by Akemi Takahashi
Nancy describes being in a choir as being a part of a machine. A machine can’t work without every part working together in unison. There must be a conductor to keep things running smoothly. The machine responds to every movement of the conductor’s hand and stops and starts when they tell it to. But being a part of the machine is just as important. Because without even the smallest piece, the machine can’t function.
Being a part of the choir machine is a very useful learning tool. You learn to listen and blend with singers around you- not just match pitch, but also tempo. I performed with an All-State Treble Choir a few years ago and tempo was one of the more prominent focuses of our rehearsals. Our director was brilliant, but what really stood out to me about her teaching style was how much she emphasized teamwork. We were working on a very challenging piece; an Indian Raga with extremely complicated rhythms. All 5 sections were singing different rhythms and we struggled a lot with keeping a steady tempo. So, our director had us tap the tempo on the shoulder of the person to our right. This way, everyone was receiving and passing on the beat. We sang through the song this way and I was astonished by the difference this made- every person was perfectly in time with each other. We had created a tempo machine.
A common misconception about singing in a choir is that it’s easy. Although there is less pressure on the individual singer in a choir, I would argue that it is just as hard as singing solo because oftentimes you can’t hear your own voice over the sound of the choir. When I was 14, I auditioned to be in an International Honors Choir that was to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York. The organization accepted my audition, assigned me Alto 1, and sent me the music we would be performing. Now, traditionally I sing soprano so singing alto was something new to me, but I thought, how different can it be? I found out the answer to this in New York, at the very first rehearsal, amongst 300 other singers. SO DIFFERENT. Immediately I was lost. All the hours I had spent learning my part and memorizing notes and rhythms were useless to me now because I couldn’t hear my voice, no matter how loud I sang. I was standing among some of the best young classical singers in the world, but even hearing them next to me,I couldn’t find my pitch at all. After rehearsal, I went back up to my hotel room, totally frustrated and confused. I was a great singer and I never lost pitch so why was I having such a challenging time now? It took me the next few rehearsals to figure out why. I didn’t know what singing alto FELT like. Years of singing soprano in choirs made me accustomed to what it felt like to sing in my high range, and I had memorized that feeling with the notes- it came naturally to me. With this knowledge, I honed my alto skills and by the end of the week, I felt totally comfortable finding pitch in my lower range. In a choir you learn to recognize what a note feels like in your throat, or how a vowel feels on your tongue, and you should memorize these feelings because sound won’t always be there to guide you.
Choirs are an extremely helpful and unique learning tool, and if you are lucky enough to be led by a great conductor, you’ll walk away from every rehearsal knowing something you didn’t know before.