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May 30, 2013

Case-Hardening the Choir Director

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As I write I have my nose in three Sungold tomato plants.  When I finish this post I’ll put them out for a day of hardening off.  They are emblematic of the journey I take every quarter with The OK Chorale.  If you’re new here, the Chorale is a community choir I started in 1992.  We operate through the University of Washington’s Experimental College so we’re on a quarter system—thank God—because I would explode from over-stimulation and unrealistic expectations (primarily by me and of myself) if I didn’t get a break every two months.

I’ll explain about the tomatoes in a minute.  I’ll begin when this quarter began soon after I got notice that The OK Chorale had been accepted to perform at the Northwest Folk Life Festival in May.  Acceptance into Folk Life causes a flurry of excitement and a re-evaluation of the music I had already planned.  It was going to be an all Beatles program which appealed to everyone except the deepest bass and the best counter in the current crop of singers.  I scrambled for some substitutions to lure them back. It worked.

The Folk Life Festival occurs at a point where I would normally expect to have another week to rehearse.  The pressure starts with knowing that.  Then there are the instrumentalists.  For some unfathomable reason I had been in the habit of using the guitar pickers and autoharp strummers in our ranks for spring quarter.  When it takes all I’ve got to rehearse just the choir for a normal quarter, I have to add a motley and cheerful group of amateur accompanists to a shortened one.  

“I don’t have an f-sharp minor key.”

 “I can play everything pretty okay except the bridge. Here, I’ll show you the part I can’t play.”

“I don’t think I can sing and play at the same time.”

I watched them drop their music and tip over their stands and thought, “Folk Life. Stage. Audience.”  I started to sweat along the hairline.  If I’m not having fun, no one has fun.  I decided to can the instrumentalists.

After that it was a typical quarter.  I made my usual speech about not pointing fingers and tattling on others for singing the wrong note.  I want rehearsals to be a place where people—including me– can make mistakes and not be criticized.  The protocol is for a tenor to say something like, “Can you play the tenor part at measure 38?” and not something like, “The sopranos are coming in too early and messing us up.”

It’s funny, but it’s usually the tenors and the sopranos that get into it.  The basses are too shy or too confused—not sure which—to say much of anything and the altos are steady, reliable and patient.  The higher voices –I can say this because I am a solo soprano—are as high strung and demanding as racehorses.

When you listen to a choir perform, especially one where everyone is dressed exactly the same and the sound is sculpted like a hairdo—not the Chorale, incidentally—you probably can’t imagine the drama that goes on behind the scenes in rehearsals: the jealousies, competition, snarking, and hurt feelings.  One of the Chorale’s longtime members began life as an alto.  She switched to tenor to get away from an annoying alto, and then became a soprano in the hopes of bothering another soprano enough to cause her to quit.  

Every quarter there’s something.  Somebody lets me know all is not well.  I’m like a priest.  I have to hear it and know it and, most of the time, not interfere.

I was trying to address some such situation with a comment I made prior to the potluck-rehearsal.  The potluck-rehearsal is something I instituted to boost comfort levels for people who need to stand in close proximity to other human beings doing something as intimate as singing together.  We’re not a uniform choir.  We are an Aquarian Choir.  We are individuals who retain our eccentricities, oddities, aloofness –whatever it is we bring within our personalities—while we sing in four-part harmony.  It’s important to the mise en scène that we look like we can stand each other.

I said, “If there’s someone in the Chorale who annoys you, you might use the potluck to get better acquainted with him or her.  Sometimes that helps reduce.  .  .”

I was drowned out by the explosion of laughter. So I did what I often do when I’m too much in earnest. I started re-explain myself and ended up saying exactly the same thing which resulted in another assault of laughter while a few people –tenors, I think– began acting out the parts of Annoyed and Annoying Person. 

Nicki (soprano and also a teacher) mouthed to me, “Leave it alone. You’re done!”

“OK, fine,” I grinned but I hate it when I know I’m blushing. “See you at the potluck.”

At the potluck, Terry (alto) sat down next to Chris (tenor) and said, “I’m supposed to sit next to an annoying person and Hal isn’t here.”

I think for the most part, we all tend to get along.

The Northwest Folk Life Festival, Memorial Day, 2013. I always wish I could be dropped right into our singing venue because I hate the parking, the crowds, the noise, and this year, the rain and the humidity.  But once we were assembled at the Center House Theater with a luxurious half-an-hour to do a sound check because the group before us had cancelled; and once I had ascertained that the piano was not an upright, but a console, I was relaxed and happy. 

And then I got The Rush. The first time The OK Chorale sang at Folk Life, we were on the Intiman stage and that was a complete thrill.  But I think this year was the best we have ever sung.  The theater was packed and the audience was appreciative.  They yelled for an encore.  If I hadn’t been so high, I would have thought to repeat what was arguably our best: “Hold Me, Rock Me” by Brian Tate.

Instead, it was over.  The next day, Tuesday, Susan (soprano) sent a video her husband had taken from his phone.  It brought back the energy and joy of “Hold Me, Rock Me” and I maintained my high all day.

On Wednesday, I got an e-mail about the Sungold tomato plants I was expecting from an organic farm owned by friends of a friend.  I had asked the farmer last May if I could buy a couple of Sungolds from her this year.  I reminded her in January and again in April.  In the e-mail on Wednesday she sent her profuse apologies: she had forgotten all about my tomatoes and the plants were gone.

I burst into tears.  I was unreasonably depressed, crying intermittently all morning.  I wanted those tomatoes.  I hadn’t been able to find them last year and they were the only tomatoes I liked. Nothing else would do. How many times should I have reminded her?  Once a month? What was I going to do now?

Around noon, I thought, “I don’t think this is about the tomatoes.  This is the down after the high. Oh yeah. That.”

I live eight blocks from Swanson’s Nursery.  One phone call ascertained they had organic Sungold tomatoes and on sale. I was over there before they closed.  I’m taking them outside right now.  Those tomatoes and I are both going to be case-hardened by the end of the week, and ripe for summer.

You can hear “Hold me, Rock Me” here.  (Just scroll down an inch or two once you get to the link.) Our best counter, the Human Metronome, is the woman marching in place on the far right.  Thank you, Heather (alto)!

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