The ultimate right-brain high: Why I sing in a chorus

Utopia on earth: Choral singing

6 minute read
There's nothing more rewarding of effort.
There's nothing more rewarding of effort.
Nearly 60 years ago the composer Paul Hindemith predicted that choral singing, "on a scale completely unknown thus far, will be one of the most important forms of musical life in the future."

Hindemith's lecture had a daftly Utopian quality (I seem to remember that he also once wrote something to the effect that if everyone had been singing madrigals more often, perhaps the evils of Nazism might have been avoided). But it is indeed true that throughout most of my life, choral singing is the musical activity that has nourished me more than any other. And after you watch the following two YouTube entries, you might agree with me that Hindemith was prescient after all.

The first, which a friend sent me recently, finds a bunch of kids singing a rendition of "Lisztomania, " a song by the French alternate rock band Phoenix; the second is representative of Phi Mu Alpha, a national musical fraternity with Philadelphia roots whose website by itself validates Hindemith's prediction. If these clips don't make you feel optimistic about the state of the world, I don't know what will.

There is, of course, a significant difference between those school kids and the Robert Shaw Chorale, but it's only a difference of degree. The common characteristics among organized singing groups are far more important than the amount of musical training the members of a particular group may possess.

Benevolent dictatorship

Choral singers all voluntarily enroll as good citizens of that social model so well suited to communal artistic endeavor: the benign dictatorship. They agree to subject themselves to a conductor's leadership (and probably to risk their egos at an audition); to sing the conductor's chosen; to do some homework; and to show up for rehearsals as if they were holy days— all this, in most cases, toward the goal of giving some sort of public performance. They do all this because they feel that there's nothing more satisfying, nothing more rewarding of effort, than singing as part of a group.

Since the 1950s, when BSR's editor Dan Rottenberg and I both sang in our high school chorus, I have felt the same way. I've studied choral conducting and singing at the Tanglewood Music Festival; sung in choruses at Columbia College as an undergraduate and at U. Cal (Berkeley) while at graduate school; and, since 1977, I've sung in the Penn Choral Society under the direction of William Parberry. Now that I am recently retired with the time to do so, I sing in the smaller, more challenging Penn Choir.

Ironically, the only gap in my choral singing resumé is the seven-year stretch I spent teaching in Penn's music department.

The Brahms Requiem, again

Over those 50 years, I've experienced the standard repertory of choral music as a sort of musical Lazy Susan, one that makes a complete rotation every decade or so, stocked with certain unvarying items (Oh boy, here comes the Brahms Requiem again!), but frequently refreshed with exotic new dishes, like the Ives Harvest Home Chorales and Poulenc Motets that I had never encountered before the current season.

Works that have come my way, some of them three or four times, include Bach's B-minor Mass and Magnificat; Beethoven's Ninth and Missa Solemnis; Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms; the Verdi, Brahms and Mozart Requiems; all the late Haydn and Schubert Masses, and many more. Except for the fact that I haven't sung enough Bach (and if I survive to 105 and sing nothing but Bach for the rest of my life, I'll still feel that way), I'm hard pressed to think of any of the world's great choral edifices I haven't visited.

Surely, if any music can be said to nourish the intellect as well as the senses, it's this repertory.

Now, about my left brain….

The odd thing is, the Dan Coren who writes for Broad Street Review— the one who can't get enough of the late Beethoven string quartets and who loves to think about sonata-form and harmonic theory"“ in short, the left-brained Dan Coren"“ doesn't much care about choral music and is, as a rule, not particularly interested in attending choral concerts.

I, the analytical Dan Coren writing this essay, have no completely satisfactory answer for this apparent paradox (the choral singing half of me doesn't want to be bothered thinking about it). But I believe it has to do with the nature of singing itself.

Singing seems like such a simple matter. But, as this chaotic entry in Wiki Answers vividly demonstrates, attempting to define precisely why some people can sing and some people can't typically leads into a jungle of emotionally charged ambiguities.

A Catholic Jew

As a further complication, for many people singing carries strong religious associations, and most of the standard choral repertory was composed for liturgical purposes (see my repertory list above). I never cease to be amused by the irony that I, Jewish by birth, somewhere between atheistic and agnostic by belief, know the Ordinary of the Catholic Mass in Latin better, probably, than most practicing Catholics.

I have no more memory of learning how to sing than I do of learning how to talk. Very early on, apparently, I learned how to use my vocal apparatus to produce musical tones and to use it to reproduce melodies I heard in the outside world.

For wind and string players, I can imagine, their instruments feel like extensions of their bodies. But if you're a singer, you are the instrument. Your lungs, your muscles, your vocal chords feel as if they've literally become a thread in the musical fabric.

When listening disappoints

Rehearsing and performing demands constant mental vigilance"“ not just attention to the musical basics of counting and singing the correct notes, but also remembering to place the consonants correctly (i.e., where your conductor wants them); to avoid singing American vowel diphthongs; to be sure to have enough breath all the time; and on and on. Yet in the end the actual experience of being part of a multiple-minded musical organism dwarfs every other sensation. It's the ultimate right-brain musical activity, ecstatic and powerfully addictive.

It's not surprising, then, that listening from the outside to a recording of a concert I've participated in invariably disappoints me, even if I can hear that we did a particularly good job of it. Whenever I listen to choral music, no matter how beautiful it is, no matter how richly complicated, there's a voice in my head saying "Wouldn't you rather be singing?"♦

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