depth of this kind of music. That was largely due to our director, Peter Walls, and I’ve not met a person more passionate and knowledgeable about music yet. He explained the Petite Messe to us, bits here and there as we learned music at speed and sang it above the terrifyingly comic bangerings of the piano, and the care which he took in doing so and the obvious affection and understanding he had for this music were- incredible. Even now, many pieces of the Petite Messe never fail to warm me completely from the inside out. There’s a lot I can still sing from memory.

And every time I’ve done a requiem since- Rossini again last year, and now Mozart this year- I’m finding that during the process I become more alert, more aware. Cleaner, sharper, a better singer and a better musician. I’m still not a fluent sight-reader but all those semiquavers and all those fugues have made me much, much better at it. I pick music up a lot faster by ear; I’m much more aware of pitching and the clarity and precision and placement of my sound. I’m so much more aware of how awake I have to be and how completely on to it, how completely switched on and alert and precise I have to be to sing these things. How deliberate and intentional I have to be with every single thing. You have to be fully present and in your body, mentally and physically, when you’re singing things like this; one slip in concentration and you miss beats, breathe in the wrong places, don’t breathe enough, don’t finish words, don’t complete notes, don’t shape the flow of the lines the way the text dictates. It’s exhilarating. That’s the word for it; exhilarating. Every time we rehearse these things, I am exhilarated.

It’s magnetic and thrilling and like electricity and being alive and at the same time being here. All this learning. The challenge. Of keeping up with something so fast, of staying on top of it, like you’re handling something immense and complex and fast-moving while still staying in control of it. The satisfaction of doing something difficult well. And there are so many things to think about at the same time; in rehearsal, a lot of us have music in one hand and a pencil in the other and as we sing we circle things and scribble and draw lines and write notes.

You don’t want to see my Kyrie. It’s like a pencil disaster zone. There’s DON’T RUSH! and clear vowels! and large capital Ks and numbers and arrows that curve overhead and arrows that run straight to vertical lines and vertical lines that cut between syllables and mark where consonants should hit and crescendos and Sit Back! and PUNCH! and volume up! and BREATHE and bright! upwards!  and need to hear vowel change to I and everywhere, everywhere the circling. Circling. Enormous amounts of circling. Markers to pay attention to, saying without words watch this and be careful with this and pay special attention to this. Make sure you get this one right. Reminders.

Maybe a more trained musician than I am- than a lot of us in my choir are- would have less scribbling, but I don’t have a lot of these things automatically in my system yet, although I’m certainly learning to; things like making so damn sure I sing to the end of the note without wilting (which requires meticulous counting and reading), putting consonants on the next beat, breathing before an attack, being aware of when I’m breathing so I don’t do it in lines that are supposed to flow beautifully, or so that I don’t do it when my neighbour is. Automatically putting  shape and movement and growth and flow into things. And even simpler things like paying attention to dynamic markers and come in boldly.

And that’s just the music. Then there’s the singing. They’re part and parcel of each other, yes, but there’s the whole physical aspect of singing properly that takes so much concentration as well as doing justice to the music, although BREATHE! (all. over. my Agnus Dei. there are a lot of sustained, intense lines.) is certainly a bit of a crossover.

But yesterday, for example, I sang my voice raw by one in the afternoon. Bad technique, oui, but. A lot of the requiem requires significant forte sections and a deliberate intensity to sound, and I think a decent amount of altos weren’t very secure in what they were singing (we’ve had an influx of newcomers quite recently). When most anyone isn’t sure of what they’re singing, they tend to go breathy. This usually means that the people who do know what they’re singing need to sing louder and more deliberate in order to- well, it’s a choir osmosis, I suppose, where if one person knows what they’re singing, every other voice singing that part will latch on to theirs and be able to get through it, even if they’re unsure. Like a spearhead or the first bird in a v-flight pattern. And I know this music fairly well by now, and the Properly Trained alto in our section was absent. So I pushed. And wore my voice thin. And then I had to take it easy for a little while because I found myself rasping.

Around lunchtime, I asked my music teacher friend what to do, and he showed me a few things. And reminded me of where to breathe from. And something clicked into place in my head- two years of singing lessons and the feeling of the muscles in your sides and the tightness of your abdomen and how it felt to be settled in that- and I started singing from the right place for the rest of the day. And my throat slowly got better, although I pushed occasionally when I didn’t concentrate. And then today, I paid attention to how I was singing throughout the day and by the end of rehearsal my throat was perfectly fine, although my stomach muscles were entertainingly sore.

forgot. I don’t know how I forgot, but I forgot where to sing from, and it’s such a- deliberate place to sing from. It makes so much sense. I think they call it ‘on the body’ and ‘off the body’. The feeling of being connected all the way down through your torso muscles, your core muscles (and I just tried a line of the Kyrie, properly, and now they hurt again. The exercise-a-muscle-you-haven’t-used-in-ages kind of hurt.) and that connection- I forgot how it just props up all the sound, like a block of concrete. The solidity you can feel right down to your feet, like you’re planted and you’re singing with your whole body, and all the sound and breath is coming from this solid base, this strong support that is muscle and flesh and bone, the sturdiness of yourself. It makes me so aware of the complete wholeness of my body, the whole material physical solidity of it.

Being aware of it is definitely a physical concentration thing, though, and that’s difficult, and the muscles all around your diaphragm get tired. But when your breathing is connected to that immense core solidity, breath comes out with a sound that isn’t stopgapped up in your throat and with a power that isn’t pushed. There all the things you need to think, too, like strings out of your forehead and cathedrals and space in your head and all those things that help you remember where you’re focusing your sound in order to make it deliberate and intense and clear, but without that core support for your breathing to connect into, separate parts of a machine clicking into each other and going, all the focusing in the world will only strain your throat.

Learning these things makes me glad. Getting better at these things makes me fierce and glad. I don’t think I’ve felt so alive and mentally present in a long while. We picked up some music we did a while ago, before the Requiem, and I found myself applying the musicianship and precision I’d learned during the Requiem to it, all the awarenesses and the techniques and the new sight I’d been given into How To Perform Music Well. And I felt like grinning sharp and sharkish, I felt like the edge of a blade, I felt knifelike and I love it when that happens and I can apply that precision and ferocity of absolute awareness and concentration to other things.

There’s so much satisfaction in tackling something with this complexity and beauty with a group of people after the same thing, a full-throated roar of many voices with one intention.* I haven’t even gone into my choir itself, the people, and their talents and the community we have- but it’s late and I need to sleep.

But oh, choir. <3. I’m full of exhilaration and carefulness and an aware satisfaction of a job going well.


*I’m- getting Christian Allusion triggers here. It’s not just me, right?

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