Thursday, October 11, 2007

In the last week and a half, Ian, the master planner, arranged for us to try out three different choirs at our local prestigious university. All choirs there but one are open to community members, which right away shows how different things are here than on the east coast. The experience of singing with and comparing choirs was interesting, though somewhat disappointing in ways, but overall pretty fun. There were great differences in the size of the choirs, their direction and the rehearsal process, the repertoire we sang, and the character of and general attitude of its members. We settled on the last choir we tried out, which was of the best quality, medium-sized, and the most fun. It is the group with the most student members, most who seemed to have good voices and pleasant attitudes. We were both quite surprised, however, in the difference in attitude of these students from what we were used to back east. Ian, I think noticed a particularly big difference, having come from a singing group at his ivy league alma mater which had a *very* serious attitude. At one point in our rehearsal last night the outgoing President of the choir was trying to recruit new officers for the year and *finally* managed to fill two of the positions after *much* pleading. Ian remarked that in his former choir people actually *campaigned* for those offices. I am also definitely used to being in choirs where people are serious about singing -- and where there is usually much enthusiasm for socializing.

This whole experience has mostly, however, got me to thinking about what it is that makes a good choir. It's obviously subjective, but what is it that *I* like to hear? I find it's very difficult to judge how good an ensemble is while singing *in* it. But there are three choirs I have had the opportunity to listen to from the audience (or congregation) that I really enjoyed and in retrospect I would say there is actually a common element in what I liked about them. Two are choirs I have sung with -- one, a church choir where I was a paid soloist and the other, a choir I sang with while in grad school in WI. The third is the choir Ian last sang with. I'm sure none of these choirs are good all of the time (in fact, the church choir varied greatly from week to week in its membership and went routinely from sounding awful to wonderful depending on who showed up and what we were singing). And, I'm sure much of the reason the performances I heard sounded good is because they were in flattering performance spaces. But, I also have no doubt that all of these directors were going for a particular kind of sound and frankly, now that I realize what that sound is, I am surprised at myself for liking it, precisely *because* of my training as a classical singer. That sound -- the sound I like -- is a very pure, light sound of mostly straight-tone singing -- not super straight tone, countertenor, hootiness, but a light, pretty tone without much vibrato in it. In fact, I remember in one rehearsal I listened to, noting that I could hear one particular female singer -- noting that her vibrato and her voice stood out and didn't blend with the group -- and that other than her, the group sounded good. I'm surprised at myself because as a classically trained singer I have learned to love the voice in its fullness -- and that I do -- as a *solo* voice. And, I have learned to dislike singing in a way that is constrained - that doesn't allow me the freedom to sing using my whole instrument, particularly when it means restricting my vibrato, which is fatiguing to the voice, as it requires going against my training -- against the joy of singing freely. But then *why *do I love mostly light, straight singing in choral music? Because I *love* to hear beautifully in-tune chords!! And... I don't know... I just do.


Suze said...

Just goes to show that choir singing is different from solo singing. I don't think that's contradictory at all on your part, just perceptive!

Jake said...

Well, and what you discover as you get away from the iron clad rule of "classical singing" is that good singing comes in a wide variety of techniques and sounds. Light, relatively vibrato-less singing, when done properly, is no more damaging than going for the high notes in that aria. In fact, even poor vibrato management probably does less damage than the "hook-and-push-louder-is-better" school of singing opera. All of which is why I prefer early music - you get your choral singing, and you get your solos, and you don't have to feel like you're changing trucks all the time!