Just less than a year ago I auditioned for and joined the Johannesburg Symphony Choir. It had been 4 years since I had sung with the Bryn Athyn Cathedral Choir. To say that I was a little out of practice, or rusty, would not be an unfair assessment. It may seem strange to say that one can be out of practice for singing in a choir, but the truth is it’s like a muscle that one has to keep using to keep it supple.
There are two major areas that I had to exercise and get back up to speed. The first is the discipline of sight reading and correctly pitching the music. I’m a second alto and in the large symphony choir it is assumed that every choir member can sight read the music. When everyone can sight read the music the choir master / conductor can concentrate choir rehearsals on the dynamics of piece of music instead of hammering away through the notes for eight different voices.
The second is tuning in to the other voices and placing my voice in harmony with those around me. My voice is just one of many. It has to be pitch perfect. It has to place each sound in harmony with all the others, making sure that each note is perfectly timed and at the right volume to create a beautiful piece of music with the rest of the choir. I must be listening all the time. To myself, to my fellow second altos, to the rest of the choir, and to the orchestra, while at the same time looking at both my music score and the conductor for guidance. There’s a lot going on.
Then in January, just when I thought I had made good progress, our choir began rehearsing St Matthew’s Passion by Bach for a special Good Friday performance. A challenging piece where the choir is divided into two choirs. All sung in German. I had never sung anything in German and this was a huge challenge. Somehow I couldn’t get my mouth around all the German syllables and glottals. At times during rehearsal I got frustrated with the fast pace at which we were working through the piece. I just wasn’t getting the notes, the pronunciation, the diction. I got frustrated at myself. I was failing myself, the other second altos, and the choir.
But I’m stubborn, or determined, and would not quit; I would not let the piece break me. I put in hours of extra work “note bashing” and labouring through pronunciation practice between each rehearsal. As the performance approached I had to be honest with myself with what I was able to do. If you look through my score your will find certain areas are marked “mime”. I realised that I was not going to be able to master certain sections in time for the performance. Instead of opening my mouth and emitting discordant sounds, I planned to open my mouth and “mime” my way through those areas and re-join the singing when I could add to the harmonious sound. In some way it felt a bit like defeat. In another way, I knew it was the best decision of the performance as a whole. And yet I had still not given up as my internal mantra became “the next time the choir sing this piece I will do better.” The words of my Bryn Athyn choir master, Chris Simons, would sometimes echo through my mind: “We don’t want to peak too soon.” This gave me permission to keep striving to do better, and accept that perfection might not be at hand but would be sometime in the future.
We performed St Matthew’s Passion on Good Friday together with the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra and gifted soloists. It was a powerfully moving piece. An uplifting experience. The first and second choir sections weaving together with the first and second orchestra to create something of great beauty. And my voice was just one of many.
On reflection I see how singing in a choir is a metaphor for life: I have to do the best I can with my talents and pursue my purpose to the best of my ability. I have to grow and develop myself in order to better serve the people around me. I have to listen to my own thoughts and feelings, and remove the discordant and selfish tendencies. All the time being conscious of how my life impacts the people around me. Being aware of how my community is placed within society as a whole. Always looking to the Lord for guidance. There will be times when I get frustrated with the world around me, get frustrated with myself, but the key is to keep trying, being determined, never quitting, always pushing forward. And even if at first I don’t succeed or get things right, there will always be opportunities to give it another go.
As I live each day I strive to add to the harmony of life and create a sense of heaven around me. Each day is an opportunity for me to find my perfect place in the choir of life.