Hi all! I know that Tuesdays are usually about adaptions of productions from original books but today, I didn’t feel inspired to talk about that. I rather want to talk about something that is dear to my heart: my choral family.
It is no secret that music unites. Music inspires. Music speaks. Music hurts. Music lives. Music prevails.
Music can make you feel every emotion and discover new ones that you had no idea existed. Music can make us realize things that we never would have otherwise realized. I’m fairly stubborn and my best reception comes via song lyric. You could stand in front of me and give me the world’s best advice and despite the fact, I may or may not take it. However, you put that same message in a song- racked with raw emotional charge and soul- and it becomes clear as day.
I remember falling in love with choral music. I feel that genre is so underrated so this is for you, Morley. Thomas. Clausen.
All of my friends used to enjoy the popular, radio music we covered in class. You know- the a capella version of songs like Lonesome Road and Operator. While I liked those songs, I was never that girl. While everyone looked forward to the end-of-the-year themed music (think Disney, Broadway, decades, etc), my favorite time of year was contest season because the music we’d embark upon was so powerful. Most (unfortunate) people view choral music as mere selections that fit a certain criteria given to us by state education systems that are not to be analyzed. We simply sing beautiful harmonies with one another until we reach the end of the song. I’ll admit- Before I had a revelation, I used to view them that way too. I do remember the “a-ha” moment, though.
I was sitting in chorus class in middle school and we were singing a spiritual. I was very uninterested because honestly, how was I supposed to relate to this music? I would have MUCH rather embarked upon learning some terrible arrangement of a song from Wicked at that point in time. Luckily for me, though, I was taking history and at that particular time, we were studying slavery and what it meant to be an enslaved person in the late eighteenth century. I don’t cry very much, but I remember crying that night when I googled the lyrics to the song that I had cast aside in chorus that day. I suddenly understood something that would prove to be very important not just in my musical life, but my wholistic one as well:
First-hand experience is not a requirement to perform a song and do it well. What is a requirement, however, is an understanding. I didn’t appreciate the song because I didn’t know about what I was singing. Once I took the time to actually stop and analyze what was being said in the song, I could begin to empathize. I will never know how those people felt, but I can develop an understanding that teaches me how to convey their message through me.
In music, we are but mediums. I am merely a tool that works to express the emotional well that lies beneath a song I am singing.
Once I understood this, my choral life changed. I had previously thought that choral music lacked meaning and it became my personal mission to never sing a choral piece without considering its meaning from that point forward.
Some of my favorite pieces in high school were pieces that nearly everyone else hated and this is due largely to the fact that I had come to appreciate these songs because they meant something to me. Don’t get me wrong, though- The music is a huge part of it as well.
Let’s take a few examples:
“Fire, Fire! My Heart!” – T. Morley
My all-time favorite piece. Out of the MANY pieces I was blessed to perform, this one takes the cake. It takes a high level of precision and skill to pull this one off because of the polyphonic nature and tempo that Morley designed. When done well, this song is very short and very catchy. Superficially, it seems to be a typical song about a someone experiencing trouble with his or her inamorata. However, my love for this song grew tremendously when I contextualized it:
This song was written during the Renaissance period. To give you all a brief history lesson: The Renaissance period came to fruition because people began to shift their focus from the sacred to the secular. Everyone was used to a life of servitude in the church and suddenly that all changed and people were swept up in a sort of lovesick fever dream. They had never before been exposed to such things and the time had finally arrived. Back to the piece now–
The song is centered around a lover who has experienced love gone wrong. His or her heart is on “fire,” and consequently, he or she feels nothing but anguish to the point of calling out for help- but to no avail. Once you pair this meaning with the music, it makes sense melodically. One of the most stand-alone notes in the piece is one sung by the sopranos as they exclaim “Ahh me!” It is a high F that is meant to be sung very quietly (and for those of you who know nothing about music, take my word- singing quietly on a sustained high note is nearly an impossible task). It makes sense in the piece, though. You are sad. You are hurting. You want someone to come and save you and you need to express your anguish. There is no better way to match melody and meaning and that is the genuis of choral songwriting. There are so many examples of this in virtually every song that exists. Every note means something.
“Keep Your Lamps!” – Dr. A. J. Thomas
I suppose I am increasingly interested in this piece because I am currently in a choir under the direction of the man that arranged this popular spiritual. I actually have been lucky enough to perform it twice- once in middle school, and once in high school.
This spiritual originated in the fields that enslaved people worked during the Civil-War era. In the field, someone would start singing this song in order to indicate that he would be making an attempt to escape soon. Spirituals were used by slaves as safe and secretive methods of communication.
I love the harmonies of this song, but what I love most is something that Dr. Thomas does each time he conducts this piece. He asks his choir members to stand, turn and face a wall, put one arm on the shoulder of the person directly in front of them, and walk together as if their feet were shackled. As they do this, he invites them to sing the song and it immediatley shifts the atmosphere of the group as they realize the gravity of what they’re singing.
This was one of the first songs that I sang in high school and I loved its simplicity. I never felt as united with a group as I did when we sang this song together. I remember watching the faces of our audience when we sang this and remembering why it is that I music. Isn’t it lovely when things happen that remind you why you music? This song represents family to me. It always comes to mind when I think back to high school chorus. It is a prayer for peace, redemption, praise, faith, victory, and comfort.
“Angel Band” – S. Kirchner
This one means so much to me because it was given context when my teacher lost his father. There really is no other reason why we all should have loved this song in the way that we did. If anything, it seemed to me to be a song that we likely would have DISLIKED. That being said, I hold this song in the most sacred of places in my heart. What a wonderful, gentle way to be reminded of the finitude of life. I guess there was something incredibly powerful about being with some of the people I loved most in this world while singing about having to leave them eventually. It’s such a beautiful way to consider an awful, horrible concept. Another weird thing about this song is that my best friend who was NOT in my choir when we sang this piece ended up singing it with her choir, too. Just a little humbling, transcendent moment there. I don’t really understand why this song is what it is to me other than the fact that we gave it meaning and life and context.
This is getting rather wordy, so I’ll leave you with this. To my choral families- past, present, and future: I miss you and love you more with each new note I sing. Only we know what happens when we make music together and to attempt to put something that huge and amazing into words on a mediocre blog would be criminal. I hope you make music every chance you get and that one day, we may all reunite and join in a heavenly choir.
If you take nothing else from me, hear me say this: It is my prayer that you never sing or make music that you do not understand.
Please take the time to analyze and research and develop personal connections with the pieces you pursue. If you come up empty, then create meaning. Use your experiences to relate what you are singing or playing to your life as a whole. I will leave you with a quotation from one of my favorite artists, Kristin Chenoweth, that can be heard as an intro to one of the songs on her album Coming Home :
“So, uh, I went to Oklahoma City University and I met the woman that would change my life- my singing life, my heart- and I pulled out this sheet of music that I wanted to do in masterclass and stood up there and began to sing and after the first line, she said ‘Oh I’m going to have to stop you- You see, you don’t understand what you’re singing about. One day, when you do, I welcome you to pull it out again and try it- but don’t do it until you understand it.'”
Sorry this became such a monster post but if I’m being honest, today I wrote for me and I hope you will enjoy it. Love and light to all!