EDITOR’S NOTE: Faith Vis of New Milford, Pa., has been a choral singer since age 7. “I have lived in many places – London, Strasbourg, Rome, the USA – and always managed to find a choral group, in spite of demanding family and professional commitments,” she said recently. “In the 16 years since I moved to the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, in addition to singing regularly with two or three groups, I have always signed up with any ad hoc group seeking singers for a special celebratory event and been simply amazed at the depth of musical interest and talent in the area.” Vis is hoping this article will encourage some of those “special event” singers to move into more regular participation in a local choral ensemble.
If you are one of those people who loves to sing in the shower, and it really sounds pretty good with the sound waves bouncing off the tiles, you also may have a secret wish to sing in a choral group. This is a wish more easily fulfilled than you might think. This area is full of music, and there are groups for every taste, geared to every level of skill. Watch the local press for rehearsal announcements, make a few calls and then ask to sit in once or twice at the group that seems to best suit you.
The audition sometimes required for acceptance need not be a major stumbling block. Admittedly, it is difficult, without at least some stage experience, to produce one’s best effort in a solo situation, because the voice tends to waver under emotional or nervous stress. A music director who is also a singer understands this and will find ways of easing the tension. Having candidates audition in small groups is one method. Another is to limit the ordeal to a few simple scales and intervals, just enough to make sure there is vocal output, a degree of control and some notion of finding the right note. A friendly, informal atmosphere is also helpful.
Most local groups do not audition at all, simply trusting singers to decide for themselves whether their skills are suited to the group’s particular mission and whether the necessary commitment is something they can handle. Of course, ideally a singer must have enough musical knowledge to read a score and comply with instructions from the director, but in some cases a good ear and memorizing ability are all that it takes. Nor is it necessary to be a Pavarotti or Callas, as long as you can blend with your neighbors. Don’t try to out-sing everybody else — chorus is not a competition! That is one of the beauties of choral singing: small personal quirks and imperfections can disappear, smoothly melting into the rich volume of the whole. You may even find that under skillful direction you are singing better than you ever thought possible.
Acceptance into a choral group carries certain responsibilities, namely, in general: regular attendance at rehearsals, diligent study of the music, a commitment to putting out one’s best effort and no talking in rehearsal except as related to the work.
You may feel a little insecure at first, until you become accustomed to the routine and style of the group. If you are not sure of a phrase, try just listening one time, so you can get it right next time, or ask for a repeat to clarify and confirm. If you cannot reach some of the high notes, just leave them out – there always will be others who can take over and it is better not to risk spoiling the sound with a sour note. If your voice has a pronounced vibrato, try not to be too loud so as to avoid distracting others and possibly throwing them off course. Listen to everyone around you, but do not depend too much on any one neighbor, because you will be lost if that neighbor happens to get sick at concert time or is assigned to another seat on stage, just when you cannot afford to be flummoxed.
The purpose of concert performances is to give pleasure to the audience. To that end, a few special rules apply. On stage, when not actually singing, try to relax by free breathing. Sit very still and avoid making movements that might attract attention, e.g. using a handkerchief, pushing back hair, sneezing (stifle it!). If you are a “fidget,” try wiggling your toes inside your shoes – focusing on your feet will help you forget your arms and hands. Do not miss dress rehearsals with orchestra, or you may find yourself totally at sea at a crucial moment. Make sure you can see the conductor, and hold your music in such a way that the sound of your voice is allowed to flow out into the hall, rather than being thrown back in your face.
What does the choral singer get in return for all that diligence? A good workout, for one thing, plus voice development, a fresh appreciation of music from the process of studying it, the joy of being immersed in beautiful sound, the satisfaction of a job well done and the warmth of community and fellowship. That sense of well-being will stay with you long after the music is over. It has been beautifully defined by Martin Seligman, inventor of positive psychology, as comprising not only the positive emotion we think of as happiness, but also something deeper: “Using what’s best inside you to belong to and serve something bigger than you are” and searching for “achievement, mastery and competence.”
All together now, LET’S SING!
A sampling of local choral groups
• Binghamton University Chorus offers continuing education to the community in addition to choral singing and conducting experience to students enrolled in Music Department courses. Repertoire: largely oratorio-style works, performed in concert with orchestra. Auditions at the beginning of each semester, September and January. Rehearsals: 7.30 p.m. Mondays on campus. Bruce Borton, conductor, 777-6109 (note: all numbers are area code 607).
• Downtown Singers traditionally start the season with Handel’s “Messiah” before Christmas, then begin rehearsing in January for a spring concert of classical-to-modern choral pieces. Drop in on rehearsal, 6.45 p.m. any Sunday, at Tabernacle United Methodist Church, Binghamton. Alan Crabb, artistic director.
• Tri-Cities Opera, dedicated to the development of young artists, performs three major, fully staged operas a year. Auditions for the volunteer chorus are held at the beginning of the season and at other times as may be needed. Volunteers also are welcome for production tasks. General Director Reed Smith, 729-3444.
• The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton sings a cappella, performing sacred and secular works drawn from the medieval period through to the present day. Audition dates announced in August, and at other times to fill vacancies as they occur. Anne Boyer Cotten, artistic director, 723-1227.
• Basically Bach Ensemble is a small group that performs two concerts a year, for Advent and Easter. Programs always include a Bach cantata, plus one other choral work by a classical composer such as Handel, Haydn or Mozart. Rehearsals: 7.30 p.m. Tuesdays at St. Ambrose Church, Endicott. Director Fitzroy Stewart may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Harmony Club meets monthly “to study, perform and enjoy music, and to make awards available to local high school musicians.” E-mail Cheryl Labban at email@example.com.
• Vestal Community Chorus performs concerts of “easy listening” musical selections. Rehearsals: 7 p.m. Mondays at the Vestal School District Central Administration Building (formerly Old Central Junior High), Vestal. Barbara Press, director, 754-5710.
• Endwell Community Chorus rehearses 7 p.m. Mondays at Northminster Presbyterian Church, Endwell. Call 785-1971 or 748-2432.
• Southerntiersmen Chorus performs men’s barbershop harmony. Rehearsals: 7 p.m. Tuesdays at American Legion Post 80, Binghamton. Gil Durham, 692-4429.
• Sweet Adelines Carousel Harmony performs women’s barbershop harmony. Rehearsals: 7 p.m. Tuesdays at Calvary United Methodist Church, Vestal. Linda, 669-4233.
• Summer Savoyards present a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta every summer, enlisting professional and home-grown talent. Visit www.summersavoyards.org.