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Jumping in as a paid chorister

October 6, 2009

I had my first rehearsals as a paid chorister this past weekend. To my delight, my first job is singing a concert version of the U.S. premier of a French opera by Vincent D’Indy called Fervaal. (The choir has already dubbed this work Furball. And although it’s French, I can’t help thinking of my German diction teacher, John Shirley-Quirk, whose perhaps most favorite command was “Open your throat.”)

I arrived at the first rehearsal in the pouring rain without an umbrella, barely on time, which basically means I was late. No sooner had I taken my seat when the contractor, Jacquie Pierce, starting rattling off the address for the next rehearsal, which had been marked “T.B.A.” on the schedule. I hate being late, and even though I wasn’t technically late, I still felt guilty.

We plunged right in, and it was so cool to be surrounded by good musicians who knew what they were doing. We were sight-reading like mad, and doing a pretty good job of it. I’m not the best sight-reader, but I could mostly keep up. The music isn’t too wild, and most of it makes sense. I love that there wasn’t any dilly-dallying. The rehearsal conductor was friendly but business-like. He didn’t waste anyone’s time. In fact, he let the women go early so he could work on men-only sections. It’s nice to be valued and respected.

The second rehearsal was Sunday afternoon. This time we had a French speaker to guide us through our diction. I wish I had recorded that session because it was invaluable. I learned so much just listening to a few short phrases as she spoke them slowly and deliberately. I imitated her, feeling the placement of the words suddenly in a completely difference place in my mouth than before. I listened intently. Everything came much farther forward on the tongue, near the teeth. So many sounds that I had been forming one way for years seemed all wrong. Basic words felt new and foreign. I thought how hard I will have to work to retrain my brain to pronounce everything correctly. I focused on the few phrases that we have to sing in the opera.

The other discovery I made was how little singing we are being asked to do. Unlike a big choral work like The Messiah, for instance, where there are solos but the choral numbers are great and many, this opera chorus very much takes a back seat to the soloists. There are no extended passages, and relatively little singing overall. We’re not even in Act I. It makes the feat of coordinating 60 people into a well-oiled machine of sound production in the span of 7 rehearsals seem not only feasible, but perfectly sensible. In fact, once we get to the performance, even without extra practice at home, I’m sure I will feel quite comfortable with all the material I will be singing.

I know this is only possible because this is a concert, not a fully staged production, and we don’t have costumes or blocking to worry about, yet I am still a little impressed. So many of my hours have been wasted at rehearsals where nothing gets done, or we go over the same blasted notes again and again. It’s wonderful to be learning new things each session and to know that my time won’t be wasted. We get paid for rehearsal hours, but I’d much rather take a little less pay and be released early than sit around twiddling my thumbs.

Never one to make fast friends, I haven’t bonded with any of the other singers yet. But from the conversations I overheard, it seems many of them live in my neck of the woods. Are these my new peers? Will I eventually be greeting these people with hugs and kisses after long summers off, eagerly exchanging updates and newsy tidbits? Well, hopefully there will at least be a gig #2.

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