In the Care of a Chorus

At 6:45 on Tuesday night, Sherry and I enter the rehearsal space. We are among the first to arrive. We thread our way through the round tables toward the front of the room and deposit our bags. Internally, I’m bouncing with excitement. After six long years of absence, I finally get to sing with these ladies again! Freshly graduated from college, I now have the time to commit to three hours of singing every Tuesday night, plus the hours spent outside rehearsal learning new music.

Several members of the chorus recognize me; they remember me from all those years ago. I can’t even imagine what kind of person I was back then. I remember I was eighteen, a senior in high school. My fellow singers ask me about family, career goals, and more generally – what I’ve been up to! I beam each time I say, “I just graduated with my Master’s in English,” and I tell them about my plans to work toward a Ph.D.. None of them seem surprised. Their confidence in me feels so natural, effortless.

After a brief conversation with our director, during which she assures me that I don’t need to be voice-tested again, I learn that I’ll be singing the same part I sang before – baritone. In barbershop music, the baritone part is a quirky mid-range part; it’s the harmony that contains all the notes that make the chords complete. If you hear a bari singing her version of a popular barbershop tune, you probably won’t recognize the tune. It’s the ideal part for obsessive musical analysts and music theory nerds like me!

The other three options are bass, lead, and tenor. If these names sound masculine, it’s because the female barbershop style is modeled on the male style. People singing lead often have the melody; they sing the version of the tune that you recognize. Basses have a very harmonious, melodious harmony as well. You wouldn’t recognize the tune, but you’d probably enjoy singing it. And the tenor part is harmonically similar to an alto part in an SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) chorus, except that it’s placed in a higher octave. What I’m getting at is that these other three parts are pretty tuneful – not just notes jumping around. The bari part is sporadic, odd, a mess of notes hopping all over the staff. And it’s ridiculously fun to sing!

Once it’s decided that I’ll be singing baritone again, Sherry finds me a place on the risers next to an experienced bari so that I can hear my part among the group. Unlike many SATB choruses, we don’t stand in sections. We stand in “mixed” position, which means that we’re randomly assembled. The leads aren’t with the leads; the tenors aren’t near the tenors. We’re a hodgepodge, which makes for a neat, balanced sound and a well-exercised ear.

Our director places me on the right side of the risers, near Robin and Faye, two baris with great voices. After 30 minutes of aerobics and stretching, the chorus completes 30 minutes of rigorous vocal warmups. I remember many of the vocal exercises from before, but they’ve added some new ones—notably one where, after 5 seconds of breathing in, you try to sustain a mid-range note at the lowest possible volume for as long as you can. It’s more challenging than it sounds. Some ladies can hold the note for up to 65 seconds! I can only hold mine for 25-30, but I plan to practice every day to improve this time.

After an hour of exercise and warmup, it’s 8pm and we’re ready to start singing repertoire. We begin with some pieces that I heard at their March concert, and I lean toward Faye and Robin to catch those elusive baritone notes. The ladies have this music memorized, and our director coaches us on feelings, facial expressions, and breath. So much of singing is about your mental state and the state of your whole body; it’s an activity that far exceeds the voice alone.

We break into sections and conduct a short rehearsal. Robin offers me her arm and we trot off with the other baritones to rehearse two relatively new tunes. I don’t have the sheet music for these, so I just listen and try to sing along. I am amazed at how quickly I get a feel for where the harmony is headed! It’s all coming back to me, I think. Like riding a bicycle. Except I’ve never ridden a bicycle.

When all four sections rendezvous on the risers, we rehearse the tunes we’ve been working on. I’m delighted that I’ve learned most of one already. This harmonic intuition helps me feel that I’m right where I need to be, singing with the right people. When we first step up onto the risers, we’re still in our respective sections, four disparate little groups each singing their own part. Then our director asks us to assume our usual positions and I have to slide to the right. As we reconfigure ourselves, someone asks, “Who’s in charge of Emily?”

Quickly, another singer responds, “Robin and Faye are helping her,” and kind hands grip my shoulders, guiding me to the right spot. Later, I’m guided to a new place on the risers in the same manner, and I find myself standing beside Sarah, whose rich bass voice is easy for me to identify. She reaches for my hand and squeezes it, saying, “I’m so happy you’re singing with us again.”

Only after rehearsal has ended and I’m sitting in my room, checking email and preparing for bed, do I reflect on the question Who’s in charge of Emily. This is the kind of question that would irk the hell out of most disability rights activists. “In charge of Emily” – as if I need someone to be “in charge” of me, as if I can’t go through my life independently without assistance! The nerve!

However, the question did not irk me at the time, and it doesn’t irk me now. There was something so natural, so fitting, about it.

I think this is because being a member of a chorus isn’t about proving your independence. Yes, you have to know your part and hold your melody despite the harmonies around you, but you are never meant to stand alone. A chorus holds you aloft, melodically; each voice carries another voice. So as someone is “in charge” of me, I may be in charge of several others, carrying members I never even realized I was carrying. Standing in mixed position emphasizes the feeling that my voice helps innumerable, unknowable others. I do not just strengthen the baritone section. My voice provides the musical context against which other voices assert themselves. I know this, not from an inflated musical ego, but from hearing what my voice does for others in the way their voices help me. The voices surrounding me aurally reflect my own efforts and accomplishments as a singer. I hear myself in them, and, because of the context of their notes, I understand where I am.

I think that understanding choral life provides a powerful framework for understanding life beyond the musical space. I don’t believe any of us are meant to travel alone and carry all of our own luggage. Someone should help pull your voice into the chord, guide you to your proper place among the group. And while one hand pulls you into the tribe, offers you your music, or adjusts your posture, your hands are outstretched to pass on the loving attention.

I think this is what drives the production of music. A chorus is nothing more than a group of people, lovingly attending to one another and bringing all their skills to bear on a common goal.

*This entry was published in the July 2012 edition of The Pitch Pipe, the Sweet Adelines International magazine.

2 thoughts on “In the Care of a Chorus

  1. Hi Emily — Just came & found your blog after reading the repost of this article in this month’s Pitch Pipe! Just wanted to say how much I appreciate your article, and to say that I think you’re absolutely right about the way our choruses take care of ALL of us, regardless of our circumstances.

    I’m glad you’re back at home in your chorus now, and thanks for the great article! And who knows, since Adelines always seem to find each other, maybe we’ll meet at an internationals some day! 🙂

    (Potomac Harmony Chorus, Reg 14)

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