Thursday, January 27, 2011

Not Meant for the Spotlight

Just returned from a rehearsal where it happened again.   I don't know what it is with conductors, if they get a kick-back from sopranos for bars sung or if they just can't bear to hear a melody line without the sopranos in it?  Tonight our little church choir was blissfully rehearsing some anthems for Sunday morning.  We sang through Don Besig,'s  I Will Serve the Lord All My Days where in bar 35 it states Alto only.   Now what does that mean to you?   It seems that our conductor used some creative interpretation of the phrase "alto only" because he turned to the 9 sopranos and said, "in bar 35 where it says alto only,  just join in."  Pardon me?  There were 11 Altos and let's see, the range in the 'alto only' section is from the A below middle C to the A above middle C - hardly in the soprano's bag of tricks.  But all 9 of them raised up their music and dutifully joined in.  Where is the respect for the composer's markings? 
Does the conductor think the Altos can't handle melody line?  Is he afraid they will spontaneously begin harmonizing with themselves?  Does he think the sopranos will get up and leave en mass, soprano noses in the air, if the altos get to sing a few notes without them?    It seems he just does not see that as much as altos are good at blending in and  hiding in the chord it does give us a little thrill to see the notation "alto only", it is like being allowed to be Prima Donna for a day.   He does not know that by saying, "sopranos join the altos" he is taking the spotlight from us.  I guess it is just going back to where it belongs.  Why upset the order of things?  The heroine is always soprano.  Turandot as a mezzo?  Could Pamina ever sing below middle C?  Don't make me laugh.
 I did notice that the Besig Anthem ends in a high A?  I wonder if the conductor would object if the Altos joined the sopranos for the last bar, just to help them out, you understand.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Voice Parts

For this post I thought I thought I would post something I found on the web about the different voice parts in a choir.  I was hoping to write something like this myself but someone has beat me to it.  There was no author given for this so I cannot give credit, but only to say that the words below are not written by me but I endorse them! 

THE YOUNG PERSON'S GUIDE TO THE SATB CHOIR In any chorus, there are four voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Sometimes these are divided into first and second within each part, prompting endless jokes about first and second basses. There are also various other parts such as baritone, countertenor, contralto, mezzo soprano, etc., but these are mostly used by people who are either soloists, or belong to some excessively hotshot classical a cappella group (this applies especially to countertenors), or are trying to make excuses for not really fitting into any of the regular voice parts, so we will ignore them for now.
Each voice part sings in a different range, and each one has a very different personality. You may ask, "Why should singing different notes make people act differently?", and indeed this is a mysterious question and has not been adequately studied, especially since scientists who study musicians tend to be musicians themselves and have all the peculiar complexes that go with being tenors, french horn players, timpanists, or whatever. However, this is beside the point; the fact remains that the four voice parts can be easily distinguished, and I will now explain how.
THE SOPRANOS are the ones who sing the highest, and because of this they think they rule the world. They have longer hair, fancier jewelry, and swishier skirts than anyone else, and they consider themselves insulted if they are not allowed to go at least to a high F in every movement of any given piece. When they reach the high notes, they hold them for at least half again as long as the composer and/or conductor requires, and then complain that their throats are killing them and that the composer and conductor are sadists. Sopranos have varied attitudes toward the other sections of the chorus, though they consider all of them inferior. Altos are to sopranos rather like second violins to first violins - nice to harmonize with, but not really necessary. All sopranos have a secret feeling that the altos could drop out and the piece would sound essentially the same, and they don't understand why anybody would sing in that range in the first place - it's so boring. Tenors, on the other hand, can be very nice to have around; besides their flirtation possibilities (it is a well-known fact that sopranos never flirt with basses), sopranos like to sing duets with tenors because all the tenors are doing is working very hard to sing in a low-to-medium soprano range, while the sopranos are up there in the stratosphere showing off. To sopranos, basses are the scum of the earth - they sing too damn loud, are useless to tune to because they're down in that low, low range - and there has to be something wrong with anyone who sings in the F clef, anyway.
THE ALTOS are the salt of the earth - in their opinion, at least. Altos are unassuming people, who would wear jeans to concerts if they were allowed to. Altos are in a unique position in the chorus in that they are unable to complain about having to sing either very high or very low, and they know that all the other sections think their parts are pitifully easy. But the altos know otherwise. They know that while the sopranos are screeching away on a high A, they are being forced to sing elaborate passages full of sharps and flats and tricks of rhythm, and nobody is noticing because the sopranos are singing too loud (and the basses usually are too). Altos get a deep, secret pleasure out of conspiring together to tune the sopranos flat. Altos have an innate distrust of tenors, because the tenors sing in almost the same range and think they sound better. They like the basses, and enjoy singing duets with them - the basses just sound like a rumble anyway, and it's the only time the altos can really be heard. Altos' other complaint is that there are always too many of them and so they never get to sing really loud.
THE TENORS are spoiled. That's all there is to it. For one thing, there are never enough of them, and choir directors would rather sell their souls than let a halfway decent tenor quit, while they're always ready to unload a few altos at half price. And then, for some reason, the few tenors there are are always really good - it's one of those annoying facts of life.. So it's no wonder that tenors always get swollen heads - after all, who else can make sopranos swoon? The one thing that can make tenors insecure is the accusation (usually by the basses) that anyone singing that high couldn't possibly be a real man.. In their usual perverse fashion, the tenors never acknowledge this, but just complain louder about the composer being a sadist and making them sing so damn high. Tenors have a love-hate relationship with the conductor, too, because the conductor is always telling them to sing louder because there are so few of them. No conductor in recorded history has ever asked for less tenor in a forte passage. Tenors feel threatened in some way by all the other sections - the sopranos because they can hit those incredibly high notes; the altos because they have no trouble singing the notes the tenors kill themselves for; and the basses because, although they can't sing anything above an E, they sing it loud enough to drown the tenors out. Of course, the tenors would rather die than admit any of this. It is a little-known fact that tenors move their eyebrows more than anyone else while singing.
THE BASSES sing the lowest of anybody. This basically explains everything. They are stolid, dependable people, and have more facial hair than anybody else. The basses feel perpetually unappreciated, but they have a deep conviction that they are actually the most important part (a view endorsed by musicologists, but certainly not by sopranos or tenors), despite the fact that they have the most boring part of anybody and often sing the same note (or in endless fifths) for an entire page. They compensate for this by singing as loudly as they can get away with - most basses are tuba players at heart. Basses are the only section that can regularly complain about how low their part is, and they make horrible faces when trying to hit very low notes. Basses are charitable people, but their charity does not extend so far as tenors, whom they consider effete poseurs. Basses hate tuning the tenors more than almost anything else. Basses like altos - except when they have duets and the altos get the good part. As for the sopranos, they are simply in an alternate universe which the basses don't understand at all. They can't imagine why anybody would ever want to sing that high and sound that bad when they make mistakes. When a bass makes a mistake, the other three parts will cover him, and he can continue on his merry way, knowing that sometime, somehow, he will end up at the root of the chord

Friday, January 14, 2011

First Rehearsal

Lest one would think that my choral life exists only with the 2 or 3 symphony concerts a year, may I assure you that I sing in a church choir that rehearses on a weekly basis.  Tonight we had it -  The first rehearsal of a work that nobody knows.  This time it is Mendelssohn's Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) which, you would think, being a good Mennonite choir that sings German works,  would be in our repertoire.  Judging by the choral sound we produced not a one of us has ever sung it before - except for movement 5 which we have sung as a stand alone piece.  This bit of knowledge did nothing to help us along the patch of syncopation and accidentals and we certainly had our share of accidents.
Being the church choir's first rehearsal  it was a night of NP (note pounding) and sounds of off-key and off-rhythm - in short - everything one would expect of a first rehearsal..  Tedious?  Oh, yes.
  First the ladies pound out a few bars, then the men, then together, and then the next section.  This is repeated every ten bars or so with slight variations.  The conductor may say, after the ladies have struggled through their 10 bars, "I need to hear the altos alone"  and as much as we try to convince ourselves it is because he just can't get enough of our sound somehow the look on his face suggests the repetition is for another reason. 
On First Rehearsal night the conductor, after suffering through 30 minutes of bellowing, will say "sotto voce, sotto voce", which is music speak for shut up, shut up.  The choir convinces itself that he wants us to save our voices but really, it is his ears he is worried about.
Tonight we rejoiced because we had more than 1 tenor, it may have been as many as 3.  If you know any tenors please send them our way.  This is the standard and eternal plea of all choirs.  Then, because it is a church choir throughout the rehearsal there is the sound of altos chatting about new grandchildren while the basses are having their notes pounded out.  The ladies must speak quite loudly to talk above the pounding of the piano.  The sopranos are giggling about something or another, as sopranos are wont to do.
The one line I heard most often today was "where are we?"  this can most often be heard coming from the bass section.  We have just finished a 10 bar stretch with women and men separated and the conductor says, "okay let's try it all together."  "Where are we?" comes the question, and then for the 7th time that night will come the discussion whether we are talking about page numbers, bar numbers, bar letters, or the new page numbers which we just wrote in?.
May I say for the record that this does not come from the alto section, somehow, the altos just know where we are at all times.  Where we are is secure in our knowledge that we are necessary to the piece even if no one else thinks so. 
You wonder sometimes why the conductor doesn't  kick over the music stand and walk out but something, (pay cheque perhaps?) keeps him there till the clock releases us.
I have been through many first rehearsals and so am not worried.  I know by Good Friday we will stop having accidents with the accidentals, the mood will be right, and the basses will know where we are.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Handel's Messiah

     The most well known oratorio in my part of the world is Handel's Messiah.  Even people who have never sung in a choir love to sing along to many parts of this great work:   Hallelujah, I Know that My Redeemer Liveth and others.
      As a young child of about 10 years of age and lying sick on the couch, my Mom put on our recording of it and handed me the words.  She told me how this was a favourite of my Uncle Ewald and since he was a favourite of mine, I was already favourably disposed to it before the needle hit the vinyl.  She also told me the very intriguing part about the King rising during the Hallelujah Chorus and how audiences have continued to do it ever since.  I know there is no definitive answer as to why the king arose, and as Bill Baerg says, he was probably just stretching his legs, but I cling to the version my Mother told me of an earthly King being so moved by the majesty of the story Handel was telling that he rose in homage.
     Lying back in my sickbed Handel's composition swirled around me.  I was somewhat frustrated that one line of text took so very long to sing.  The single word Amen took even longer!  I am sure I fell asleep and woke up several times during the Amen Chorus alone.  Ruth Smith, who wrote the program notes for  Paul McCreesh's CD of Handel's Messiah, says that  "...a setting of the single abstract word, 'Amen', which combines contrast of instruments and voices, harmony and polyphony, counterpoint and chordal statement and a seemingly infinitely expanding span of melody.  But whether or not the listener is aware of this complexity, the dominant effect is stirringly emotional."

     I have been part of many performances of the Handel's Messiah, some better than others, but all special.
I have sung it with Boris Brott as part of a 500 voice choir at that, oh so ridiculous venue - The Winnipeg Arena.  Each chorus had a five minute start up and ending as one waited for the subsiding of the squeak of the chairs as choristers stood and sat.  Luckily I was in a non-squeaking chair as part of the then Winnipeg Symphony Philharmonic Choir now , known affectionately as The Phil.  We were lucky enough to be an "inner chorus" and were allowed to sing what they called "turbo choruses" such as "For unto us a child is Born" and "He shall Purify" and others by ourselves.  I was so lucky, as a young university student, to be able to sing with this group.
     Much more recently, in December 2008,  I sang a memorable performance of it with Noel Edison and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.  Maestro Edison brought a unique interpretation to a work that I had, by now, sung for at least 6 performances if not more.  It was fresh and exciting, even though it seemed hokey at first the performance worked for the choristers and audience alike.  For example, his version of  With his stripes we are healed"  had us working very hard to do the following:  Every time your voice part sang 'and with his stripes" we were to sing stridently and mezzo forte with an accent on each word, then when you sing the next phrase, we are healed we sang it softer and legato. The diference between the two phrases was more dramatic than any other conductor had previously demanded and the stark contrast between side by side phrases  took a lot of energy to do it to his liking, but it worked.  Most memorable was his idea that the sheep in All we like Sheep were not the dumb fluffy sheep, we had always sung about, prancing through the meadow, but menacing sheep who were dirty and depraved.  We had to sing the song in a more disgusted tone than previously or since.  ( I sang it with the WSO and Rudy Schellenberg in December 2010 and the sheep were in the meadow again.)

For all performances, the audience plays a large part.  It is more difficult to sing to empty seats, therefore it was most gratifying when on December 18, 2010 Rudy Schellenberg made his WSO debut, to a sold-out house.  Just when this alto feared she may have become slightly jaded about the Messiah she sees the full house and becomes nervous about the alto entries.  After all, in both the first and second halves of Messiah the Altos make the opening statement, (gulp),  and when the tenor sang Thy rebuke has broken his Heart, I felt mine surely would break as well,  and wasn't I surprised when during the opening of the Hallelujah chorus I had a lump in my throat and things appeared slightly blurry before me. 
The alchemy of composer, music, performer and audience is a powerful thing.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Treble Teens

As a 14year old I set off through the streets of my small town, wearing a burgundy skirt, pink sweater and uncomfortable pantyhose clutching an address in my hand.  The address was that of Shirley Penner, the director of a girls singing group called Treble Teens.
I was nervous and had no idea what the audition  would involve.  My Mom had just handed me the address after school and said she had booked this time for me.  I knew my older cousin had sung in this group and I had seen them perform but I never thought I would be one of them.
When I arrived at the house I was taken down to the basement and was asked to sing some scales and a familiar song.  I don't recall what I sang as I had no preparation ahead of time.  It was something like "Happy Birthday".    I was told I had a mezzo voice (having no clue what that meant)  and was put in the First Alto section of the senior choir.  We sang in a 5- riser arrangement - The first three risers were for first and second sopranos the fourth was the first altos and at the end were the second altos.  I sang with the first altos and am seated in the middle of that back row but secretly I longed to be a second alto.  Of course we sang many songs together as we did 2 and 3 part singing, but in the 4-part songs I looked longingly over at the second alto section.e of the back row of the first alto riser.

I loved my time with the Treble Teens, especially when we had intensive weekend long rehearsals.  I loved the feeling of us all working together to create something great.  I felt like a professional! 
We even had a choreographer although pretty much all we did was "step touch step touch" but I was feeling more proud of myself by the minute!  It's not easy for a Mennonite without rhythm  (and we all are) to do the "step touch" while singing!

1975 Treble Teens sang with Piero Gamba and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.   It was a Christmas special together with Will Millar, member of the Irish Rovers.  Of course, I was thrilled to be assigned to the "Back Stage Entrance" and have a dressing room with lights around the mirror!  Yes, the dressing room was shared by all 40 of us but thrilling nonetheless
Treble Teens also appeared in the ill-fated Peter Gzowski hosted show on Television.  (he was much better on radio) and we recorded an album which was not as easily done in the 1970's as it is now.  We also recorded in a studio on vinyl.  This was an interesting experience as we had to sing better than we had every sung before but no audience to relate to.  A good part of Treble Teens training was spent on stage presence and facial expressions none of which helped us in the recording sessions.  Here we had to rely on techniques learned in our weekly voice training.  It was harder than one would think.

Treble Teens was a great way for a young girl to catch the choral bug and this old lady has still not recovered.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


I have been singing in audtioned choirs since I was 14, and have loved singing since at least age 3!  My sister suggested I write a Blog about my choir life, probably to stop me from talking her ear off about it.  I ended 2010 with two big works performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven's Mass in C, and Handel's Messiah. Beethoven said of Handel,

He is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.-- Ludwig van Beethoven, quoted in Percy M Young, Handel (1947)
I found this surprising as I have always thought Beethoven was greater than Handel but then the definition of a great composer is not a fixed idea.

My first confession is that I will write in the voice I sing in - Alto.  Being Alto is more than a voice part for me, it is a complete identity.  The defining statement of this identity is that I am not a soprano!  My grade 11 audition placed me in the soprano section when I had spent the last 3 years being an alto. When I arrived at a new school for Grade 11 and auditioned for the chamber choir I was put in the soprano section!  I protested but the conductor was not moved.  I was miserable!  Sitting with sopranos, singing with sopranos, and trying hard to be a soprano were a bit much for me.  My soul is decidedly Alto.  I began to skip performances and that brought Mr. Krahn into the student residence to have a chat.  He didn't waste any time with small talk,  "I guess you really want to sing alto?"   And that was that.  I have been a contented member of the alto section ever since, and it has been a rather long, "ever since" from grade 11!