Encores & Curtain Calls
“I only sing in the shower. I would join a choir, but I don’t think my bathtub can hold that many people.”
— Jarod Klintz
Choral singing — a merely pleasant, but marginal pasttime?
Banish the thought. To set the record straight, get a load of this, from Janus Gereben of San Francisco Classical Voice:
“There are bigger spectator sports, but none with more participants than choral singing. Surprising but true: more Americans sing in choruses, chorales, choirs, glee clubs and other vocal groups — both professional and amateur — than engage in football, baseball, tennis, even Greco-Roman wrestling. (Fantasy Football has an impressive figure, with an estimated 27 million participants.)
Chorus America claims that 42.6 million people in the U.S. sing in more than 270,000 choruses today. That’s an incredibly high number, based on questionable survey methods and it creates such unlikely scenarios as 157.7-member average vocal groups. But the point is clear and obvious: Choral singing is wildly popular.
If you’re still in any doubt, just dial up the Mass Home catalog of Massachusetts choruses alone: www.masshome.com/choruses.html. An impressive 500 choruses have been identified and catalogued in the San Francisco Bay Area Choral Directory alone.
So what’s going on here? What’s the big deal about raising your voice in song? Sure, it’s fun, and it’s free, but, come on, bigger than the Super Bowl, the World Series and Wimbledon?
This bears a bit of looking into.
Well, for starters, most everyone — aesthete and/or jock — would agree that self-expression is good for the soul and, as reams of flawless research proves, is also good for the body — the brain, nervous system, respiratory system, heart, you name it.
But even at the Super Bowl, once those frustratingly brief encounters on the field sort out and the players lumber up and shuffle over for their boring huddle, the most that fans can do is to yell or, at peak moments, scream themselves hoarse; self-expression? Well, yes, of a very elemental kind. After all, how many different versions of a bellow or an epithet can anyone — even a good singer — come up with?
There is, however, the quite considerable mass-momentum effect, which, when its roar rocks the stadium, can convince some die-hards that they are on the verge of having a mystical experience and entering a higher dimension of aliveness; whatever floats their boats!
But, this phenomenon does touch upon an underlying truth with regard to harmonious group activity, music-making of all kinds being prominently among them, and choral singing being arguably the mountaintop experience. Group resonance — the exponential power that accrues when multiple or many voices vibrate together — makes the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.
One may come in feeling spent from a day’s work, or rubbed raw by an unpleasant encounter, and be absolutely certain one was running on empty. Yet, within a few minutes of singing together with others, one feels new waters of life springing up both in body and spirit. Energy is not a fixed quota, say, like your salary. It’s something that is produced by you and your operating systems — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — from moment to moment. When those systems are happy new energy is, miraculously, born.
“But that’s all in the eye — or in this case, the ear — of the beholder!” I hear someone protesting.
I beg to differ and this why:
Of all the senses, hearing is far and above our most pervasive; it could be said that, if there were a contest to judge which sense was most consistently “on” and covered the most territory, the jury would have to come down in favor of hearing.
We can only see, at best 120 degrees of the entire 360 degree view before we have to turn our heads or roll our eyeballs sidewards to catch a glimpse of more. If we were ever in a jungle and in danger of being attacked from all sides by predators, we’d have to keep swiveling our heads to cover all the exposures. We can hear, however, in all 360 degrees at once.
Think of a party with four conversations going; you can hear them all at once, chattering around you, and with a little tweak of your attention, you can eavesdrop on each one in turn, to see if there’s anything you’re missing.
While I’ve got nothing against smell, taste and touch, they’re pretty limited and local senses, with touch perhaps being the most profound and personal.
But since we can’t go around ogling, smelling, touching and tasting the things and people in our worlds — at least not without getting ourselves arrested — it seems as if “sounding together” may be the wisest choice.
Sounding — especially sounding beautiful music rather than, say, bestial roars — is definitely where it’s at with regard to the soul’s hunger for fulfillment — which bring us back to choral singing.
All of this is a long way of saying that our own Pioneer Valley Symphony Chorus is opening its arms to you and to everybody to let them know of their series of four summer open “sings” designed to share the experience of choral singing with the curious, the interested, the hopeful, the long-tottering-on-the-edge wannabe choral singers in the valley.
PVS choral conductor Jonathan Harvey informs us that, “This summer, and leading up to the orchestra’s 75th anniversary season, to increase visibility and enthusiasm for singing throughout the valley, we’re holding a series of four summer sings — every two weeks — between June and July, and we are performing different major orchestral choral works. And, anyone from the community can come and for a suggested $10 donation, and they can sing this work with either Paul or I conducting, And in June, the two sings (the first of which has already occurred) are done with piano accompaniment, and in July with full orchestra.
“The next one on Tuesday, June 25, at 7:30 p.m., at Florence Congregational Church in Northampton, at which we’ll be doing Vaughan Williams’ ‘A Sea Symphony.’ Two sings are happening in Hadley, one in Northampton and one in Greenfield. We’re moving them around to give as many people a chance as possible.
“The following sing is Tuesday, July 9, at 7:30 at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. The music will be the ‘Faure Requiem.” We’re hoping to have some refreshments brought in and have some social time, in addition to singing this great piece.
“The fourth and final sing will be on July 23 at 7:30 p.m. at All Souls Church in Greenfield, Mozart’s ‘Coronation Mass’ and Verdi’s ‘Stabat Mater.’”
“If someone wants to become part of the PVS chorus, there are informal placement hearings at the beginning of each semester, where I’ll listen to the singer, one on one, just the singer and myself — but they don’t need to prepare anything.”
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.