From the Viking Choir to the Masters of Harmony–Returning to the Choral Sea (part 2—preliminary audition)

A chance encounter at one of my recent networking groups leads to my rediscovery of choral music. This post is dedicated to Brad, who took the chance of asking an odd question at a networking group.  In answering that question, I am awakening a part of my life which had been dormant for decades, my life in music.

When Brad asked the networking circle we were in the unusual question, “does anybody here sing?”, I responded with a hesitant “well, I used to,” since I had sung in a chorus in high school and college, but had not done so since I left grad school over two decades ago.   He said we should talk after the network circle had concluded, and then he described the a capella style men’s chorus called Masters of Harmony in such enthusiastic terms, that it resonated with some spirit of adventure I had, and I asked him more about the chorus.  It was the premier men’s chorus in the Southern California area, Brad said, and he said with justified pride that it had won the International Chorus championship last year. He invited me to check the chorus out, and as I have related in my first post on the subject, I decided to try to join the chorus.

The process of joining the chorus is a long and somewhat complicated one, involving multiple auditions only after you’ve gone to enough rehearsals to demonstrate that you are serious enough about joining.  But this process, however arduous, has been helped along by the wonderful experience I had singing again in a choir. The desire to recreate that experience I used to have in high school and college is such a great motivation.

It has summoned up within me an answering determination to succeed which has surprised me. On the surface, I should have no business, as busy as I am, trying to join a chorus which will eat up AT LEAST an evening a week, not to mention the extra rehearsals before concerts and the concerts themselves. But when you hear your voice blending in with that of other guys and the overtones stack up to the vault of Heaven itself, you don’t mind putting in the hours of dedicated work it takes to get the privilege of standing on those risers.

As I mentioned in the last post, the director Mark Hale was passionate about the music and relentless in his drive to bring out the best performance in each and every one of the chorus members. And I mean “each and every one”—there is a phenomenon in a group called “social loafing” where people exert less effort to achieve a goal in a group because they can rely on the efforts of those around them and thus minimize their effort and become a “free rider”. You can’t have anyone minimizing their effort in a chorus because not only does it decrease the energy of the group, but a slack pronunciation or a tone that is dull and not bright can actually negate the efforts of others.

Mark Hale’s exhortations to the group reminded me exactly of what Walter Rodby in my high school chorus used to say. They make each choral member want to reach inside himself and pull out his best effort. God, that’s a good feeling when it happens! So now after having gone for three consecutive rehearsals, I was pulled aside by Mark, the assistant section leader for the baritones, who said that the next rehearsal I was to go through a preliminary audition to check my musical aptitude, experience, and quality. The contents of the audition were to be a surprise so there was no way to prepare for it.   He was encouraging, but matter of fact about the audition.   It may be, he said, that the audition shows that this may not be the best chorus for me at this time.   I told him I was willing to accept his judgment, but I nevertheless wanted to try.

Yesterday evening, after the first half of the rehearsal, Mark took me back to a small studio with a piano, and then started testing me to recreate notes, and then passages, both musical and rhythmic, and finally to improvise a harmony while he played a melodic line.    Somehow, after not singing in a chorus for over 20 years, the instincts came back to me and I was able to do so.  “Excellent,” Mark said.    At one point, where I got a passage wrong, he at least gave me credit for recognizing that it was incorrect.    Having an ear for where you are off the mark is, of course, an important prerequisite for getting yourself back on it.

Now we moved onto the quality of my tone, and here he went through a lot of review of breathing, placement (where the sound is produced in the vocal tract), and other factors that affect the quality of the sound.  Here I was on shakier ground, I think, but I did well enough to pass the preliminary audition.    At least I came out of there knowing that I had a chance to go on to the nest phase of auditions, and I also had a vague sense of what I needed to work on.   I wasn’t stunned as I was when I passed my first choral audition way back in high school, but poised between pleased and persevering.  Pleased that I had made it to that first step, but recognizing that to make it to the next step, I would have to persist and even perspire, because the next level of auditions will not be alone, but in a quartet where I have to pull my own weight as a baritone singing one of the parts.

I don’t care how many times I have to practice the audition song, but I am DETERMINED to give it my best. I have been given the chance to sing after 20 years of having my instrument muted by the shear inertia of life which I had accepted complacently for so long. Once a talent has been awakened, however, it must be expressed. It reminds me of the 1948 film directed by Michael Powell called The Red Shoes, where the young ballerina Victoria Page is accepted as a protégé by the ballet impresario Boris Lermontov because she tells him that she must dance. She cannot not dance, she explains to him. It means everything to her.

To use a less exalted metaphor, it’s like the Tom and Jerry cartoons where Jerry smells a hunk of cheese much larger than he is and is lifted bodily up in a hypnotic trance as he wafts his way nose first in an undulating way towards the source.

After going through just the one month of rehearsals with this amazing choir, likewise, I must sing.  It is, as the Army slogan goes, about being the best you can be, but it is recognizing that only by striving to be part of something larger than yourself, like a chorus, can that “personal best” be awakened into existence.

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