I am writing to extraordinarily beautiful music today, some of which is new and other pieces intensely familiar. It’s a playlist I created on Amazon Music called The Mozart Big Box. It’s the name of an album, but I also added all Mozart’s choral works. I am trying to stay focused when there’s a figure that astounds me, like a melisma. Mozart is not particularly known for them, so when they happen, I have to rewind. Handel and Bach are the masters. With both of them, it’s just Abs of Steel…. provided you are breathing down to your feet and only using your stomach muscles to sing. In order to do Bach and Handel correctly, you must study vocal technique, because the accompaniment is so sparing that it points out every flaw if you don’t. Mozart is much more forgiving, because as Emperor Joseph II says in the movie Amadeus, there are simply too many notes, that’s all. If you make a mistake, the accompaniment will catch you.
Melismas are the entire reason I muscled my way into Varsity Choir at Clements. My one claim to fame in high school is that my junior year, I was in the top choir and the top band at the same time, the first to do so. Originally, the choir director put me in Junior Varsity, and I said, are you sure? I’ve done lots of major choral works with my church choir. She pulled out a Messiah book and said, prove it, and flipped to (of course) the most difficult soprano passage in the whole friggin’ work, which I’d only done for the last five Christmases. Someone could wake me up in the middle of the night and I could sing it blind.
I flat nailed it, and the choir director said, I stand corrected. You’re in. I was lucky that I spent nearly an hour warming up, because my head voice (the top of my range) was incredible that day. I am not a diva by any means. I am quite humble about my abilities. But there are just certain days where I amaze myself, like I’ve never heard myself before. The reason I felt fantastic after that audition is that I’d never sung any soprano part in a choral work all by myself. I usually needed the other sopranos in my section to be able to sneak in breaths, which is what sectional sounds are for….. To me, nailing it was not only the notes being spot on, but being able to hold my own with breath control….. which does not come easily to the anxious.
The only time being in both bit me on the ass was that tryouts for All-Region Band and All-Region Choir were on the same day. I chose band, and I think in retrospect that I chose………. poorly. In soloing with my voice, I do not get the same stomach-churning stage fright that I do when playing my trumpet. Something I nail in an empty sanctuary is painful once it’s full. I did manage to get into High School for Performing and Visual Arts with instrumental music, but I’ve never been better than that. I peaked early.
I feel as if I should have known I was a singer and not an instrumental musician, because I got into the adult choir at my church when I was in Grade 7. As an adult, the two times I’ve had the feeling of being wowed at myself were singing the Pie Jesu movement of the Rutter Requiem with full orchestra in Portland and The Lord is My Shepherd from the same work in Houston with incredible pipe organ and the first desk oboe player at The Houston Symphony. The second link is actually me. The recording of the Pie Jesu is lost to history. Despite a few flubs that only I would notice, it’s the best recording of me I have. I forgive myself completely because I was not in great voice that day. I woke up with complete laryngitis and had to sit in the shower for almost an hour before I could even talk. I was relying completely on my diaphragm to get me through, and it did not fail. Because I was so incredibly sick, as soon as the solo was over all my adrenaline ran out and I just wanted Dana to take me home and put me in bed with the remote, some orange juice, and enough Nyquil to plunge a horse into unconsciousness. It was at that moment I realized I was introducing the choir at the next service. There may or may not have been a lot of damn its and oh, fucks involved.
One of my deepest regrets is that my mother heard me sing a lot in high school because she was in choir with me at church and my accompanist everywhere else… but as an adult, either we were too far apart geographically or she had her own church job. My only hope was that she would come to DC when I was singing after she retired. The school year ended in May, and by October she was dead. I was completely dumbfounded because it happened so suddenly, and losing that particular dream knocked me down with force. We were both such serious musicians that I really can’t take it when thinking that my mother and I will never perform together again. She heard the recording in the link above, but she was never in the congregation after a year of intense private lessons, when my opera voice flipped on (link is to a clip of one of my voice lessons that still cracks me up to this day).
The memory is still precious, though, because even though my mom wasn’t there, Dana’s was. She grabbed me after the performance and gave me the biggest bear hug on record, exclaiming, that voice! Where did it come from?! My only answer was a hell of a lot of hard work, woodshedding every measure until it was perfect. My garage had amazing acoustics, and I shudder thinking that I never apologized to the neighbors, because I have a big damn voice.
Although my favorite compliment came from The Divine Mrs. B, who said I should have an oboe player follow me around wherever I go. Believe me, I could not afford that particular oboe player, and a beginner will clear your sinuses.
If there is anything negative about all this, it’s that soprano sections are very competitive, and I generally make friends with the basses because of it. Bass notes make me happy, and I would much rather ignore all the singers in my own section, just put my head down, and do the work. One of the first things that I asked my choir director in DC was, are the sopranos mean? He said he was the only one who was mean. I told him I was in.
Luckily, he turned out to be right. That being said, I haven’t sung a note in a year. Eventually, I’ll get back to it. Right now, everything about church choir brings my grief extremely loud and incredibly close. I can’t sing and panic at the same time. I know. I’ve tried it.
I do listen to great sopranos, though. Nothing makes me happier than the Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis duet, Let the Bright Seraphim (Handel). I feel like it marries the best parts of me, an intensely personal piece. Once I was driving and singing along to the recording and forgot the windows were down. I stopped at a stop light and the cop next to me with his windows down said, very nice.
Which is probably the only interaction I’ve ever had with a cop that didn’t cost $200. There are just so many things that beautiful music can accomplish.