Staying musically engaged during a hiatus

It’s been ages since I posted here — namely because I had a long spell without any official singing gigs.  There were only three summer concert weekends with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus this year — I had conflicts with two of them, and I ceded the third to my wife (you know, the one whose career is singing… remember, I’m Just Another Bass.)  Fortunately, Holiday Pops is coming up to exercise my vocal chords, and even more fortunately, I’m on the roster for one of my favorite pieces, the Verdi Requiem, this January.

But that meant almost 7 months without being on the stage of Symphony Hall or the Koussevitzky Shed.  When I skip any activity for even a few months, my competency decays.  How can I keep up my singing with no singing goal?  The obvious answer is to take some more lessons, but that’s not sustainable on my pocketbook.  It’s tough, but I’ve found a few activities to help fill the gap.

I had the pleasure of singing with my wife’s church choir for their “music Sunday” in June.  They picked 4 choral pieces and several arias from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, assembled a small (but, it turns out, quite impressive) band together of some strings and woodwinds to cover the orchestral parts, and gathered as many occasional singers from the congregation as possible to put it together in a night of practice.  It’d be false modesty if I told you I wasn’t the strongest bass singer there, especially having sung Elijah before.  But the group was pleasantly balanced and it was a joy to sing.  And I, for one, was happy to get some more classical singing in a formal environment that gave me something to practice.

The other interesting diversion which occupied several months of my time was preparing for Otherworld.  Otherworld is hard to describe succinctly; it’s a non-profit group whose goal is to give ordinary people extraordinary adventures.  I’ve been part of the group for 15 events across some 20 years.  Each event is a massive production held at a 4H camp in Connecticut.  How massive?  Around 80 staff members host about 55 participants in an adventure weekend as they become the heroes of an intricately laid out story.  It’s like walking into a book, or finding yourself an actor in one of those dinner theaters.

In any case, Otherworld has a significant amount of music in it.  There’s a part where singers hidden in the woods gently sing a Taize melody to make a moment feel magical.  There’s a Big Musical Number (think an Elvis movie or Broadway musical, where in the middle of a scene suddenly people break out into song).  This year there was a Barbershop Quartet–I wish I could tell you WHY there was a Barbershop Quartet, but it would involve too many spoilers for the weekend should you ever decide to come (and you should!).  And there was a part where carolers show up and sing, except they’re singing for a holiday that doesn’t exist in our world (a cross between Thanksgiving and Christmas.)

I had the distinct pleasure of being involved in all four of these musical singing endeavors.  While the Taize had been done in past events, the other three were brand new.  I would arrange a medley of Bob Dylan’s Quinn the Eskimo and the 70’s hit Lay a Little Lovin’ On Me, for a group of singers who wouldn’t all be in the same place together until the day of the event.  I worked with three other singers remotely to identify Barbershop songs that we could learn independently and then blend together, again on the day of the event.  And, I had to compose a short holiday carol.  Each of these with a different group of people on staff.

Sound like a nightmare?  Well, the whole experience was quite exhilarating!

While I enjoy arranging music, having done so for past Otherworld events and for a few weddings, it’s by no means my forte–I’ve seen so many others who can arrange music faster and better than I can.  I probably spent about 15-20 hours of time listening to recordings of the music, first casually during commutes, and then more intensely while trying to map out the song and transfer it into Finale the way I was hearing it.  Getting the transitions in the medley was tricky but I was super-excited when I figured out a way to musically handle it.  I did some test recordings of just my voice on all parts to get a sense of whether my arrangement was working.  I switched midway through from all-male back to a mixed chorus.  Then getting the music into the computer and onto paper for the 8 of us I had singing, and making practice recordings where I would delete some of the parts so people could listen to it on their own.  We then got 5 of us who were local into one place to rehearse, and recorded THAT for distribution and practice… overall it was probably a 50 hour labor of love… and it was all for about 3 minutes during the weekend.  The best part?  It came out PERFECTLY.

The Barbershop Quartet was equally challenging.  Having never sung Barbershop before, I received some tutelage from fellow staffer Chris Reichert, whose “Notable Ring” quartet in Austin has won awards in a few regional contests. He recommended some tags, procured some music and learning tracks (which are awesome — left side, just your part; right side, other three parts), and coached all of us about the style: less vibrato, aiming for a ‘ringing’ on sustained chords, emphasizing the ‘sour’ notes whose dissonances drive the music forward, even such logistics as gathering together to find your opening pitch then spreading into a circle and nailing it.  We were worried because when we first got together in person to practice, we discovered that it’s harder to sing your part with three other people who are also trying to learn their part, as opposed to a recording of three solid singers on a learning track.  But with Chris’s coaching, we made it first to barely passable, then quite acceptable, and finally to knock-people’s-socks-off when we performed.  To untrained singers, we were amazing.  But even singers (and at least one participant who sang barbershop), we were top-notch.  Another case where hours put into a labor of love paid off handsomely, even though we were only “on  stage” for a few hours of episodic singing.

The holiday carol required much fewer hours, more of them spent thinking than composing or practicing.  I needed something that sounded Christmas-y but wasn’t a known carol, and that could be learned by a group of about 12 singers with mixed levels of experience singing — just as you might have at a holiday gathering.  For that reason, I quickly ruled out part-singing.  I ended up taking “Joy to the World” and flipping the melody upside down.  That way, the rhythm was known to the singers, the chords (if there were any) would echo other carols, and the tune would sound vaguely familiar to listeners.  I sang it for a group of friends and it had the desired effect.  So we printed up some sheet music and made little caroling books.  I recorded it on the piano and recorded me singing it, and got a copy to everyone in the makeshift chorus.  The only problem?  The singers were too good!  (The scene called for them getting interrupted toward the end of the chorus by a boorish character who thought they weren’t doing a good job, which leads to another character confronting him, and… well, that’s a story for another time.)

All in all, it’s amazing how busy you can make yourself musically if you look for ways to fill the gap.  And now — onto Holiday Pops and the Verdi Requiem!  The Verdi is going to be AWESOME!

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