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December 4, 2010

No Shoot Outs at the OK Chorale

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I started the OK Chorale as a University of Washington Experimental College class in 1992.  I remember the year because one rehearsal fell on Election night.  My best friend had instructions to call and let the phone ring twice when Bill Clinton went over the top of the Electoral College vote.

Back then, the class was called Part Singing.  Not the catchiest of titles.  Not the most elucidating either.

“Does it mean people sing only part of the time?”

“Does everyone sing in the same register?”

“Hey, can you teach me to yodel?”

When I changed the name to The OK Chorale five years later, attendance doubled.  The same people began coming back quarter after quarter.  I had a community choir, not a class.

I started the Chorale in part because I wanted to hear voices singing in harmony and I wanted to improve my alto and learn to sing tenor and bass.  I also wanted to sing different kinds of music than you generally hear with choirs.  There are plenty of church choirs with their limited repertoire, and plenty of big auditioned choirs that sing magnificent choral works and wring your life out of you the weeks of the performances.  But where could you go to sing “April is in my Mistress Face” and “Zombie Jamboree” all in the same quarter?  I set out to create a choir that I wanted to be part of.

We are a motley, fun-loving bunch.  We get together after a day’s work in the middle of the week. People come in tired and pre-occupied with their concerns.  They want to relax and enjoy themselves. They don’t want to be confronted with a tyrannical prima donna manquée and I don’t want to be one.

A lot of singers come to their first rehearsal with some species of this story to tell me:  “The nuns told me to mouth the words and I’ve been afraid to let anyone hear me ever since.”

OR “My father told me I sounded like a chicken so I stopped singing.”

OR “My sister wouldn’t sing with me because she said I was flat.”

Anyone who signs up for my class even after they were told to mouth the words because they sing like a flat chicken is someone who has the joy of singing pushing to come out.  I understand that it takes courage to let our voices sing.

Then there are the people who have had a lot of choir experience.  They approach me with lists of things they think I am not aware of.  They asked if I am going add dynamics.  They point out that the sopranos are holding their half notes for three counts.  I take their lists and say thank you.  Sometimes I give the most persistent “supervisors” a copy of the Seattle Times choral round-up which lists forty or so choirs in the area and say they might enjoy one of these groups more.

I do what I do by design, not because I am hopelessly incompetent.

I don’t have a sound or finished product in my head that I expect The Chorale to fulfill.  I want us to play together with what we’ve got.  I like to try different things and see what works.  I arrange a lot of the music we sing and the Chorale is my test group.  I match the music to them not the other way around.  It’s a joint creative effort.  That’s what keeps it alive.

I let the spotlight whores romp around and the shyer types stand in the background and just sing.  One tenor who sang with us for quite a while finally told me he wanted to be part of a choir, not a “troupe.”  I still miss him but I get it.  We are a troupe.  Continuing the medieval metaphor, we are like a conference of court jesters. We don’t have matching choir outfits and our sound is not sculpted.  There are plenty of other places to go for that.

The Chorale has given me more than I ever imagined it would back when I conceived of a Part Singing class.   My appreciation is inestimable:

They laugh at my jokes.   They laugh at my jokes!

They have been patient while I learned to direct.  I don’t think many of them realized this but, I learned on them.

They understood I was afflicted with the need to make everyone happy so they put up with my learning to arbitrate amongst the chorus of suggestions and advice: “I know there’s high Latin, low Latin, finger and toe Latin but when you get to excelsis, just sing ‘eggshell’.”

After all these years, I am still not very good at setting the tempo.  They smile, put up and we get on.

They give me harmony.  I get to hear voices singing in harmony.  I wasn’t raised with this.

If you live in the Seattle area and would like to hear the OK Chorale, we are singing a little concert on Friday, Dec 10, 7:30 PM at Broadview Community United Church of Christ.  The next evening, Sat, Dec 11, we sing at the Green Lake luminarias 5:30 to 6:00 at the aquatheater.  More details are on the web site: www.okchoraleseattle.com.

Maybe you’ll join us one quarter. As I say in my course description: Rehearsals are fun and no one gets hurt.

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