Sunday, May 04, 2008

The bigger picture

Kind of obvious really, but a choir is a large organism made up of lots of individuals who are working together. Part of the joy is to be part of something greater than oneself. Each singer has the responsibility to sing their part ‘correctly’, and yet the overall sound doesn’t depend on any one singer. However, each singer is as vitally important as the next. The effectiveness of a choir lies in the ability to balance these, apparently contradictory, requirements.

Often less-confident choir members stand at the back singing quietly, thinking that it doesn’t really matter what they do as they’re not really that important. Yet if all the singers thought that, there would be no choir! These less-confident singers believe that if they don’t turn up for a concert, it won’t make any difference, yet at the same time they believe that if they make a mistake it will spoil the whole sound of the choir! So there is a fine balance between each singer being of equal importance, and yet the final result doesn’t depend on any single individual’s contribution. Somewhat of a paradox.

Often I get singers coming up to me after a rehearsal to tell me that somebody next to them has been singing the tune incorrectly, or that within their part there were several versions being sung at the same time. Usually I haven’t noticed this at all! Standing out front it is my responsibility to get the overall sound right. Since the choir is a large group of people, any small imperfections tend to disappear in the mix. Yet the resulting sound is a combination of the wide range of different vocal qualities involved and the sum of all the tiny differences in tuning, notes sung, voice placement, etc. If a different combination of singers were involved, the overall sound would be somewhat different.

It is that expression of humanity shining through that can make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It is the quality that singers of ‘traditional’ music often bring when they sing as part of their everyday work or ritual rather than as a special performing group. Sometimes I think we lose sight of that and focus too much on trying to achieve the perfect blend of voices in an attempt to realise the music in a ‘perfect’ way (which, of course, is impossible).

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Chris Rowbury


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