I don’t particularly like singing in church. I don’t believe in god, and I don’t think that religion is a force for good in the world. But I often find that I don’t always mind singing in church either. The kind of skills required for church choir gigging feel to me like they are the very essence of what it is to be a professional classical musician: You are handed a piece of music, and, along with the rest of the ensemble, must be able to perform it successfully with little to no rehearsal. There’s no applause. No one person is in the spotlight.
This must be what it feels like to practice a trade that takes a great deal of study to learn and master, but once you do, it is routine. You’re like a computer coder asked to write a program that will perform a certain set of calculations, or a surgeon tackling his 500th appendectomy, or an auto mechanic fitting a Honda with a new set of brakes. You know what to do, it’s a fairly simple task, and you try to execute it as elegantly and efficiently as possible.
And sometimes it feels like being in an exclusive secret club. We have coded messages that we read from; the incredibly complex language that is musical notation. There is a person at the front of the room, waving his hands in a semaphore you learned to understand in middle school choir, and learned to perform yourself, rudimentarily, in college. And then there’s the subtler skill of finding yourself among a group of musicians that you’ve rarely, if ever, performed with before, and managing to integrate into a single organism by listening and sensing breath, pulse, harmony.
Of course, sometimes it just doesn’t click. Last night, I was singing with a choir I’d had the privilege to join a few times before. We started in on a wandering, ethereal piece of renaissance polyphony. It quickly became apparent that we were not in agreement about tempo, thus the harmonies didn’t line up and fell out of tune, and the whole thing fell apart. The conductor motioned us to stop. He signaled that we would try again, this time he would break up the pulse into four short beats instead of two slow ones. On the second try, the choral machine’s gears fit together to turn at just the right pace. When it was over, we exhaled, congratulated ourselves on the recovery, and went home